Ethnography – Concept, history, objective, types and advantages

We explain what ethnography is, what its history is and the objectives of this study method. Advantages, limitations and classification.

Ethnography is applied to the study of any form of social group.

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography, also referred to as the “science of the peoples”, is understood as systematic study of people and cultures, especially through the observation of their cultural and social practices. More than a science in itself, it is usually considered a branch of social anthropology, if not a research tool or method.

The ethnography was very used in the analysis of aboriginal communities during the 20th century and currently it is applied to the study of any form of social group. This is due to the fact that as a method of obtaining information it is much superior to its alternatives, since it allows obtaining live information, direct from the source and of a very varied nature.

It should not be confused with ethnology, another discipline from which it differs in its fundamental approach to the subject.

History of ethnography

In ancient times ethnography was practiced, when observations and descriptions of the towns were transmitted, especially those considered “barbarian” or exotic, by the centers of power, generally powerful empires that were considered the center of the world. The same happened with colonialist Europe whose expansion began in the fifteenth century and continued until the nineteenth, exploring the entire planet and taking note of the populations that were found.

Formally ethnography starts together with social anthropology, as heir to this European interest in the exotic and far-eastern world of the East (particularly), or of the surviving American aboriginal cultures. Its father and founder is the same one of social anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski. However, it would be with the turnaround within anthropology, which allowed a more pluralistic vision of societies, together with the development of other social sciences such as linguistics, psychology and sociology, that it would become a scientific discipline, and that a necessary debate regarding its nature could take place.

Definition of ethnography

Ethnography studies the human being and the societies in which it is organized.

Traditionally, ethnography involved the written description of the way of life of a specific society or human group. It is framed in the so-called human sciences or social sciences, since its object of study is the human being and the societies that it organizes, but it does so from the presence of the observer himself within them. Seen this way, any exercise in Social Anthropology is based on the compilation, comparison and analysis of one’s own ethnographic experiences or that of third parties.

Objective of ethnography

Ethnography aims to make an objective description of the dynamics, structures and processes that occur within a given human group. This in order to build your own object of study, collecting and interpreting the data obtained. Whoever exercises it fulfills the role of observer, but also of analyst, in the sense that he must compare what is observed with something so that it makes sense: that something is the very structures, processes and dynamics of the society from which it comes.

Advantages of ethnography

Only by being within a human group can social reality be accurately described.

The wealth of information is undoubtedly the robust side of ethnography, since its studies yield much more information than could be obtained through documentary sources or other types of research. This starts from the assumption that only by being within a human group can the social and cultural reality of what is happening faithfully be referred to and described: this implies that it is a qualitative and not a quantitative science, since it is interested in interpreting what happens and not in yielding statistical data that reflects it.

Limitations of ethnography

Ethnography has a weak side, and it is that only useful in small communities, whose conduct and structure can be encompassed with relative ease. Furthermore, it depends on the researcher’s ability to penetrate these communities and gain their trust, giving them access to practices and discourses that a foreigner would not normally appreciate.

Likewise, the presence of the observer in the studied community implies that their subjectivities, prejudices and experiences can easily sneak into their ethnographic descriptions, or they can predispose the studied community so that it does not act naturally; thus objectivity will always be a theme present among the limitations of ethnography.

Types of ethnography

Traditionally, two fundamental types of ethnographic approach are distinguished:

  • Macroethnography. Part of the study of individual behavior, of small-scale dynamics, to from there try to obtain conclusions about the human group as a whole.
  • Microethnography. Follow the reverse path, starting from the broader questions of the group to try to understand individual behaviors or to try to verify them in personal stories.

How to carry out an ethnography?

It is necessary to analyze and draw conclusions from the information obtained.

All ethnography is carried out through three fundamental steps:

  • Observation. It is about arranging the five senses to capture as much information as possible in the social framework to be investigated, without neglecting any type of data or experiences.
  • Description. The recomposition of what is observed in a document (written, visual, sound) that serves as a support and allows its review, correction and transmission.
  • Analysis. The information obtained and recorded must be collated, compared, understood and the relevant conclusions must be drawn from it, both on a small and large scale.

Life stories

One of the most common tools available to ethnography are life stories: subjective vital counts obtained through a face-to-face interview between the student and the subject to study, in which he is induced to tell his life and provide the more details about it, such as own beliefs, values, myths, religious practices, etc.. From these types of profiles, similar to psychological ones, documents are created that serve as ethnographic sources for later studies.

Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski obtained field experiences in Aboriginal communities.

Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1884 and died in 1942 in the USA, he is considered the founding father of British social anthropology. He renewed this field of study entirely from a functional consideration of culture, hand in hand with psychoanalysis and his own field experiences in numerous aboriginal communities of Melanesia and Papua New Guinea. One of his famous essays is his introduction to the famous book by Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint of the snuff and the sugar (1940).

Differences between ethnography and ethnology

Although they sound similar, these two disciplines differ in their roots. While ethnography involves a field study, an investigation in situ of a culture or a social group, ethnology instead consists of the comparison or comparison between two documented and contemporary cultures. In fact, ethnology can also be ethnohistory, when it is dedicated to the temporal comparison of cultures or societies.