Fundamental Elements in Ethnography

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Ethnography Research

Addressing ethnographic inquiry

Frances J. Riemer

Groping in the dark

When I began my first ethnographic research project, I wasn’t an ethnographer. I was a teacher and a student, living in the city, pondering questions about education and social mobility, poverty and work. I had enrolled in a doctoral program and taken classes in research methods, but I became an ethnographer by doing the things that ethnographers do. I learned how to ask questions by asking, and how to watch, listen, and to document the moments of everyday practice by watching, listening, and recording. My experience was what ethnographic evaluator David Fetterman (1989, p. 26) described when he wrote, “Ethnography is what ethnographers actually do in the field. Textbooks …together with lectures – can initiate the newcomer to the field and refresh the experienced ethnographer, but actual fieldwork experience has no substitute.” During this entire ethnographic research effort however, I felt as though I was groping in the dark, making decisions with the discomforting tentativeness of most first time ethnographers. Uncertainty was my own repetitive refrain. Over and over I asked myself questions like, is this an appropriate site to do research? Should I be spending more time there instead of here? Should I be observing more, or observing less? How can I make myself more visible? How can I make myself invisible? Months passed before I came to understand that uncertainty was a fundamental part of the ethnographic method. Much more time passed before I began to feel even slightly comfortable fumbling with the unfamiliar. In addition to my own somewhat bewildering experience, I’ve also heard students speculate about ethnographic research after reading a classic ethnography conducted in an exotic locale or a more recent ethnography conducted in a classroom or neighborhood somewhere in the US. But all too often, they are enticed by the lure of ethnography without understanding or appreciating its strengths, constraints, and demands. In this chapter, I address these gaps in awareness by drawing on my own journey through unfamiliar ethnographic territory, as well as on the work of classic and contemporary ethnographers. Writing this chapter for both the potential researcher, who plans to do research from an ethnographic perspective, as well as for the reader of ethnography, who hopes to gain a general familiarity with the theoretical assumptions, methodological procedures, and standards of quality involved in ethnographic research, I discuss ethnography as a research method and examine ethnographers’ assumptions about knowledge, characterizations of culture, considerations of methodology, and toolbox of methods

The ethnographer’s aim is cultural interpretation

So what exactly is ethnography and what does an ethnographer do? Ethnography, embedded in an anthropological tradition, is essentially the study of a particular cultural group or phenomenon. Fieldwork is a fundamental part of that study, and for anthropologists, ethnographic fieldwork involves documenting people’s beliefs and practices from their own perspectives. Margaret Mead (1928) went to the Pacific for nine months to document the ways adolescence is negotiated by Samoan islanders. Clifford Geertz (1965) studied religious practices in Bali, and Sherry Ortner (1978) traveled to Tibet to study the relationships among cultural symbols in the organization of a society. For educational anthropologists, the field may be a classroom, a school, a literacy group, or any other place where learning or teaching takes place in or outside the US. To conduct his first ethnography, Harry Wolcott (1967) spent a year in a Kwakiutl Blackfish Village in British Columbia. He taught in the village’s one-room school while documenting the ways children learned their culture’s values both in and outside the classroom. Alan Peshkin (1986)...
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