Ethnographers study human cultures and societies by living among the people they study, by immersing themselves within the subject group in a process called participant-observation. The ethnographer participates as much as possible while observing, taking detailed notes, developing an ongoing analysis from the notes and compiling a report, or more often a book, about the findings. Used in cultural anthropology, sociology, business and organizational psychology, ethnography brings strengths and weaknesses to the research problem.

Investigates Complex Issues

Ethnographies are well suited to study complex cultural, societal interactions, unpredictable situations, and relationships that are too complex and difficult for quantitative methods, such as surveys and statistical analysis of numerical data. Ethnographers are able to tease out the the range of group experiences in ways that are sensitive to the uniqueness of the subject group. Because the ethnographer takes carefully structured and detailed notes in the participant observation, interviews, and other data-collection processes, an ethnography is a powerful way to reveal, in context, the many elements of group interactions. The result is an in-depth understanding of the culture, and interpretations with validity, often called a “thick description.” This thick description often provides answers to perplexing policy problems from struggles by remote indigenous peoples to Western societal problems, such as welfare recipients.

A Voice for Understanding

Ethnographies allow the culture to speak about its views and perspectives that would otherwise be drowned out by the dominant culture, and go untold. The ethnographer develops an understanding of the group's point of view and, in cases of human rights, sometimes act as an advocate for the group. Ethnography provides a window, so those outside the culture can understand what the group does and why. In addition, ethnographies probe the deep attributes of culture, bringing them to the surface, allowing people in the group greater understanding of themselves, and in the process helping members understand how to interact outside their group and culture.

Expensive, Protracted and Difficult

Ethnographies are difficult to replicate, are primarily applicable to the subjects in the study and heavily dependent on the ethnographer. Ethnographers require extensive training, with training and practice in interviewing methods, note taking, alternate data collection methods, and methods of analysis, in addition to language and other training specific to the group or culture they plan to study. Once in the field, an ethnographer must take time to build trust. Once trust is built, the ethnographer spends inordinate amounts of time in participant observation and other data collection methods, taking notes and other chores, to maintain as near a perfect record as possible. It is time consuming to analyze the data, which results in a thick description of the culture or societal issue, often ending as a book. Because they immerse themselves in the culture, ethnographers often experience culture shock, feel awkward and out of place, are lonely, may experience considerable discomfort and occasionally personal danger, in addition to the constant pressure to maintain alertness as a participant observer.

Ethics

Ethnographers must pay special attention to ethics as they conduct their studies. Ethnographers often study sensitive cultures that are vulnerable to exploitation without safeguards. Ethnographers also study countercultures and workplace groups, requiring careful planning to avoid doing harm to the subjects. Lastly, but foremost, ethnographers bring their own experiences, prejudices and culture to the study; ethnographers must continually guard against interjecting their bias into the study, changing the culture by their presence, or failing to correctly disclose their bias in their reports.