Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images

Ethnographic analysis, or the study of ethnography, is a branch of the social sciences that involves the direct study of people and cultures. The purpose of ethnographic analysis is to allow scientists to observe their subjects on the ground level, interacting with them as another person would instead of creating a scientist-subject relationship.

Ethnographic research is designed to produce both descriptive, scientific observations and data that can represent a culture mathematically. To produce these kinds of results, ethnographers use several ethnographic techniques, including direct observation, interviews and questionnaires or polls to collect both qualitative and quantitative data.

Researchers in several social science fields, such as sociology, anthropology and political science, utilize ethnographic techniques to expand and add context to their research. Ethnography is also used in business to better understand customers and a business's employees.

How to Do an Ethnographic Analysis

Ethnographic research requires that scientists (or students) venture into the field to interact with their subjects. Ethnographic techniques for field observation mostly rely on verbal description. The researcher observes the group they are studying. They also ask research subjects to answer questions, sometimes describing certain traditions or activities in their own words.

Usually, ethnographic research is done as a holistic study, meaning that the use of ethnographic techniques works toward creating a more complete picture of a society, ethnicity or group rather than the fractured picture produced by only using observation or only using statistical analysis. For ethnographies to be more complete, researchers need to research the history of the group in addition to recording observations from the group and listening to their stories. Accounting for factors outside the group, such as the climate of the place where they live or its terrain, is essential to producing a holistic ethnographic analysis.

What Is the Purpose of Ethnography?

Done well, ethnographic analysis can help a group of people illuminate lesser-known aspects of their lives for people outside their group. In other words, the best ethnographies work with the population being studied for the greater purpose of sharing their culture and educating the outside world.

Done poorly, however, ethnography has a history of putting people on display for their differences, making unkind comparisons and exoticizing cultures foreign to the culture of the ethnographic researcher. The key to preventing this problem is a sense of partnership. The ethnographers must realize that they have not discovered the culture they are studying. Instead, the ethnographers must practice cultural sensitivity and establish a dialogue with the people they are studying. That way, their study can operate with a feeling of sharing instead of an air of exploitation.