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Ethnography: An in-depth analysis Essay


Human beings are complex creatures and as such are often hard to understand. Unlike animals, which possess standard behaviour that is often easy to explain, every person’s behaviour varies from another even when in the same environment and under the same circumstances.

There is a wide range of reasons for these variations, which include an individual’s personality, adaptability of different people to different environments, racial variations, cognitive ability, and the culture or norms practiced by different people depending on their area of origin.

Through the years, philosophers have developed theories specific to the aspects of human behaviour they attempt to explain. These theories have however proven speculative, as they exhibit some bias and therefore do not result in objective descriptions or conclusions.

Therefore, In a bid to understand these differences, scholars have taken to studying the workings of humanity and developing answers regarding their dynamics using facts as their basis. This in-depth study of human beings, their interactions, reactions to different environments, and their reasoning is known as anthropology (Wolf et al. 1994). Anthropology led to the development of various forms of research methodology.

With these developments came the birth of ethnography as a method studying and understanding human behaviour. Ethnography has evolved over the years to suit other fields of study such as sociology. It is a distinct way of looking at things and involves several different aspects as opposed to the common assumption that it only involves observation by being around the study subject. This paper aims at explaining what the process involves, its advantages, disadvantages and challenges, as well its purposes.

Ethnography is a data collection process that is applicable in different fields of study such as sociology, economics and criminology. The word “ethnography” is a derivative of two Greek words, “ethnos” which translates to “people” and “grapho” which means, “to write”. The focus of this process is the collection and recording of detailed information about the activities of a selected group of people or community with regard to the topic of the study, which proves useful as the basis of any conclusion that develops thereafter.

In the past centuries, people studying various communities and their cultures would use a different approach. Ethnographers would form a thesis and then use the information they get from the study to support the thesis.

The result of this move was the formation of a conclusion that has its basis on the ethnographer’s bias and was consequently more subjective than objective (Mead 1928). However, studies conducted today take the inverse approach. The information collected is usable in the formation of an opinion instead of serving as supportive facts to an opinion that is already existent.

In conducting the process, the ethnographer usually observes his or her study subject from a distance and records the activities depending on his or her topic of study. The purpose for maintaining distance from the study subject is to avoid disruption so that the subject continues with activities in the normal and natural environment.

For instance, an ethnographer researching on the jazz music culture will in a jazz club and observes the activity of people in and around the club. Some of his or her concerns would be the history of the music, the kind of people that frequent the club, the instruments used, what happens on days when music other than jazz is played and when the club closes, among other things. The observer writes down this data for later evaluation.

However, in order to get a personal feel for better understanding of the subject, Interviews are also applicable in order to obtain the subject’s point of view. Sometimes video recordings are necessary for later reference. Surveys are also common as they provide comparative views for an objective conclusion.

However, such surveys are conducted as part of the ethnography, regardless of the fact that they are regarded as an independent form of data collection. The period of data collection ranges from a few months to a few years. Generally, this period is lengthy but it contributes to the conciseness of the entire process.

The information collected in a study is applicable in different forms of presentation including graphs, scatter plots and analytical writing (Philipsen 1992). In the early days, ethnographers wrote most of the records of field studies in the form of narratives that are similar to entries made in personal journals (Mead 1928).

This was the most efficient method available at the time, as people carrying out the study would immerse themselves in the cultures they were studying in order to obtain first hand accounts of the dynamics those cultures comprised, without the advantage of modern technology such as video recorders.

This method of study is holistic in nature for it encompasses all aspects of a given subject including the subject’s history, geographical surroundings, materiality, and social interactions and welfare. It serves as a way of forming conclusions from the point of view of the subject instead of the application of universal premises that result from biased assumptions (Bentham 1907).

The benefit of this holistic nature is that it makes the same data collected applicable to almost every field as long as the subject of study is the same, i.e. the group being studied (Ember & Ember 2006).

For instance, data collected about a specific market place is applicable in the formulation of economic policies specific to the community or in macroeconomic policies that involve other regions within a country (Miller 1987). The same data is also applicable in the determination of the kind of lifestyle people who shop there have, which is useful for the determination of other goods and services that would potentially sell in the market.

The information on the behavioural patterns of the people collected during ethnography is applicable in the evaluation of unemployment rate in that specific area and the establishment of reasons why the rate is either high or low. In cases where the level of unemployment rate is low, the government is able to borrow financial policies used in that region and apply the same to areas with high unemployment rates.

The same information would also be useful in law enforcement, especially in the determination of the rate of crime. Ethnography also helps create an understanding of the social behaviour behind criminal activity and what effect such activities have on society as a whole. For instance, Jack Katz, author of the book Seductions of crime, explains the mindset behind criminal activity ranging from Juvenile delinquency to cold-blooded murder.

In his book, he states that murderers usually justify their actions as a defence that is necessary for the protection of what the criminals consider their moral rights. He also adds that research proves that these acts take place in environments that cause emotional reactions, such as homes and recreational centres. He also notes that more murders occur in homes than in the work places because homes are environments that demand emotional connection among the individuals in them.

This kind of detailed evaluation is very helpful in the determination of how to deal with murders and what individuals can do to alleviate it (Katz 1988). Although the basis of the book is data from several years ago, the concepts the book highlights are applicable to date. Ethnography also helps establish the interconnection between aspects that affect the study subject.

For instance, areas with low mortality rates have high populations. High or low mortality rates are usually the result of the lifestyle that the people in these areas lead. Cultures that practice healthy eating habits tend to have lower mortality rates and higher populations.

A good example of this scenario is China. Areas with such high populations and few resources available for distribution to the entire population are more prone to crime than areas with more resources (Dubner & Levitt 2005, p.16).

The data that results from ethnography is also applicable in addressing the social needs of the community such as sanitation, housing, and education.

For instance, communities with higher populations require more social amenities than those with lower populations. In communities with a high number of children, it is logical for the responsible government body to facilitate the building of more schools. The nature of education, which a community prescribes to, can also dictate the kind of schools that would best suit the area.

Ethnography possesses a number of advantages, disadvantages, and challenges. Just like other activities that create an opinion on other people, this study has also gone through some criticism.

One advantage is that it aims at helping people understand each other better and learn to live with each other’s differences, whether one is living in his or her own community of origin or living in a different community than his or her community of origin (Brewer 2000).

Secondly, it is a versatile mode of research as it has applications in different fields such as economics, sociology, and criminology, and is therefore a useful tool that governments use in the formulation of various policies that ensure the protection of individuals’ interests regardless of their differences.

Another advantage of ethnology as a data collection method over other methods is that it is holistic and detailed, as Katz’s example illustrates. Other methods of data collection such as surveys and census are usually one-sided and they aim at specific information to the exclusion of other information.

In this way, although there might be detailed information on one aspect of the study subject, the conclusions that result from this kind of information are likely to be speculative. For instance, in a bid to determine the literacy level in a particular area, a survey conducted on the number of schools in existence in that area is important.

However, the use of this information to the exclusion of other information such as the mortality rate and the culture of the people in that area would only result in speculation (Atkinson et al. 2007). Another advantage is that the results obtained are usable in the future in the study of the transition of lifestyles and behavioural patters in communities in order to understand the reasons for change as well as the direction in which such change takes place.

Ethnography also has an advantage to the subject of the study. For instance, in a study on the behaviour of employees at work, the conclusions and recommendations may help the employees understand themselves, their colleagues and customers better in order to improve the quality of services offered.

It also helps people to understand other cultures belonging to people with whom they interact, which is important especially in multi-ethnic communities as it helps the communities to understand and appreciate one another. For instance, in a community with both Chinese and Mexican residents, it is important for the Mexican population to understand some of the Chinese holidays. It is equally important for the Chinese residents to understand some of the festivals that the Mexican people hold dear.

The essence of this aspect is the avoidance of conflict and maintenance of a peaceful co-existence in the community, which builds into peace within an entire country and even beyond. It is also important for a community to be in a position to view its own culture from an outsider’s perspective, whether the outsider is from the same community or not.

This assertion holds for it enables the community take a closer look at practices that people take for granted and make an in-depth analysis on them (Westbrook 2008, p.65). The point of this element is that the community is in a position to take notice to practices that are beneficial as well as those that cause harm to the members of the community.

Another purpose that ethnography serves is that it provides an informed basis for the improvement of products and services from various companies. For instance, tech-gadget manufactures such as Samsung, Nokia and Apple are constantly sizing their competition and producing gadgets based on the response the gadgets get from the consumers.

In order to make informed decisions, they employ people who conduct ethnographies in different areas in order to get a good sense of which of their competition is popular and why. It also enables such companies establish where their strongholds are in terms of sales, which areas to focus on in terms of marketing their products. The companies are also able to establish their prices for new products they plan to introduce into the market as well as adjustments and improvements to make in the old products.

One of the major disadvantages of this form of data collection is language barriers. When studying a subject whose language the ethnographer does not understand, it is hard to record information objectively without the assumption of what certain words mean. Such assumptions can be defeatist to research as one of the main aims of the research is to collect data that enables the ethnographer to reach informed conclusions using facts as his or her basis instead of assumptions.

For instance, an ethnographer doing research on technology in a remote part of Africa would need a translator or risk misinformation. Another disadvantage of this study is that it is time consuming. Ethnography takes lengthy periods ranging from several months to years. This practice requires patience, persistence, and commitment.

It may also disturb the normal workings of the study subject and thus it requires time to enable the subject to get used to the observer and accept him or her as part of the surrounding. Most people get suspicious when they discover that someone is constantly watching them from a distance.

The effect of this aspect is that people deviate from their normal routine and adopt protective behaviour such as being secretive or relocation (Fine 1993). For instance, an ethnographer studying a group of smokers while holding a video recorder is likely to obtain hostile treatment.

Critics argue that this method is not without lack of bias, as a person cannot fully dissociate himself or herself from his or her own bias in opinion (Richardson 2000). However, this method of data collection promotes objectivity in the formation of conclusions as the data has its basis on facts instead of opinions. As such, it is easy to regard it as a better alternative to methods that lack its holistic nature.

In conclusion, ethnography is more than a mere description of people resulting from being around them. Ethnography involves a wholesome look at interactions among people as well as interactions between people and objects such as phones and computers. It evaluates the causes and results of such interactions in order to come up with objective conclusions.

Furthermore, ethnography is an essential form of study that has a great impact on the entire country not to mention the community that is the subject of the study. This method of data collection has been around for centuries and although it keeps evolving as time passes, the purpose of this form of study and the benefits that result from the study are the same today as they were a few centuries ago.

It is a holistic way of looking at the interactions of people and the things that make such interactions unique as well as those that make them similar to other groups of people, especially with regard to culture and lifestyle. It involves a set of data collection methods that would otherwise get due regard as independent.

However, applied independently, these methods do not produce the same wholesome results as they do when combined in ethnography. The methods used in the process of data collection include surveys, interviews, passive participation, and observation of a community for sometime, usually a year or more.

The data collected through ethnography has various applications in different fields with examples such as anthropology, criminology, and sociology. Owing to the versatile nature of the study, the same information collected in a study can apply to several different fields making it both an efficient and effective way of data collection.

It is objective in nature, as although it is hard to separate the ethnographer’s bias completely from the conclusions formed, the data collected is objective and thus the resultant premise is bound to have the same characteristic.

The data collection process is a lengthy, time consuming, and requires considerable energy and patience, but the results are worth the trouble with regard to helping the society to interact better and build acceptance and tolerance for different individuals. However, ethnography has its challenges such as language barrier and acceptance of the process, but these seem trivial in comparison to the positive outcomes.

Reference List

Atkinson, P, Coffey, A, Delamont, S, Lofland, J & Lofland, L 2007, Handbook on Ethnography, Sage, London.

Atkinson, P & Hammersley, M 1995, Ethnography: Principles in practice, Routledge, London.

Bentham, J 1907, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Claredon Press, Oxford.

Brewer, J 2000, Ethnography, Open University Press, Philadelphia.

Dubner, S & Levitt, S 2005, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, William Morrow Publishers, New York.

Ember, C & Ember, M 2006, Cultural Anthropology, Prentice Hall, London.

Fine, G 1993, ‘Ten Lies of Ethnography’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol.22 no. 3, pp.268-75.

Katz, J 1988, Seductions of Crime: Moral and sensual attractions in doing evil, Basic Books, New York.

Mead, M 1928, The Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth For Western Civilisation, Harvard UP, Harvard.

Miller, D 1987, Material Culture and Mass Consumption, Blackwell, London.

Philipsen, G 1992, Speaking Culturally: Explorations in Social Communication, State University of New York Press, New York.

Richardson, L 2000, ‘Evaluating Ethnography’, Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 6 no.2, pp.253-255.

Westbrook, D 2008, Navigators of The Contemporary: Why Ethnology Matters, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Wolf, E, Kahn, S, Roseberry, W & Wallerstein, I 1994, ‘Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People’, Current Anthropology, vol. 35 no.1, pp. 1-12.

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