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Ethnography: Current Issues and Possible Solutions Essay

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Updated: Aug 25th, 2020

Ethnography is a complex discipline. Despite its tempting simplicity on the surface, the actual proceedings of the ethnographic research are guided by the strict adherence to rules. Nevertheless, as soon as the call for strict rules and regulations is voiced, the objections quickly arise concerning the qualitative nature of the ethnography and the impossibility to reduce culture, imagination, and behavior to numeral values. In fact, the issue is hotly debated throughout the course of existence of ethnography as a tangible discipline.

Besides the primary argument regarding the need for clearly defined principles and guidelines, almost any given aspect of the established technique, like assessing the collected material, the use of focus groups, or the emic versus etic strategy, rises once in several years to attract the attention of scholars. This raises the question of whether the ethnography can be defined at all, and if it can, which side of this polarizing spectrum should it regard as a standard. Michael Agar, in his paper An Ethnography By Any Other Name… tries to give an encompassing review to the whole variety of issues that persist in the field.

Agar mainly focuses on the very definition of ethnography and questions its methods, techniques, and, most of all, its misinterpretations. By providing the vivid examples from the opposite ends of the spectrum to prove his point, he illustrates nearly all the major drawbacks ethnography is experiencing now. His research offers the guidelines for maintaining the integrity and scientific method for the ethnographers, but, perhaps even more importantly, it shows the inevitable ambiguity of the subject matter, and makes some justification to it.

The Elusive Nature of Ethnography

The article An Ethnography By Any Other Name… tackles the alleged lack of consistency within the ethnographic domain, both in terms of uniformity of methods and principles, and the definition of the very discipline. This ambiguity results in the variety of issues ranging from the lack of the standard results and conclusions on any given study to the degradation of the quality of the research and the emergence of the subclass of papers whose authors seem to know little about the field they are working in ().

However, the adverse effects of the lack of standardization are hardly the only reason for the critique. Agar also points to the fact that the debate on various aspects of the central theme or methodology of ethnography is hardly anything new. As a matter of fact, he highlights several instances of deviation from the established protocol and attempts to redefine the standard. First, he cites the argument that was already more than half a century old by the time of the article’s publication: the community focus versus the problem focus.

As we remember, the problem-oriented research is commonly listed among the primary field techniques in the most of the widely accepted classifications (Kottak 2014:42). Community-based research, on the other hand, is the umbrella term which describes any study that is conducted on a broad scale, without a focused inquiry. It may be the longitudal, multisited, and team research, or include a combination of two or three of them. According to Agar, “The idea that an ethnographer might have an actual problem in mind rather than embarking on an exhaustive content sweep of every detail of village life was novel and, according to some, a little sacrilegious.“ (Agar 2006:para. 6)

Another notable case of ambiguity is a somewhat younger debate which discussed the validity and suitability of the etic and emic research. The emic strategy is focused on the viewpoint of the respondents and attempts to view the material without the involvement of the modern means. The etic strategy is almost polarly opposite to it, suggesting instead the need to be objective by using the observer’s perspective, with all his knowledge base at his disposal (in other words, viewing the observations through the prism of our values and scientific knowledge (Kottak 2014:45). Agar illustrated the overstatements made during the debate as follows: “Emic meant you only cared about all the detailed things that the “natives” could name in their language. Etic meant that whatever you saw, it exemplified yet again how people were oppressed by the lackeys of the running dogs“ (Agar 2006:para. 9).

The Relevance of the Topic

While he does not stop here and provides several other examples, the purported conflict is clear: the discipline does not have the rigidity and stability of protocols, which is viewed by some scientists as unacceptable. This reveals arguably the main motivation behind the paper: the ethnography is inherently vague, and its vagueness remains its strongest point and allows for the flexible research methods, but at the same time it remains its weak spot, and continues to be used, either deliberately or unintentionally, by a variety of researchers.

The Bipolarity of the Issue

While it may seem that the author’s goal is to enforce the regulations and make sure that every survey is conducted in accordance with the rules, Agar states his dissatisfaction with such approach as well. He never makes comments towards the use of standard approach, at least not the type that would coincide with the adherence to the guidelines. In fact, he emphasizes the possibility of conducting an ethnographic study in the most unusual way, and without violating its principles or distorting the results.

In one of the examples, Charles Cheney, a fellow researcher, has managed to extrapolate the causes of a local social anomaly, where the newly-built hospital has failed to attract the people. Cheney made it without conducting any kind of survey or, for that matter, spending a noticeable amount of time (Agar 2006:para. 52). In the second example, Agar has finished the research that could be deemed ethnographic in nature, if not for the fact that he did not speak to a single living respondent, producing all his information from the written sources (Agar 2006:para. 53). Both of the cases deny the protocol suggested by the majority of scholars, who name interviews, informal conversations, establishing contacts, and studying beliefs firsthand.

New Approach to Determining the Valid Ethnographies

The Assessment Apparatus

According to Agar, the norms of conducting an ethnographic research can be established, but only if they are broad enough to go beyond the formalized and outdated “living, breathing human being” formula. Such norms, proposed by the author, are defined as an ethnographic space. Basically, everything that falls within this category is deemed valid ethnography. Thus, according to Agar, there is more than one possible variant of ethnography, but not all of them are acceptable (Agar 2006:para. 26).

The ethnographic space is defined by the multitude of factors. The initial assumption that not all ethnographies are valid demands the criteria by which they can be distinguished. Agar suggests the usage of the set of parameters, such as the level of control, focus, scale, the timespan of observed events, and the event links – essentially, the elasticity with which events can be interconnected when the supposed correlation exists (Agar 2006:para. 35). The author suggests a simulation which would run a multitude of possible ethnographies through the check procedure to determine which of them pass the test.

Upon passing it, the successful ones would form the “trajectories” that can outline the purported space. This graphic representation is called an attractor (Agar 2006:para. 48). The attractor, however, is not the only requirement for a successful sorting of the valid ethnographies. Another crucial component is the presence of the iterative recursive abductive (IRA) logic. By applying this logic, and the additional questions regarding the meaning and context of the research, we can finally distinguish the valid ethnography from the unacceptable ones (Agar 2006:para. 147).

Possible Applications

The important question that remains after reviewing this elaborate scheme is whether it is a worthy endeavor. Indeed, at least some of the examples suggested by Agar in his research are troubling at best, like the book on an ethnography of a hospital (Agar 2006:para. 27), but he surely took the most intolerable examples to illustrate his point. Does an elaborate scheme of running the simulation to project the trajectories and the subsequent application of a specific set of criteria improve the ethnographic field in a sufficient way? It is hard to say, as Agar’s research is of the preliminary nature. He himself suggests that many questions remain unanswered, and emphasizes the need for further inquiry.

Nevertheless, at least two points can be extrapolated from the paper. First, the methodology of the ethnographic study is inherently ambiguous and vague. This ambiguity is grounded in the qualitative nature of its primary tools, like the collection of information using the semi-official interviews and the qualitative research of the obtained data using the technique of coding. All of these give way to interpretation and, unfortunately, bias. This has been the major point of critique of lots of humanities, with ethnography taking the majority of the damage, both from critics and unprofessional researchers.

Second and, perhaps, somewhat more controversial is the evidence that the traditional techniques and strategies are not universally applicable, and in some cases, harmful to the process of the research. Despite still serving as decent guidelines and demonstrating good results, they tend to show their age and lack of universality. Of course, the current alternative in a form of the concept of ethnographic space is far too unstable to effectively serve as a primary means of evaluation, at least in its current unpolished state. Nevertheless, it shows a promising direction for further inquiry, no to mention a factor of added objectivity.


To conclude, the work by Michael Agar offers some progressive ideas regarding the field of ethnographic studies. Some of the suggestions, like the limited applicability of the current widely accepted techniques and strategies, are useful in a current state as they give valuable insight into current issues of the discipline. Other, like the proposed alternative system to evaluate the validity and acceptability of the research, are still in the early prototype phase, so their applicability is limited, both because of their unproven nature and the excessive complexity of use. In all, the paper offers a decent overview of the field’s weak points, debatable and unsettled issues, possible sources of bias, and other points that may introduce error if neglected.


Agar, M. (2006). Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7(4).

Kottak, C. (2014). Cultural anthropology. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Education.

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