Ethnography is an anthropological research method that involves detailed observation and qualitative documentation. Ethnographic methods include participant-observation, interviews, and/or questionnaires. Although individuals may all live within a particular community or experience similar phenomenon, their personal experiences, and reactions to a specific situations are often different. Ethnography is the "on the ground" research that can help illuminate these differences.

An important contribution to and modernization of traditional ethnography has been the proliferation of visual ethnography, in which ethnographic methods add an additional component of photography and/or videography. In video ethnography, personal experiences, interviews and participant observation are video recorded and then edited to create a succinct and engaging visual product of the ethnographic research. Thus, the deliverable is not a book or article, but rather a documentary or ethnographic film.


Perhaps the most classic example of anthropological ethnographic fieldwork is the 1914 contributions by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. In his work, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski devotes a whole section of the book to explaining the process of gathering data through participant observation and interviews. He emphasizes that for anthropologists to have an adequate understanding of a different culture and to accurately record the parts of everyday life which they seek to understand, anthropologists must have daily contact with their informants and become immersed in the culture in which they are studying. The goal of an anthropologist or ethnographer should be to grasp the "native's point of view". In order to do so, researchers must experience everyday life alongside their research subjects. Malinowski further emphasized how important it is to have more than just “concrete” data like census data or genealogies;[1] the emphasis, Malinowski believed should be on the interpretations of this data. These "native" interpretations of data and cultural phenomenon become the backbone of ethnographic research.

Ethnography is both a method and a product; researchers use ethnographic field methods and their analysis of this research is often referred to as an ethnography. Ethnography in anthropology has changed significantly since Malinowski's time and the improvements of methods and style in ethnography continues to be an intellectual point of focus within the discipline. Ethnographic style changes follow theoretical trends in the field, and the authoritative ethnographic style of Malinowski and early twentieth century anthropologists is largely obsolete. Clifford Geertz[2] contributed to ethnographic style by coining the phrase "thick descriptions". Thick description, like Malinowski's meticulously documented observations, seeks to record detail and emphasize interpretations that happen within the context of culture. Critical theory, such as feminist thought and critical race theory, can be detected in ethnographic writing of the mid-century. In the late 1980's and early 1990's the post-modern turn in anthropology challenged anthropologists to question their own assumptions and write more reflexively.

Ethnographic films have existed since the proliferation of visual technologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ethnographic film began as a product of colonialism, documenting the unknown "other," to understand "primitive" societies and cultures that anthropologists historically studied. [3] Ethnographic films have since grown in scope, with advanced technologies and the introduction of video production, a cheaper and more accessible medium than film.

Anthropological Examples

Ethnography can be used for a variety of reasons. For one, it can be used to provide what Clifford Geertz described as “thick description;” a type of in-depth account of a specific moment that symbolizes broader ideas within a culture. The reader of such an ethnography, then has insight into the lives of the people of a particular area or culture. Ethnography can also be used in an applied manner in a number of settings. In applied anthropological research, ethnography is generally used as a means to solve a problem. In addition to this, in the design and business worlds, ethnographic research is sometimes used as an alternative to market research. Today, the culmination or conclusion of field research done by anthropologists tends to be represented by the publishing of an ethnography. There are a multitude of examples of ethnography because most anthropologist aim to have one published about their work. Their goal is not only to share their ideas about the culture they studied with others immersed in academia, but to also perhaps aid outsiders in their understanding about how individuals who are part of a certain culture comprehend certain aspects of their lives.

Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power is a good example of medical anthropology’s use of ethnography. As part of his work, Farmer explored in depth, cultural ideas about health in Haiti. He did so not only through extensive interviews with patients who came to his clinic, but also with other Haitians who lived in the area in which he was working[4] This particular ethnographic research lead to a new understanding of a Haitian's view of health, and has allowed Farmer to treat the Haitian people more effectively by understanding their point of view on their personal health.

Visual Ethnography

Video ethnography can address the aims of anthropology in terms of access and public knowledge. One of the foundational tenets and ethical considerations of anthropology include sharing anthropological research and findings with research subjects and stakeholders. Visual ethnography allows comprehensive access to research, as it produces an engaging deliverable that is readily accessible (in theory). Also, public anthropology is an important consideration when conducing research, as anthropologists need to “transform our relationship with the public in order to overcome entrenched stereotypes and foster current images that accurately depict anthropology today.” [5] Video ethnography is an excellent way to address such issues. Video ethnographies can also further goals of activist anthropology, as visual images tend to produce more powerful responses than written words.

A Visual Understanding of Visual Anthropology

An Example of Visual Ethnography

Documentaries in the general sense use the same processes and formula as visual ethnographies in creating visual products. The following is a mini-documentary that was created using semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and videographic observations to tell a story about a particular cultural niche. Although no formal anthropological research was conducted in the creation of this documentary, the same principles apply in the creation and outcome of this video product.

Ethnographic and Traditional Documentaries Worth Checking Out

Sweetgrass, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor
The Price of Sex, directed by Mimi Chakarova
Playing with Poison, directed by John Ritchie
The House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki
First Position, directed by Bess Kargman


Ethnography is most commonly used in anthropological research and a hallmark of anthropological research. Ethnography is used to a lesser extent in other social science disciplines, such as sociology. Although it is often thought of as the main research method of anthropology, there are some critiques of the use of ethnography in research. In their book Righteous Dopefiend, Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg criticize the use of ethnography in fieldwork. They object to the fact that ethnography tends to focus on the small details, thus sometimes overlooking the “implications of structures of power and of historical context” because these are not immediately recognizable in the everyday.[6]

Visual ethnography has its own critique. Like other artistic mediums, documentaries are produced by people with a particular worldview and living within a particular cultural lens. Thus, as documentaries tout their ability to see "truth" in social issues, it is impossible to exhibit objectivity and so must be seen as a product made in a specific time with a specific point of view. Also, it should be noted that the very presence of a video camera will change the dynamic of the subject to a certain degree. With ethnographic documentaries, it is especially important to employ reflexivity when creating these visual products, as images can have a greater impact on persuading audiences to accept a certain viewpoint.


  1. ^ Malinowski, Bronislaw (1922) The Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Malinowski Press
  2. ^ Geertz, Clifford. (1973). Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. Culture: critical concepts in sociology. 1:173-196.
  3. ^ Brigard, Emilie de. (1995) The History of Ethnographic Film. In Principles of Visual Anthropology. Paul Hockings, ed. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.
  4. ^ Farmer, Paul. (2004). Pathologies of power: health, human rights, and the new war on the poor (Vol. 4). Berkeley:University of California Press.
  5. ^ Lamphere, Louise (2003) The Perils and Prospects for an Engaged Anthropology. A View from the United States. Social Anthropology 11(2):153-168.
  6. ^ Bourgois, Phillipe, and Jeff Schonberg. (2009) Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley:University of California Press