Principles of Ethnography

Summary Points:

  • social research
  • first hand empirical investigation and the theoretical and comparative interpretation of social organisation and culture
  • fieldwork usually involved living with a group of people for a period of time to document and interpret their distinctive way yof life, beliefs and values
  • peoples actions and accounts are studied in everyday contexts rather than in an experimental setup or highly structured interview organised by the researcher – the research takes place in the field
  • data is gathered from a range of sources – documentary evidence, participant observations and/or informal conversations
  • data collection is relatively “unstructured” –
    • does not involve following through a fixed and detailed research design specified at the start
    • categories for interpreting what people say or do are generated out of the process of data analysis
  • indepth study – focus is usually only on a few cases – small scale – single group of people or setting
  • the results produced are mainly verbal descriptions, explanations, theories
  • analysis of the data involves interpretation of the meanings, functions and consequences of human actions and institutional practices; and how these ar implicated in local and wider contexts
  • the task is to investigate some aspect of the lives of the people who are being studied
  • access to certain areas may need to be gained and negotiation and re-negotiation takes place with participants throughout the process
  • a considerable amount of time goes into analysing observation notes, audio and video recordings – demanding activity



Summary points:

  • where you as the researcher “stand” relevant to the process of your fieldwork and to the subject of your study is important
  • fieldnotes are taken to provide an account that can be consulted again and again
  • subject: often a question about a particular group or a cultural practice or belief
  • ethnographers record what is said, how it is said and where it is said
  • they record sensory impressions as well as their insights
  • fieldnotes are where patterns emerge
  • the field notes are used to discover, to work towards early understanding, to develop interpretations and to eventually reach their conclusions
  • Questions ethnographers ask themselves include:
    • who are key actors in a given context?
    • what happens in a given place and time? are there any key words that seem to be repeated? – notice anything unusual or different
    • where do you find the subjects of your study?
    • how do things appear to work?
    • larger questions – why did this thing happen?


Hoey, B. A. (2014). A Simple Introduction to the Practice of Ethnography and Guide to Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Marshall Digital Scholar, (June), 1–10. Retrieved from



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