What Is Ethnography?

The word "ethnography" refers both to the actual process of anthropological fieldwork among a particular group of people and to what the anthropologist writes later about that particular group.

Anthropological understanding of the world and its peoples develops from the ethnographic research which has been carried out in locations around the globe by many different anthropologists. Fieldwork is ideally a long-term, personal effort leading to a detailed account of one people's way of life at a particular moment in time. Ethnography is one of the foundations of anthropology.

Anthropology is based on the assumption that an adequate understanding of what we human beings are all about can only be gained by studying as many languages and ways of life, past and present, as possible, rather than generalizing from the very narrow sample represented in traditional Western history, psychology, economics and philosophy which generally limit the field of study to the specific case of "Western Civilization".

Anthropology, as practiced in the United States, consists of four complementary approaches: ethnography, linguistics, archeology and physical anthropology.



Since the1960's, many specializations and approaches have developed, such as medical anthropology, legal anthropology, psychological anthropology, and ecological anthropology.

Visual anthropology, as a named sub-discipline, is one of these new specialties, although photographs and films have, from the beginning, been part of the tool kit of many ethnographers.

Any one of these perspectives can be the basis of a particular ethnographic study anywhere in the world, rural or urban. Whether among farmers or C.E.O.'s, school children or airport personnel, ethnographic methods are based on both careful observation by the anthropologist and diligent attention to what "the natives" themselves tell us about their lives. It is a "double-stranded approach".

Calling it "double-stranded," emphasizes the fact that creating an anthropological account should not depend upon the point of view of the anthropologist alone. It must also, by definition, be based on the accounts of the people whose world is being studied.

Each of the "two strands" are complicated, for each participant in the construction of anthropological knowledge has different individual interests and culturally different ways of explaining the world. Anthropologists must not only do their best to understand the world from the point of view of the people with whom they are collaborating, but must then place this understanding in the context of the patterns of human activity in other parts of the world, that is to say, within a structure encompassing all ways of "being human", in such a way that people beyond the original ethnographic encounter will understand it.



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