Whenever I teach ethnographic methods someone asks me a question along the lines of: “I am not sure if I am doing a proper ethnography”. Or “I am not doing a full ethnography “.What they mean is that they are not going to spend a very long time doing participant observation, or they are not going to move in to an area and live with the people they want to learn about, or they don’t have time to spend much more than some portion of each day in the context, or perhaps the setting or group being studied is part-time itself.
This reveals, perhaps inadvertently, that people assume there is some kind of gold standard or accepted definition of what ethnography is or should be. But, I don’t know where this gold standard or accepted definition is held, shared, or defended.
Usually, it is in the eye of the beholder.
As I always tell students, there are no ethnography police or watchdogs, guarding standards. The people who will check whether your work qualifies as an ethnography will be journal editors, PhD examiners, publishers, and diverse readers of your work. Each of these will have different ideas of what counts as a full ethnography, and it will be them ( or some of them ) that you will need to satisfy. There is no single standard definition. My recommendation is that each of you working in this field decides for themselves what they consider being worthy of being called an ethnography, and be prepared to defend this in your writing. Explain to the reader what you did, when you spent time, who with, under what sorts of conditions, and – especially – why. What did participant observation add of value to your research? This is what is important, rather than deciding whether your work is an ethnography or not. It is not labels that matter, but practices.
If you want to use ethnographic methods but you are unsure as to whether you can call what you are doing ‘an ethnography’, then you could say you are using ethnographic methods or that you are informed by ethnographic methodology. This is why I have called my book Ethnographic Methods and not Ethnography.
There I argue that “Ethnography should be informed by a theory of practice that: understands social life as the outcome of the interaction of structure and agency through the practice of everyday life; that examines social life as it unfolds, including looking at how people feel, in the context of their communities, and with some analysis of wider structures, over time; that also examines, reflexively, one’s own role in the construction of social life as ethnography unfolds; and that determines the methods to draw on and how to apply them as part of the ongoing, reflexive practice of ethnography”.