Ethnography is the study of social life as it happens. It involves immersing oneself in a form of life, as a member of a community or group. When an ethnographer wants to understand something she or he does it by ‘being there’ over time, watching life unfold and events take place. However, sometimes, but less often, ethnographers will do their work vicariously by immersing themselves virtually (through the internet) or by doing very in-depth historical analysis (click on the books for more information on them).
Ethnographic methods are pretty much the same methods we all use to make sense of the world around us in our own lives. Ethnographers watch, experience, absorb, live, breathe, and inquire about a culture, lifestyle, event, case, group, or other phenomenon. But ethnography is more than being there, and more than common sense; it should always be careful, thoughtful, scientifically rigorous, systematic, and at least to some extent objective. It should be informed by theories about how social life works, that help the ethnographer know when she has found things she can trust, rely on, or share with others with confidence.
The main method of ethnography is known as participant observation.
I believe ethnography should be informed by a theory of practice. This means ethnographers see social life as something that emerges as people practice, or act out, their daily lives. Social life is constantly created by people, but always in the context of given constraints and opportunities (structures). Ethnography thus needs to examine and understand social life as it unfolds. It needs to learn about how individuals feel and what makes them ‘tick’. But it must also take account of the communities they are members of and the rules and norms, and the patterns of daily life, they take for granted and perhaps find it difficult to change. Even more than that, ethnographers must take account of wider structures such as laws, institutions and organisations, and even broad sets of ideas, that affect how people think and act.
An ethnographer is part of the community or group she is studying and will therefore affect the way social life unfolds. Unlike a thermometer, a microscope, or other neutral research instrument, an ethnographer is always involved. She must therefore think about and reflect on her own role. This has become known as reflexivity.
Finally, an ethnographer has to be very flexible in the methods she uses. The overall goal is to understand a phenomenon in depth, over time, as it unfolds, as practice. Then to share those understandings with others in order to advance theory, inform policy, or simply to further human understanding. But the methods used at any given time (interviews, conversation, watching, listening, taking part, standing back, or even doing a survey) will depend on the given situation.
Ethnography is an exciting methodology that has been used to research many different subjects, including, for example, personal experiences of self-harm (Adler and Adler 2007), organs-trafficking (Scheper-Hughes 2004), schoolgirls’ friendships (Hey 1997), how humour helps health-care workers cope in their work (Griffiths 1998), and a study of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong (Constable 2007).
You can find full references to these authors’ work in my books on ethnography.