What is ethnography?

We explain what ethnography is, what is its history and the objectives of this method of study. Advantages, limitations and classification.

  1. What is ethnography?

Ethnography, also referred to as the “science of the people”, is understood to systematically study people and cultures , especially through the observation of their cultural and social practices. More than a science in itself, it is usually considered a branch of social anthropology, when not a research tool or method.

Ethnography was widely used in the analysis of aboriginal communities during the twentieth century and is currently applied to the study of any form of social group. This is due to the fact that as a method of obtaining information it is much superior to its alternatives, since it allows obtaining live, direct information from the source and of a very varied nature.

It should not be confused with ethnology, another discipline from which it differs in its fundamental approach to matter.

  1. History of Ethnography

In ancient times ethnography was practiced, when observations and descriptions of the peoples were transmitted , especially those considered “barbaric” or exotic, by the centers of power, generally powerful empires that were considered the center of the world. The same happened with colonialist Europe whose expansion began in the fifteenth century and continued until the nineteenth, exploring the entire planet and taking note of the populations that were.

Formally, ethnography begins with social anthropology , as the heir of this European interest in the exotic and distant world of the East (particularly), or of the surviving American aboriginal cultures . His father and founder is the same as social anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski. However, it would be with the turn within anthropology , which allowed a more pluralistic view of societies, along with the development of other social sciences such as linguistics, psychology and sociology , which would be constituted as a scientific discipline, and that a necessary debate regarding its nature could occur.

  1. Definition of ethnography

Ethnography studies the human being and the societies in which it is organized.

Traditionally, ethnography involved the written description of the way of life of a punctual society or a human group . It is framed in the so-called human sciences or social sciences , since its object of study is the human being and the societies that it organizes, but it does so from the presence of the observer himself within them. Seen this way, any Social Anthropology exercise is based on the collection, comparison and analysis of own or third-party ethnographic experiences.

  1. Objective of ethnography

Ethnography intends to make an objective description of the dynamics , structures and processes that occur within a given human group. This in order to build their own object of study, collecting and interpreting the data obtained . Who exercises it fulfills the role of observer, but also of analyst, in the sense that he must compare the observed with something so that it makes sense: that something is the structures, processes and dynamics of the society from which it comes.

  1. Advantages of ethnography

Only being within a human group can social reality be faithfully described.

Informational wealth is undoubtedly the robust side of ethnography, since their studies yield much more information than could be obtained through documentary sources or other types of research. This is based on the assumption that only being within a human group can faithfully refer to and describe the social and cultural reality of what is happening: this implies that it is a qualitative and non-quantitative science , since it is interested in interpreting what happens and not for throwing statistical data that reflects it.

  1. Limitations of ethnography

Ethnography has a thin side, and it is only useful for small communities , whose behavior and structure can be encompassed with relative ease. In addition, it depends on the ability of the researcher to penetrate these communities and gain their trust, giving him access to the practices and speeches that a foreigner would not normally appreciate.

Likewise, the presence of the observer in the studied community implies that their subjectivities, prejudices and experiences can easily sneak into their ethnographic descriptions, or they may predispose the studied community to not act naturally; therefore, objectivity will always be a topic present among the limitations of ethnography .

  1. Types of ethnography

Traditionally, two fundamental types of ethnographic approach are distinguished:

  • Macroetnografía . Part of the study of individual behavior, of small-scale dynamics, and from there try to obtain conclusions about the whole human group.
  • Microethnography . Make the reverse path, starting from the broader questions of the group to try to understand individual behaviors or to try to check them in personal stories.
  1. How to perform an ethnography?

It is necessary to analyze and draw conclusions from the information obtained.

All ethnography is carried out through three fundamental steps:

  • Observation . It is about arranging the five senses to capture as much information as possible in the social framework to investigate, without neglecting any type of data or experiences.
  • Description . The recomposition of what is observed in a document (written, visual, sound) that serves as support and allows its revision, correction and transmission.
  • Analysis . The information obtained and recorded must be collated, compared, understood and the relevant conclusions must be drawn from it, both small and large scale.
  1. Life stories

One of the most common tools available to ethnography are life stories: subjective vital counts obtained through a face-to-face interview between the student and the subject to study, in which he is induced to tell his life and provide the much detail about her, as beliefs, values, myths, religious practices, etc . From these types of profiles, similar to psychological ones, documents are created that serve as ethnographic sources for further studies.

  1. Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski obtained field experiences in aboriginal communities.

Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1884 and died in 1942 in the US, he is considered the founding father of British social anthropology . He renewed said field of study entirely from a functional consideration of culture, hand in hand with psychoanalysis and his own field experiences in numerous aboriginal communities of Melanesia and Papua New Guinea. One of his famous essays is his introduction to the famous book by Fernando Ortiz,  Cuban Counterpoint of Tobacco and Sugar  (1940).

  1.  Differences between ethnography and ethnology

Although they sound similar, these two disciplines differ in their roots. While ethnography involves a field study, an in situ investigation   of a culture or a social group, ethnology instead consists of collating or comparing two documented and contemporary cultures. In fact, ethnology can also be ethnohistory , when it is dedicated to the temporal comparison of cultures or societies.

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