What is Ethnography?

Ethnography is a collection of qualitative methods used in the social sciences that focus on the close observation of social practices and interactions.  These qualitative methods enable the researcher to interpret and build theories about how and why a social process occurs.  They are particularly useful for elucidating the steps of processes that have not been well understood, and to create rich descriptions of people’s experiences.  Qualitative research tends to be inductive and hypothesis-generating; that is, it helps the researcher make educated guesses about how or why a process happens.  Quantitative research, on the other hand, tends to be deductive and hypothesis-testing; it helps the researcher determine how true such an educated guess is across a population.

Ethnography’s unique contribution to qualitative methods is that it deeply examines the context in which activities occur, usually involving work by the researcher with participants as they go about their daily lives.  An ethnographer also describes a situation by asking multiple people about an event, or by analyzing multiple types of documentation, such as policies or historical records.  In this way, ethnography allows the researcher to make fine distinctions and see ambiguities in the way a situation is interpreted.  The ERIAL Project’s ethnographic methods included semi-structured interviews, photo elicitation, participant observation in libraries, and mapping exercises, among other things.  These methods are described in our Toolkit.