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What is ethnography?

"Ethnography is the recording and analysis of a culture or society, usually based on participant-observation and resulting in a written account of a people, place or institution".(Definition taken from the Glossary of Terms written by Simon Coleman and Bob Simpson)

Traditionally, ethnographies have focused in depth on a bounded and definable group of people; such as the Nuer, or a particular North Indian village. Today, they are just as likely to focus on a particular aspect of contemporary social life; such as new reproductive technologies, the meanings of the veil, virtual communication, or being a Milwall football club fan. The concept of ethnography has been developed within social anthropology; but the term is now sometimes used in a looser way in for example opinion and market research.

Why are ethnographies important?

Ethnographies as texts offer excellent insight into how social anthropologists undertake their fieldwork, what it is like to experience daily life in an environment that may be initially unfamiliar, and the political, economic and social dynamics involved in collecting ‘data’. By providing specific, in-depth case studies, they can serve as excellent means for teaching about global issues such as climate change, migration and globalisation. Even where ethnographies focus on a particular practice - such as a religious ceremony, or a culinary ritual – the anthropologist will typically place the practice in its full context to give a holistic, rich and multi-faceted account.

Reading good ethnographies is an excellent way to learn how social anthropologists go about their research; and how they reflect on their own and one other’s experiences in the field, and construct their broader theories.


Suggested Resources


The following trailer is for Ngat is Dead a film distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.


Director Christian Suhr Nielsen, Ton Otto, Stephen Dalsgaard
Release 2007
Length 59 mins
Location Papua New Guinea
Ethnic Group Baluan
Language Tok Baluan, Tok Pisin, English (English sub)

A film about how anthropological knowledge is developed through active participation in traditional exchange ceremonies on the small island of Baluan in the South Pacific. The film follows the anthropologist Ton Otto negotiating his way through a myriad of kin relations and family conflicts in order to study but also to find out which ceremonies should be carried out after the death of his adoptive father, Ngat. The film deals with the dilemmas of a participating researcher, who is both social actor and anthropological observer, and gives the viewer a close look at the way Baluan people contest and negotiate their social reality: their kin relations, mortuary traditions, and also the participating anthropologists.

What does it mean when anthropologists claim to study the cultural traditions of others by participating in them? This film follows the Dutch anthropologist Ton Otto, who has been adopted by a family on the island of Baluan in the South Pacific. Due to the death of his adoptive father he has to take part in mortuary ceremonies whose form and content are however forcefully contested by different groups of relatives. Through the ensuing negotiations Ton learns how Baluan people perform and develop their traditions and not least what role he plays himself. The film is part of long-term fieldwork in which filmmaking has become integrated in the ongoing dialogue and exchange relations between the islanders and the anthropologist.






Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes
Emerson, M. R (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing,1995)

Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography  2nd Edition
Maanenn, J. (Chicago Guides to Writing and Publishing, 2011)

Ethnography: A Way of Seeing,2nd Edition
Wolcott F. H. (Altamira Press, 2008)


For an additional list of recommended ethnographies and other introductory textbooks visit: