RELATED TERMS: Anthroplology; Ethnomethodology; Method and methodology

Ethnography derives from the combination of two Greek roots, ethnos meaning folk or people and graphein meaning writing. It is a qualitative research method often used in the social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology, to gather empirical data on human societies and/or cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation, interviews and questionnaires. However, Hammersley and Atkinson (2007) caution that the term is not used in a standard way and that therefore it has a variable and sometimes contested character.

Ethnographic work usually has most of the following elements, Hammersley and Atkinson (2007, 3) state:

1. People’s actions and accounts are studied in everyday contexts, rather than under conditions created by the researcher – such as in experimental setups or in highly structured interview situations. In other words, research takes place ‘in the fiels’.

2. Data are gathered from a range of sources, including documentary evidence of various kinds, but participant observation and/or relatively informal conversations are usually the main ones.

3. Data collection is, for the most part, relatively unstructured, in two senses. First, it does not invove following through a fixed and detailed research design specified at the start. Second, the categories that are used for interpreting what people say or do are not built into the data collection process through the use of observation schedules or questionnaires. Instead, they are generated out of the process of data analysis.

4. The focus is usually on a few cases, generally fairly small-scale, perhaps a single setting or group of people. This to facilitate in-depth study.

5. The analysis of data involves interpretation of the meanings, functions and consequences of human actions and intitutional practices, and how these implicated in local, and perhaps also wider, contexts. Qhat are produced for the most part, are verbal descriptions, explanations and theories; qualification and statistical analysis play a subordinate role at most.”


Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (2007) Ethnography: principles in practice. 3rd edn. London, UK: Routledge.