Ethnography: Definition, Characteristics, Design, Method

The ethnography , ethnographic research or village science is considered a method of social research that originated in the seventies. It has its origins in countries such as Great Britain, the United States and Australia, to improve the quality of education and solve problems at a pedagogical level.

The research has covered several areas in recent decades. Undoubtedly, the study of peoples and their behavior is something that has captured the attention of professionals in order to better understand the issues of the sociocultural field.

ethnography races Grouping of the races and clothing characteristic of the world. Himely; A. M. Perrot.

At times, ethnography has been criticized because some consider that its conclusions are the product of subjectivities and interpretations of the researcher, since its variables are qualitative rather than quantitative.

However, others think that the study of the people is fundamental to understand the processes and movements within society, which is the basis for social analysis.


  • 1 Definitions according to several authors
    • 1.1 Arnal, Del Rincón and Latorre
    • 1.2 Rodríguez Gómez
    • 1.3 Woods
  • 2 Main characteristics of ethnography
    • 2.1 Phenomenological or emico character
    • 2.2 Relatively persistent stay
    • 2.3 It is holistic and naturalistic
    • 2.4 Inductive character
    • 2.5 Follow a cyclical model
  • 3 Ethnographic design
  • 4 Ethnographic method
  • 5 Ethnographic techniques
    • 5.1 The participant observation
    • 5.2 The formal interview
    • 5.3 The survey
  • 6 Examples
    • 6.1 Same concepts with different cultures and purposes
    • 6.2 Reasons for certain behaviors
    • 6.3 Political studies
  • 7 References

Definitions according to several authors

The word ethnography comes from the Greek. The word ethnos means"tribe"or"people", and the term grapho It symbolizes"I write." For what its translation is"I write of the tribe"or"description of the peoples".

Arnal, Del Rincón and Latorre

According to Arnal, Del Rincón and Latorre,"ethnographic research is the most popular method to analyze and emphasize the descriptive and interpretative questions of a specific sociocultural environment. It has been widely used in studies of social anthropology and education, so much so that it can be considered one of the most relevant research methods in humanistic-interpretative research."

Rodríguez Gómez

According to Rodríguez Gómez is the"research method by which you learn the way of life of a specific social unit, which can be a family, a class, a faculty or a school."

The concept of ethnography of Giddens goes deeper into the development of this science, since it affirms that it is"the direct study of people and groups during a certain period, using participant observation or interviews to know their social behavior".


In a more simple and precise definition, Woods defines it as"the description of the way of life of a group of individuals".

While there are different statements, they all have one thing in common: the object of study is man, his behavior and behavior as a member of a society.

Main characteristics of ethnography

According to Del Rincón, the characteristics of ethnography as a form of social research are:

Phenomenological or emico character

It consists of interpreting social phenomena from an"inside"perspective of the participants of that group of people. This allows the researcher to have a vision of what social life is like.

Through the description and interpretation, the professional can know the social phenomena seen as a member of this society. The term emic refers to the differences that exist within the same culture.

Relatively persistent stay

The professional must be involved in the group to study to get their acceptance and trust. This will allow a connection between the researcher and the members of the society to be created, a relationship that will make it possible to know the details of the grouping.

It is important for the expert to understand the culture he is studying. For this, many ethnographers decide to live the experience in the first person, since they can see events when they happen on a regular or daily basis.

It is holistic and naturalistic

Study the general reality of the facts seen from two points of view: an internal one, as if it were a member of the group; and the other external, properly the interpretation of the researcher as an outsider of said society.

Inductive character

The experience and the exploration are the tools to know a social scenario at first hand through the participant observation. From this strategy, information is obtained that generates conceptual categories.

The idea of ​​research is to discover regularities and associations between social phenomena observed to analyze them based on models, hypotheses and explanatory theories.

Follow a cyclical model

Ethnographic procedures tend to overlap and occur simultaneously. The data collected and its explanations work to collect more and more new information.

A distinctive feature of ethnographic or qualitative research is that it is essential to field research ; in these cases, reality starts from the study of social phenomena that are later analyzed with thesis.

Ethnographic design

Ethnography is an investigative tool. There are researchers who consider it a branch of social or cultural anthropology, since previously it was used to analyze aboriginal communities.

However, at present it is applied to study any group, since it focuses on the context of a social phenomenon and observes it in its natural environment. After this study you can describe a culture or part of it.

Usually the ethnographic report integrates all aspects of the research: the theoretical and empirical information that sustains the work, the experiences lived and the results obtained analyzed in thesis.

Taking this into consideration, the report includes theoretical and practical background, the detailed description of the methods and procedures used, the results and the final conclusions.

There are important aspects when choosing an ethnographic design. For example, it must be minimalist and flexible to organize an open action plan to approach the phenomenon, face the unexpected and collect the required information.

There are researchers who state that it is essential to know how to formulate the questions, determine the objectives of the work and choose the field of research well.

Once these points are clear, the ethnographer sets out to evaluate and choose his methods and techniques.

Ethnographic method

In this type of research you should use inductive and deductive methods . They are two opposed approaches: the first part of the observed facts to formulate theories, and the second one studies the theses to deduce phenomena.

In short, the inductive method goes from the particular to the general, and the deductive is absolutely the opposite, part of the general to reach the peculiarity of each case.

Among the main steps that should be followed in a study of this type, the following stand out:

- The participant observation.

- Making maps. Within a group there are specific places to carry out each activity. The professional must do a mapping of the place, indicating the public, private, religious areas, among others.

- Kinship maps. It refers to establishing power figures, genealogical trees and elements that help to understand the relationship of individuals in certain groups.

- Carry out informal interviews.

- Conduct formal interviews

- Organize discussion groups

- Collect life stories: autobiographies, personality interviews.

- Document stories. There are communities where myths and legends are fundamental. In addition, they provide data on the culture, beliefs and values ​​of the society analyzed.

- Study ethnosemantics. It deals with the analysis of how said culture understands certain concepts and meanings. Sometimes the same word in one place has a different concept in another. This will make the professional understand daily life better.

- Take photos and, if possible, videos.

- Consult censuses. There are cases in which this data is not available. If possible, the investigation can make its own census.

- Sort and archive the data.

Ethnographic techniques

The participant observation

It is the most important technique for obtaining information. It is based on the description and narration of social phenomena through the people involved in the events.

It is based on the observation of the researcher, who asks and examines what happened. But for this the professional must gain the confidence of the group and integrate himself; this will make them not see him as a stranger and intruder.

As long as they feel more comfortable with the ethnographer, more spontaneous and natural societies will act. Even, this connection between scientist-group will wake up feelings and sensations that will guide the interviews and the direction to follow in the work.

Looking does not mean observing, and this process is not just about seeing. It even begins with the training and preparation of the observer and the design of his research.

But the function is not there, it is also necessary to participate, to enter into that culture without losing their own beliefs.

According to Durkheim, in the scene you must choose a social fact, plan the time of observation, describe what is observed, collect ethnographic data and participate at all times in the phenomenon.

Once at home or office, you should sort the information, establish relevant questions and study the data in depth.

The formal interview

The formal interview is a face-to-face meeting with members of the group. It is a strategy so that, question after question, information is obtained about the particularities of culture and customs.

The most advisable thing is to do it in an organized and directed way by means of a questionnaire, which must be prepared by the researcher beforehand and must be based on the objectives of the thesis.

They are spontaneous conversations. It is an interaction of conversation and listening, so that eye contact is essential to establish a closer connection with the informant and build trust.

The survey

It is used when it comes to studies where the unit of analysis is people. They are based on structured questionnaires and with specific questions, whether they are open or closed.

Your data may reflect patterns of behavior, feelings and opinions of each individual with a specific situation or phenomenon.

To carry out a survey, the sample must be chosen and determined if it is representative. Subsequently the survey is carried out, to then empty the data and analyze the results of each question.


Same concepts with different cultures and purposes

A word can have the same meaning in several countries, even in the whole world; but the way to exercise this word and use it can change.

Fashion is a concept that does not change. However, putting it into practice is an action that varies according to the culture, religion and even profession.

The journalist Elizabeth Bucar published on February 1, 2018 in the portal The Atlantic a study on how Muslim women use fashion to exercise political influence.

In this study he explains how to innovate in a conservative environment through his research in three different societies: Tehran, Iran; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; and Istanbul, Turkey.

Reasons for certain behaviors

It is common to analyze the causes of certain decisions and behaviors of individuals within society. The migratory movements are a sample of that.

The sociologist of Northwestern and studies of gender and sexuality, Héctor Carrillo, published his book in January 2018 Pathways of Desire: Sexual Migration of Mexican Gay Men , a text that includes the four-year research of this professional and his team.

The study focused on the sexual motivations for migration and relied on the confidence to obtain the information they needed.

The work showed that"the motivations behind transnational migration are not purely economic or family. In fact, people who come from countries like Mexico sometimes get involved in migration for reasons of lifestyle."

Political studies

Politics is present in the whole world and always has the same objective: to reach power.

The strategies at this level are based on market studies, surveys and analysis of political discourse, so that ethnographic research is fundamental.

In the Philippines, Marco Garrido, a professor of sociology, conducted an evaluation of political beliefs in that country.

According to the study, which was originally based on former Philippine president and film actor Joseph Estrada, they suggest theories that may be applicable to the study of populist politics around the world.

This includes the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.


  1. Anderson, G. (1989). Critical Ethnography in Education: Origins, current status, and new directions. Retrieved on February 6, 2018, from
  2. Arnal, J. Del Rincón, D. and Latorre, A. (1992) Educational research. Educational research metaolodies. Retrieved on February 6, 2018, from
  3. Bucar, E. (February, 2018). How muslim women use fashion to exert political influence. Retrieved on February 6, 2018, from
  4. Carrillo, H. (January, 2018). Pathways of desire: putting sex back into sexuality studies. Retrieved on February 6, 2018, from
  5. Gaulkin, T. (January, 2018). Sociologist's research on Filipino leader reveals insights into populist politics. Retrieved on February 6, 2018, from

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