An Introduction to Fieldwork and Ethnography

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Exercise ID: 4.6
Class size: Any
Level(s): I
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Open choice by student
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: ethnography, fieldwork, research methods, emic, etic, participant-observation
Region selection: open (student choice)
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Set by teacher
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable: MS12, NM09, OL06, NV09, AO07
Samples: PSF

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? No
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Francine Barone, Human Relations Area Files at Yale University

Ethnographic Fieldwork

Ethnographic fieldwork is how anthropologists gather data. Fieldwork is the process of immersing oneself in as many aspects of the daily cultural lives of people as possible in order to study their behaviors and interactions. Nearly any setting or location can become “the field”: a village along the Amazon river, a large corporate office in Tokyo, a small neighborhood café in Seattle, or even a social networking site like Facebook.

Fieldwork takes time. Anthropologists enter the field location much like a newborn child. They may have trouble communicating until they have learned the local language. They will likely make mistakes, and locals will find them funny or strange. It can take months or years to begin to accustom themselves to the society or community within which they will live and learn. In the fieldwork process, anthropologists eventually piece together ideas about kinship, language, religion, politics, and economic systems, which allows them to build a picture of the society.


Ethnography can mean two things in anthropology:

a) the qualitative research methods employed during fieldwork
b) the written descriptive and interpretive results of that research

Doing ethnography

The hallmark method of ethnographic field research in anthropology is known as participant-observation. This type of data-gathering is when the anthropologist records their experiences and observations while taking part in activities alongside local participants or informants in the field site. Anthropologists also engage in informal conversations, more formal interviews, surveys, or questionnaires, and create photos, sound or video recordings, as well as conduct historical or archival research into correspondence, public records, or reports, depending on their research area. Some anthropologists use quantitative methods when analyzing their research, such as producing statistics based on their findings.

Writing ethnography

Ethnographic writing differs from other types of academic, historical, journalistic, or travel writing about peoples and places. While ethnographers may also keep a fieldwork diary containing personal notes, ethnography is much more than a recounting of daily events. Ethnography engages with the theoretical foundations of anthropology and is written with cultural contextualization in mind, speaking to anthropology as a discipline as well as furnishing greater understanding of the cultural world that has been explored. The aim of ethnographic writing is to produce work that contributes to, and advances, the comparative interpretation of human cultures and societies.

An insider’s view

Ethnography is a collaborative effort between the ethnographer and their research participants. Anthropologists have ethical codes that guide their behavior in the field as they rely on relationships with others in order to conduct their research. In the ethnographic process, informants or key participants can help to induct the ethnographer into the society and explain its customs and ways.

Traditionally, anthropologists have attempted to arrive at an emic perspective or “insider’s point of view”. In other words, ethnographers wish to understand the structures, categories, and patterns of behavior as conceptualized by members of the culture they are studying. This is contrasted with etic models, which are analyses of cultural meaning as seen from the “outside” by an objective observer. This uneasy simplification of emic vs. etic gets at the heart of the paradox of doing ethnography: what people say they do, what they say they should do, and what they actually do, rarely – if ever – coincide.

Anthropologists today are increasingly aware of their own views and biases that they carry with them into the field from their home cultures, acknowledging wherever possible how this affects their methods and findings. Despite all of the best intentions, any practicing fieldworker can tell you that fieldwork is, at best, unpredictable. A reflexive approach to ethnography acknowledges that no researcher can be 100% objective, and that fieldwork constitutes an ongoing dialogue of consent and mutual respect between participants and the ethnographer.

Workbook Activity 1: The Fieldwork Experience

Read the following passages in eHRAF World Cultures that describe different aspects of fieldwork and conducting ethnography. Then, answer the questions.

Malinowski (1922) – Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Chapter 1, Section VII, pages 17-21 on participant-observation 

  • What is “the imponderabilia of actual life”?
  • How does Malinowski suggest that ethnographers should observe and record this imponderabilia during fieldwork?
  • According to Malinowski, why is it good for the ethnographer to sometimes put aside their notebook and camera?

Stross (1971) – Aspects of Language Acquisition by Tzeltal Children, “Appendix B: The Fieldwork”, pages 201-202 on data collection in the field 

  • List the kinds of research methods that the ethnographer used during fieldwork.
  • How did he familiarize himself with the field location?
  • Describe the relationship(s) that the ethnographer had with informants.
  • What unexpected problems did the ethnographer run into? How were they resolved?

 Textor (1973) – Roster of the Gods, Appendix One, pages 855-858 on working with key informants

  • Describe the relationship between the ethnographer and his informants.
  • How critical were the informants to completing the ethnographic research?
  • Do you think that learning the local language is essential for doing fieldwork?

Landsman (1988) – Sovereignty and Symbol, pages 7-8 on taking notes with informants

  • How did the emotions of informants/research participants impact the ethnographer’s fieldnotes?
  • How were historical, archival, print, and photographic materials utilized in their study? How did informants assist with this?
  • How critical do you think informants are to conducting ethnographic research?

 Hill (1972) – Rural Hausa: A Village and Setting, page 148 on the anatomy of poverty

  • What do you think the author means by “the poor are usually unobserved”?
  • Are there some types of insights that are difficult or impossible to ascertain through participant-observation? Why might this be the case?
  • How do you think anthropologists should deal with sensitive information or vulnerable members of a culture?

Workbook Activity 2: Thinking Ethnographically

How would you observe the following cultural practices ethnographically?

  • Shopping in a bookstore
  • Traveling by public transportation
  • Ordering takeout from your favorite restaurant
  • Having coffee with friends at Starbucks

Choose one of these or select your own scenario. Write a brief ethnographic account of everyday events. Consider methods such as participant-observation, interviews, surveys, and engaging with informants. If you are unable to participate in these activities face-to-face, simply try and imagine how you would describe them to an outsider not familiar with your culture.

Begin by recording your “field notes”, keeping track of everything that you see and do, and what you observe others saying and doing.

Then, describe what’s happening from both emic and etic perspectives.

For the emic perspective, consider the activity you are engaged in and how it is viewed in your own culture. What are the established “rules” or patterns of each interaction that make up the scene you have chosen?

  • For example, at a café, you might find that one of your friends buys coffee for the entire group, which is fairly typical among friends. If asked why they have done so, the buyer may simply reply that “it’s a nice thing to do”, and indicate that someone else would pay next time.

For the etic perspective, look beyond your notes and step outside your own cultural expectations. What over-arching structures, symbols, or meaning are at play in this setting?

  • For example, why do you think people really take turns buying rounds of drinks? What happens if one person never pays for the coffee? Due to the fact that such a person would not be considered a good friend, an etic analysis might find that coffee exchange is meaningful for building and sustaining friendship rather than being about money.


Hill, Polly. 1972. Rural Hausa: A Village and Setting. Cambridge, England: University Press.

Landsman, Gail H. 1988. Sovereignty and Symbol: Indian-White Conflict at Ganienkeh. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: University of New Mexico Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.

Stross, Brian. 1971. Aspects of Language Acquisition by Tzeltal Children. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.

Textor, Robert B. 1973. “Roster of the Gods: An Ethnography of the Supernatural in a Thai Village.” In Ethnography Series, 3, 44, 911 leaves. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files.