Practice Question – Bring out the significance of Ethnography in social research.  [20 Marks] [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Explain ethnography, Elaborate on relevance of ethnography in social research, Give examples of ethnographic research work by sociologists, Criticism, Conclusion.



Ethnography is a qualitative research method which involves a detailed study of a particular cultural group. The word ethnography comes from Greek words Ethnos meaning people and Graphein meaning writing. That is why Ethnography is also known as “culture writing”.

It is a primary research method, but not limited to Anthropology which anthropologists often document in their fieldwork. Ethnography is one of the most distinctive characteristics of Anthropology. Socio-cultural anthropologists who write ethnographies are termed as ethnographers. The methodology of Ethnography relies typically on participant observation and qualitative data collection. While conducting an ethnography, the anthropologists generally live in a culture different from their own. They get engaged in the daily lives of populations to be studied and deeply observe and record their findings. While conducting any research in Anthropology, the researchers try not be ethnocentric by using the tool of cultural relativism.



The main aim of the ethnographer is to describe the culture or way of life such as values, beliefs and practices of a particular group from within. This is done by understanding and communicating what the events are or what is going on, and how the members of the group ‘interpret’ and ‘understand’ that event or what is going on. In order to do this, the researcher needs to understand not only his or her own culture but also the culture of the group s/he is studying The purpose of ethnography is not to test what we know or think we know about a
culture. Its main purpose is to explore cultural knowledge. Exploring here would mean first ‘understanding’ and ‘discovering’ the culture, then ‘describing’ it and then finally ‘interpreting’ it. Secondly, ethnography describes a culture from the point of view of its participants. This is the insider’s or native point of view, which is referred to as emic perspective. The other perspective is the etic i.e. the outsider’s point of view.

Ethnography can be useful in several situations. It can be used as a method to gather research material or to gain an entry point for irrigation or water project or to establish relationship when one is a guest or an outsider in a particular context. Ethnography can also be used by third party interveners for facilitating or mediating in a conflict. Ethnography will help the third party to understand the worldviews of the two parties as conflicts are not just located in the material or social world but also in the symbolic world where worldviews are formed. This will help look into the structural causes of individual and group behaviours as well as be useful in understanding how meaning, symbols and norms contribute to the making and enactment of individual and group behaviours. Parties can also use ethnography to understand each other’s perspectives without the help of a third party.



Ethnography is a unique research method in several ways. There are three fundamental and interrelated presuppositions in ethnography:
    Data is not just gathered but created by human effort, thus how information is collected will eventually affect the content of data;
    Researchers are complex creatures and their perception is shaped not just by the context in which they find themselves but also the level of comfort and discomfort they experience in that context; and
    The researcher and research participants both affect the quality and content of data.

Interpretation is an important feature of ethnography and the above presuppositions are based on the premise that human life is about interpretation. Secondly, ethnography is implicitly ‘comparative’ as while studying another culture the ethnographer needs a reference point to understand the values, beliefs and practices and that reference point most of the time is their own culture. The ethnographer interacts with other cultures and tries to know about their ways of life. This makes them value their own culture. Thus, eventually the ethnographer ends up comparing the culture they are studying with their own culture. Thirdly, this comparison may sometimes make the ethnographer reach the conclusion that their culture is superior. This attitude of superiority about one’s own culture is referred to as ‘ethnocentrism’. Field researchers however consciously reject the attitude of ethnocentrism. Next, ethnographic studies do not have a hypothesis, which makes it different from most other social science research methodologies that are based on hypothesis. The aim of ethnography is not to test a hypothesis as having one would mean that the researcher has preconceived notions, biases and stereotypes about the culture s/he is studying. 



Ethnography is most appropriately used for inquiry that requires

 in-depth understanding
 rich narratives (if using qualitative interviews),
 empathy and experience
 Social phenomena being studied over a period of time.
 An understanding of the social meanings constructed by individuals’ themselves and the significance and nature of the practices they engage in
 Topics not easily accessible through simple face-to-face interviews
 involve ambiguity or ambivalence on the part of the actor,
 ‘topics which involve examining processes of change, examining negotiated lived experiences, topics which see culture as constructed and reconstructed through actors’ participation’ are especially suited to participant observation and ethnography.



The primary technique used in ethnographic research is ‘participant observation’, which usually involves living and spending extended periods with the people and group one is
studying. However, the researcher can also engage in non-participant observation techniques in order to generate more structured observations. Research that requires some extent of social participation by the researcher to document or record the course of ongoing events is known as participant observation. Here the researcher observes things by participating in the events. Participant observation essentially involves three simultaneous processes: participating in as many activities as possible in a particular cultural setting, observing what is going on, and interpreting what the researcher has participated in and observed. Participation is the key aspect here as the field researcher learns from the act of participation – the researcher gradually becomes a familiar fixture in people’s lives and the people start accepting and giving access to him/ her in their lives. On the other hand, the participants are likely to slowly abandon impression management (showing their best behaviour, which may not be their normal and natural behaviour, in front of outsiders) and start behaving in normal and natural ways. This facilitates more and more learning for the field researcher especially about the gray areas between ideals, beliefs and practices.



• Completely reliant on the individual researcher (or a small team)
• Difficult to gain full access
• Difficult to achieve objective distance and the danger of ‘going native’
• Reporting findings and the role of interpretation
• Ethical dilemmas of participation



Fieldwork gives a window into different unknown and hidden social worlds. Ethnography is a field-based research that derives meaning from social and cultural lives. It is based on the assumption that personal engagement with the participant is the key to understanding a particular culture or social setting. Ethnography is based on the emic perspective, is comparative, relies on both qualitative and quantitative methods and does not have a hypothesis. Observation- particularly participant observation- is the method used for collecting data in ethnographic research. However, data can be collected through other methods as well such as ethnographic interviews and document analysis.

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