Definition of Ethnographic Research

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Definition of Ethnographic Research
Modern ethnographic researchers are interested in the developing world. (Image by, courtesy of Mercedes Ramirez Guerrero)

Ethnography is the study of living cultures, and ethnographic research is the methodology and results of studying ethnography. Traditionally, ethnographers study nonindustrial cultures in the Americas, Africa, Asia and other continents, but today they are increasingly interested in modern postindustrial society.

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Cultural Anthropology

Ethnographers are also anthropologists, and ethnography is a subfield of anthropology. Anthropologists are interested in cultures both prehistoric and contemporary, but ethnographers are interested only in modern cultures.

Participant Observation

The conventional method of ethnographic research is termed "participant observation." When acting as participant observers, ethnographers engage in the culture of their research as unbiased observers. They learn the technology, language, and kinship patterns of their study culture.


Collecting data as a participant observer is not enough, so additional data is collected through face-to-face interviews. The combination of participant observation and interviewing are the foundations of ethnographic research.

Ethnographic Research and Archaeology

Ethnographic research is an important element in archaeology, another subdiscipline of anthropology. Archaeology is the study of the material remains left by past peoples, and archaeologists use ethnographic research to interpret past cultures through analogy with living cultures.

Applied Anthropology

Modern ethnographers often view themselves as applied anthropologists. Applied anthropologists go beyond participant observation to become political activists and implement health, education, and development programs for disadvantaged peoples.

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