Ethnography

What I have trouble with, and am starting to worry about, is that I don’t really know how to define research, which makes it tough to know what kind of research I want to do. When I think research, I think lab or field work, not necessarily the sort of research I do when I write a paper, which is either googling (or google scholaring), looking for articles online at the university library website, or, and this might not go over well, going onto Wikipedia, looking at which articles are cited at the bottom of the wikipedia article, and finding those online. My worry is that this sort of research, looking at articles, doesn’t provide anything new. It fits in the interpretivist school we talked about in class, which always seems to come up as “too relativist,” not that I’m interested in a positivist approach either. 

What I’m trying to build up to is really just a question: can someone explain what ethnography is? I looked it up on wikipedia, but I’d like more explanation. It comes up a lot in the readings, and I’m not sure what to do with it.

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2 thoughts on “Ethnography

  1. Brett Phillipson

    I think that the class and the assigned texts are really geared towards the social sciences, rather than, say, the humanities or physical sciences, which definitely affects the way research is defined in the context of the course. Personally, as a humanities scholar (albeit one with a strong interest in the social sciences) I’ve found it a bit alienating, since my research hardly ever involves things like surveys, ethnographic studies, etc. and tends to be almost 100% document-based. As a historian, though, I think that document-based (and in my case, primary source-based) research is just as valid as ethnographic or experimental research, and just as capable of producing original ideas. I don’t think the texts intend to portray this research as “lesser”, either, I think that, being geared towards social scientists, they don’t really take it into account.

    It’s a bit difficult because I know that my own research is going to bear little resemblance to the research discussed in the assigned texts, and I have to dig a bit deeper to find ways to apply the (extremely valid) methods discussed by Luker and Knight to my own work. On the other hand, exploring different disciplines and different methodologies is very interesting, and probably valuable to me in ways that it wouldn’t be to someone who has more experience in the social sciences.

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  2. miloanderson

    Hi Jordan,

    Don’t worry! I’ve shared many of your concerns. I found the discussion in the Knight reading, under the heading “Research is more thinking than doing”, to be very reassuring on this question of “what is research?”. What I’ve taken from the readings & lectures so far is that “research as methodology” can sometimes make sense in the natural sciences, where the quality of research often depends on the quality of the data, but in the social sciences it’s more practical to move from the general to the specific when thinking about designing our research projects.

    About a week ago I was very confused on this point, but I think I see now why it makes sense to try to focus on a research question (even if we can’t come up with one right away) and then use whichever paradigm or methodology is appropriate for exploring that question/area/issue. I think it’s because relevance and meaning are so central to what we do as social scientists, that has to be our guiding star.

    I didn’t get the impression that we’re discouraged from interpretivist inquiries, just as long as we’re aware of the options that are available to us (everyone, please jump in and correct me if I’ve got this wrong).

    To your actual question about ethnography — can you be more specific about what it is you feel you’re missing in understanding ethnography? Of course it’s probably a subject as vast as any other, but the Wikipedia article seemed pretty fleshed-out to me.

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