Ethnography – Definition and How to Write

18.08.22 Types of research studies Time to read: 6min

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Crafting an ethnography distinguishes itself from the process of penning a standard essay or article. Consequently, a multitude of students find themselves puzzled by the methodology inherent to ethnography writing. This piece offers a comprehensive guide outlining what this distinctive style of writing entails and how one should effectively approach it.

Ethnography – In a Nutshell

  • Ethnography is a form of qualitative research where the researcher immerses themselves in a specific community or organization to observe their behaviors and interactions from within.
  • It explains phenomena observed in a structured setting like a specific group or community.
  • It is a flexible research technique that gives you a deep understanding of a group’s culture and societal dynamics.

Definition: Ethnography

Ethnography is a type of qualitative research where the researcher immerses themselves in a particular community or organization to conduct behavioral examinations and gain up-close interactions. Another definition for it is “a lengthy written report of research produced after an ethnographer completes observations and interactions.”


The descriptive study can be defined as a lengthy written description that aims to bring awareness and create an understanding of specific social patterns in a cultural context.

Ethnography: Different research approaches

In an ethnography, the key distinctions of the conducted study will determine the research approach you take. For instance, they may determine if you take either of the following research approach categories:

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Open vs. Closed setting approaches

You can make observations for your research in a closed or open setting. An open setting is where there are no formal entry barriers. For example, you can conduct your research in a community in a certain neighborhood or a sports team fan group. While an open setting gives you access to the groups, immersing yourself in a less clearly defined group is harder.

In contrast, a closed setting is harder to access, like an organization, business, or school. Also, the boundaries in closed groups are usually clearly defined. However, since gaining access is harder, the scholar may have to negotiate their way into the setting.

Overt vs. Covert approaches

An overt research approach is where the researcher openly states his intentions and acknowledges his role in the subjects of his studies. This approach is preferred for ethical purposes as participants must provide formal consent. However, the subjects’ awareness of what is being studied may influence their behavior.

In contrast, a covert research approach is where the subjects are unaware that they are participants in the research. This approach allows access to environments where people do not welcome researchers. However, hiding the truth about research can be considered unethical.

Active vs. Passive observation

You can also take on research approaches with active or passive observers. For instance, active observer participation encourages the subjects to feel more comfortable with the ethnographer’s presence. However, the risks of disrupting a community’s regular functioning are high in active participation.

In contrast, in passive observation, the researcher does not take stands back from the activities of others and acts more as a distant observer. Therefore, passive observation allows more space for careful observations. However, the risks of group members acting un-naturally are higher because they feel they are being observed.

Gaining access to a community

A significant part of an ethnography study is gaining access to a community for the research. The difficulty of gaining access varies depending on the setting. However, the following tips can help you gain access to certain settings:

  • Start attending a team’s game and interacting with other fans to gain access to a specific sports team
  • Contact business management and seek permission to access their employees for a study.
  • Perform your research on a group you are already personally involved or employed with because you will get easier access to research subjects.

It is worth mentioning that flexibility is important in an ethnography study. For instance, you should consider an alternative for comparable information.


If your main idea is to study the staff within a particular law firm, you should have alternatives if you do not gain access to the subjects.

Working with informants for an ethnography

Informants are individuals in a group or community that function as the researcher’s main contact point. Using informants for en ethnography facilitates access and helps you understand the group better.

The informant may be someone in a high position within the organization that allows you access to the staff. You can also use a community member sponsoring your entry into that community and advising you on how to fit in.

However, you should always know that an informant may not give you spontaneous information for your ethnography. Instead, the informer may always try to show you what you want to see. Therefore, an ethnographer should have various informants within a group for relevant information.

Observing the group and taking field notes

Observation is the core of any study. The good thing is that ethnography study allows you to observe a group from within. This is where field notes come in. For instance, you can use field notes to record your observations.

Field notes are the basis of a final written ethnography. You can write field notes by hand or use voice recordings as alternatives. Below are some tips for taking field notes:

Record any and all important data
Record conversations
When recording behaviors, include details like phrases repeated, language, differences between conversationalists, and reactions
Do not stray away from noting down observations that fall outside your research’s scope
Note even the irrelevant content (it’s better to have extra notes that you may not need than end up with missing data)
Make the notes as detailed and concise as possible


I spent the morning observing the differences in the staff’s behavior in the presence of their management. Sasha Lee, the most talkative on the staff, was noticeably silent and barely made any jokes. On the other hand, Marianna was quite opinionated and answered all questions. The entire staff used formal language and did not stray away from the meeting’s subject.

How to write an ethnography

After noting your observations and completing your study, the next step is writing them into an ethnography. The key is to go through the field notes and formulate a convincing account of your observations.

The paper should follow the standard structure of a scientific paper, including an introduction and an exclusion. For instance, start your paper by describing the research’s historical background. The standard structure should feature; an introduction, research methods, results, discussions, and a conclusion.

The content of this paper should be rich and feature an authoritative account of the social setting. The key is convincing the reader that your observations represent reality. However, an ethnography usually takes a less impersonal approach than standard research methods. For instance, the paper will discuss your personal experiences and feelings during the study.

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An ethnography is a common research approach that helps researchers study and understand distant and unfamiliar communities and cultures.

Depending on the topic, ethnography research could last from several months to years. Therefore, it takes no specific amount of time to complete ethnography research and write a report.

Ethnography research is a common approach in anthropology and other social sciences.

A basic study features five essential parts; the thesis statement, literature review, data collection, data analysis, and reflexivity.