[ eth-nog-ruh-fee ]
/ ɛθˈnɒg rə fi /
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a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures.


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Origin of ethnography

First recorded in 1825–35; ethno- + -graphy

OTHER WORDS FROM ethnography

eth·nog·ra·pher, nouneth·no·graph·ic [eth-nuh-graf-ik], /ˌɛθ nəˈgræf ɪk/, eth·no·graph·i·cal, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that analyzes and describes specific human cultures.

Anthropology is a broad field of science that studies human culture from the macro level. Ethnography, on the other hand, studies one specific culture as thoroughly as possible.

Typically, this is done by what is known as participant observation. That means the ethnographer actually travels to the location of the culture they are studying and immerses themselves in it as much as possible. For example, an ethnographer interested in the people of Barbados would move to the island and live among the people for an extended time.

In ethnography, a researcher builds a detailed, factual profile of a culture because they have lived in it themselves. An ethnographer will eat the cultural food, observe local holidays, participate in local rituals, and try to live their life exactly the same as a local would.

This direct approach separates ethnography from other subfields of anthropology. Usually, anthropologists study a culture by researching such things as the artwork, language, or literature.

The similarly named ethnology is a subfield of anthropology that studies different cultures more broadly and compares them to each other.

Why is ethnography important?

The first records of the word ethnography come from around 1825. It comes from the combining form ethno, which means “people” or “culture,” and the combining form graphy that refers to the process of writing or otherwise recording something. Ethnography is a very specific, detailed observation of one particular culture.

Ethnography is considered to have emerged during the early 1900s when anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Margeret Mead actually traveled to foreign places and thoroughly studied culture by living within it.

In science, the researcher is supposed to stay as isolated from their subject as possible so they don’t influence the results. In ethnography, however, the researcher gets as involved as they can without interfering with the culture they are studying. This means an ethnographer must work hard to avoid corrupting their research. In proper ethnography, the researcher must not alter the society’s culture nor allow a new culture to influence them. Avoiding bias by not viewing a foreign culture as “strange,” “primitive,” or even “superior” is central to ethnographic study.

Did you know … ?

Like all science, ethnography has adapted to changes in technology. In recent times, some ethnographers have become interested in the rise of online cultures and new methods that could be developed to study them.

What are real-life examples of ethnography?

Ethnography is a major branch of anthropology that leads to numerous research papers and published books.



Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Ethnography often involves a researcher living among the people whose society they are observing.

How to use ethnography in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for ethnography

/ (ɛθˈnɒɡrəfɪ) /

the branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of individual human societies

Derived forms of ethnography

ethnographer, nounethnographic (ˌɛθnəʊˈɡræfɪk) or ethnographical, adjectiveethnographically, adverb
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Scientific definitions for ethnography

[ ĕth-nŏgrə-fē ]

The branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of specific human cultures.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.