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Characteristics of Ethnographic Research

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Anthropology is a social science with the purpose of investigating humans. Anthropologists use information from social, biological and physical sciences as well as the humanities to study people from both a modern and historical point of view. Ethnographic research is a type of research used primarily by anthropologists to investigate people and cultures. The researcher conducting this type of study is considered a participant-observer, meaning that she lives among the people she is studying and participates in their way of life as much as possible.


There are various levels of participation for a researcher in an ethnographic study; this can span the range from fully becoming part of a specific group and participating in its day-to-day life, to taking a more hands-off role as researcher/observer. Participation is often encouraged in ethnography, since it is considered the best way for the researcher to not only collect data, but also gain an “insider” understanding of the subjects' experiences. For anthropologists, the goal is to gain the point of view of the subject, rather than retain the point of view of an outsider.


Ethnography is considered a qualitative research method. The goal of qualitative research is to gain depth of knowledge of a subject. For instance, an ethnographer will collect information about the daily experiences, including rituals, celebrations and social interactions of a group of people. The researcher focuses on a small group and the collection of data is usually informal. Ethnography research rarely uses statistical data analysis, but more often relies on interpretation of data, and involves reviewing the verbal descriptions and explanations of what was observed.

Ethical Considerations

Ethnographers who receive federal support are bound by the U.S. Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, which protects research subjects from harm that might be inflicted by a study. Before conducting research, ethnographers must get approval from an Internal Review Board of their organization or university, a committee whose purpose is to consider the ethical and moral implications of a research project on it's subjects. Ethnographers must also obtain informed consent from study subjects, with documentation showing that participants understand what their cooperation entails and are voluntarily taking part.


Rebeca Renata has been writing since 2005 and has been published on various websites. She specializes in writing about clinical social work and social services. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Connecticut as well as a Master of Social Work from the Smith College School for Social Work.

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