The qualitative research methodology known as 'Ethnography' is built upon the social science specialism known as 'Anthropology'.

Ethnography is a description and interpretation of a cultural or social group or system, and the ethnographic researcher examines the group's:

The researcher also studies the:


Key Points
  •  To put it briefly, ethnography is the study of cultural groups in a natural setting, over a prolonged period  of time. 
  •  Common data collection methods are observation and interviews.



An ethnographic research study is one that studies people in their natural environment.

It is a descriptive account of social life and culture within a defined social system, and is often thought of as 'a portrait of a people'.

In effect, it is concerned with a holistic view of a culture - including its shared meanings, patterns and experiences.

Aim of ethnographic research

It involves the description and the interpretation of cultural behaviour.

The aim of the ethnographic researcher is to learn from (rather than study) members of a cultural group.

The intention of the ethnographic researcher in relation to the members of a particular cultural group is to understand their world view as they define it.

Key stages

There are several key stages involved in ethnographic research.

Data collection

Data collection always takes place in the field.

Data analysis

Data analysis is ongoing throughout the study


As with all research methodologies, there are inbuilt advantages, and there are inbuilt disadvantages.


In this type of research enquiry, developing a theory is a process, and as new data emerge, existing theories may prove to be inadequate. The researcher’s view of what needs to be looked at and reported on may change and explanations of what is going on may be supplanted by ones seem to fit better. In other words, the emerging design is one of several distinguishing feature of this qualitative methodology.

The object of ethnographic research is to discover the cultural knowledge that people hold in their minds, how it is employed in social interaction and the consequences such employment may hold. No attempt to generalise the findings beyond the case itself should be made, since statistical random sampling is rarely a feature of ethnographic research - rather the intention is to achieve understanding of a specific case. However, Hammersley (1992) suggests that empirical generalisation is possible in some cases if ‘typicality’ of a defined population at a given time can be established.

The outcome of this type of qualitative research is story telling: snapshots of people’s lives and relationships, inner thoughts, feelings and contradictions, and the goal of ethnographic research is to combine the view of the insider with that of an outsider to describe a social setting.

Ethnography lends itself particularly to the study of some sub-cultures and institutions, such as drug users, sex workers and the police, because overall it is a method of deep research, involving spending considerable periods of time with a particular community or group of people. Hence it is a popular approach within social research.

Reference: Hammersley, M. (1992) What’s Wrong With Ethnography? – Methodological Explorations. London, Routledge.

qualitative research design