9 Pros and Cons of Ethnography

Ethnography is the systematic study of people and their cultures. It refers both to the process that is used to study people as well as the outcome of this process. The term “ethnography” comes from the Greek words “ethnos” (which means “people” or “nation) and “grapho” (which means “I write”).

Ethnography has been around for several decades, although it became highly popular in the late 19th century. There have been several approaches to this study; Franz Boas, for example, preferred using documents and informants to learn more about other cultures. However, many ethnographers nowadays follow the approach of Bronislaw Malinowski, who believed that researchers should immerse themselves in the life of the people they were studying. Malinowski embodied this belief by going to Trobriand Island, living there for several years while he did his fieldwork, and even learning the language of the local people.

At first glance, ethnography offers a wide range of benefits. However, it’s important to note that it can also have several drawbacks. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of ethnography.

List of Pros of Ethnography

1. It helps people know more about other cultures.
Through the works of ethnographers, ordinary people can learn more about folks who live in other countries as well as their cultures, traditions, and norms. This, in turn, opens their minds and makes them realize just how diverse the world is. This realization can help people become more accepting of others who are different from them in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and political belief.

For those who are planning to travel overseas, ethnography can help them become familiar with the culture of the countries they’re visiting. As a result, they can avoid committing social faux pas, and they can easily get along with the locals and perhaps even make new friends.

2. It helps businesses learn more about their target market.
Ethnography is highly useful to all businesses (including small startups and large corporations) since it helps them learn more about their target market. Called “consumer ethnography”, this type of study gives entrepreneurs a clear idea of who buys their products or services and why these people make their purchase. They can then use this data to come up with strategies to improve their products or services and attract more customers.

3. It helps increase scientists’ understanding of human behavior.
Many scientists dedicate themselves to behavioral sciences to understand how and why people react to stimuli in a certain way and find out what factors cause them to make the decisions and actions they make. Ethnography greatly helps behavioral scientists because it shows whether certain behaviors are limited to a certain population or if it’s present in all humans, regardless of their location, culture, norms, and religious, political, and educational background.

4. It can easily evolve and discover new things.
Ethnography uses qualitative research instead of quantitative research. This means that, instead of relying on predetermined examinations with limited choices in answers, it relies on the ethnographers’ observations as well as his interviews with subjects using open-ended questions. This process allows ethnographers to make discoveries that otherwise wouldn’t have been obvious if quantitative research was used, and they can come up with more detailed, in-depth results.

List of Cons of Ethnography

1. It can be difficult to choose a representative sample.
Since ethnography relies on qualitative research, it can be hard for the researcher to choose a sample to study. This comes from the fact that people can have different personal experiences even if they belong to the same tribe/community and/or live in the same area. The tribal chief, for example, usually has a significantly better life than his people, so his view is not representative of the life of the entire tribe.

2. It takes a lot of time.
One of the biggest drawbacks of ethnography is that it requires a substantial amount of time. Before he could begin studying a certain group of people, the ethnographer has to build rapport with his subjects and make them comfortable around him. Of course, he has to spend months or even years observing how they live on a daily basis and understanding their culture, norms, and traditions.

3. It depends on the ethnographer’s relationship with his subjects.
Unlike most quantitative studies that can be done even with an impersonal relationship, ethnography requires researchers to be in close contact with his subjects and have a good one-on-one relationship with them. Building this relationship can be easy, but there are cases when the ethnographer would have a difficult time creating rapport with his subjects. This is particularly true for tribes that have not been in frequent contact with outsiders as well as groups of people don’t take kindly to foreigners living in their lands.

4. It depends on people’s openness and honesty.
The success of an ethnographic study greatly depends on the subject’s willingness to open up to the researcher. If they distrust the researcher and/or don’t have a good relationship with him, they won’t take the time to teach him their way of life and help him understand their history and culture. Of course, it’s important to note that not everyone is comfortable with showing their true behavior to outsiders. When they are aware that somebody is observing them, many people put on a show (either unconsciously or not) to make themselves appear “good” or “honorable” or even intentionally mislead the researcher.

5. It can lead to cultural bias.
No matter how objective they try to be, ethnographers can still be influenced by their cultural bias or ignorance. For instance, if they have the inherent belief that their race is “superior” to others, this can affect the way they study and interact with their subjects. This can also happen if their religious, social, political, and economic beliefs clash with those of their subjects’. When this happens, the ethnographer will come up with erroneous conclusions and the outcome of the study will no longer be 100 percent reliable.

Final Note

Ethnography can be greatly beneficial to both scientists and ordinary people. However, it’s important to remember that ethnography can be time- and labor-intensive and that the ethnographic process and its results may not always be accurate.

About the Author
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.