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Jessie Ball duPont Library


How to find, read, and write ethnographies

What is an Ethnography?

"Ethnography, in the simplest sense, refers to the writing or making of an abstract picture of a group of people. “Ethno” refers to people, and “graph” to a picture. The  term was traditionally used to denote the composite findings of social science field-based research. That is, an ethnography represented a monograph (i.e., a written account) of fieldwork (i.e., the first-hand exploration of a cultural or social setting). In contemporary research, the term is used to connote the process of conducting fieldwork, as in “doing ethnography.”

Caines, K. E. (2010). Ethnography. In N. J. Salkind (Ed.),Encyclopedia of Research Design (pp. 431-434). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Characteristics of Ethnographies

George Marcus and Dick Cushman’s piece “Ethnographies as Texts” from the 1982 Annual Review of Anthropology identifies nine characteristics of ethnographic writing:

1. a narrative structure organized by topic, chronology, or a problem;

2. the unintrusive presence of the ethnographer in the text;

3. common denominator people, not as characters but just “the people;”

4. based on ethnographic data produced through fieldwork;

5. a focus on everyday life situations, what they see as a case study merger of interpretive and realist goals;

6. an emphasis on the native point of view;

7. establishing specificity and sufficient context for any generalizations made;

8. the use of disciplinary jargon to signal anthropological scholarship; and,

9. contextual exegesis of native concepts and discourses.

Other Helpful Skills

Polish some of the research skills that will be necessary for research, writing, and presentation across multiple academic disciplines. 

For information about taking field notes, see our Note Taking guide.

Tips on Locating Ethnographies (from NYU Libraries)

  • Whenever possible, search directly under the names of individual ethnic groups and peoples as listed in the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). The Library of Congress list of ethnic groups and peoples can be found in the LCSH books under the term ETHNOLOGY. For example, there we find both the terms JAPANESE and also AINU.  LCSH can be searched online (
  • Researchers may use our Library Catalog to locate book-length ethnographies on a particular culture. A beginning list of works can be obtained by looking under the heading ETHNOLOGY which is then subdivided by geographic area, e.g. ETHNOLOGY-JAPAN. Other subject headings to search are ETHNIC GROUPS or ETHNICITY (which are also subdivided geographically).
  • Researchers may also wish to try the subheading SOCIAL LIFE AND CUSTOMS added to the name of a group or a place, (e.g., JAPAN - SOCIAL LIFE AND CUSTOMS) to obtain additional references. Another useful subheading is SOCIAL CONDITIONS (e.g., WOMEN - JAPAN - SOCIAL CONDITIONS). Other headings may be useful depending on the culture to be researched.
  • Another research technique is to begin by looking through a recent bibliography from which you will be able to identify additional sources. The Encyclopedia of World Cultures is generally useful for this purpose.

(This box is sourced from NYU's library guides: