What is Ethnography?

Cultural anthropologists are interested in describing and understanding human nature. As researchers, our questions tend to focus on how humans behave a certain way and why. For example, how are gender norms passed and why does gender-based discrimination persist in our democratic society? Or why do some households recycle and others don’t?

The primary way that cultural anthropologists collect data to answer their questions is through fieldwork. This is a method that typically involves living with a group of people for a long-period of time as an accepted member of their society. Anthropologists often gain the trust of the people they seek to learn from, and this can give select researchers access to knowledge, rituals and other aspects of community life that would be otherwise restricted to an outsider.

Ethnography is the use of fieldwork on a project focused on inductively describing a particular group’s cultural context using principally words (rather than numbers). Ethnographers have a deep tool-kit of research techniques they can draw upon from participant observations, interviews, surveys and focus groups. Ethnography is also the term used to refer to the descriptive studies that cultural anthropologists publish. In ethnography, importance is placed upon the perspectives, values and interests of the informants involved, rather than being researcher-led.

Recent Ethnographic Research at Brockport

When you tell someone you’re an Anthropology major – do they know what you are talking about? What are public perceptions of the discipline? In 2014, students enrolled in the Cultural Anthropology Research Methods course (ANT 383, formerly 394) set out to explore this question. The Brockport community (e.g. adults either employed or enrolled at the University) was selected as the population under study. With IRB approval in hand, the students documented how the local college community perceives anthropology, as a department and field, if at all. General demographic data, information about people’s perceptions and academic experiences, and documentation of institutional discourse were collected using four methods – review of the literature; a survey administered to students in a range of academic courses; semi-structured interviews with select community members; and participant-observations at institutional recruiting events. This information will prove useful to students, local social science departments and college-administrators interested in students’ decision-making and perceptions of various majors.

Preliminary Findings sparked fascinating questions for future research. For instance, to what degree does academic environment versus social relationships affect one’s choice of major? How does institutional discourse (i.e. What the University says in its advertisements and at events) influence perceptions of the social sciences including anthropology? To what degree, are perceptions of academic majors (and their associated careers) influenced by cultural values of capitalism and norms of upward mobility?

In total, over 339 students were surveyed reflecting a range of class-statuses, age-groups and majors from a student in the 18 – 25 years age-group to a student in the 50 years-plus age-group as well as faculty and staff-members. This was a convenience sample and is not considered representative of the population. However, for the exploratory purposes of this study, this mixed-method approach proves effective at revealing the complex factors at play in shaping individual and public perceptions. Additionally, 14 individuals, who were perceived as community “gate-keepers” or who had taken the survey, were also interviewed for more information regarding personal context and experiences.

Most of the respondents had heard of anthropology, primarily from media outlets and from having taken anthropology courses either at Brockport or a prior educational institution. Among the respondents, almost equal numbers self-reported as having taken an anthropology course or a course in another social science (be in Sociology, Psychology or Political Science). Respondents who could identify an anthropologist sometimes noted a member of the Brockport anthropology department, but more often referred to Dr. Margaret Mead, and the fictional characters, Dr. Indiana Jones from the Spielberg movies, and Dr. Temperance Brennan from the t.v. show, “Bones.” Overall, respondents tended to hold a neutral impression of anthropology. Preliminary findings indicate that people’s awareness of anthropology was shaped by their current and past social and academic contexts. A cultural expectation and value placed upon making money influenced some respondents’ choice of major, and their perception of anthropology as non-lucrative led to choosing other majors.

Dr. Esara and the students in the class appreciate everyone who participated in this project. Special acknowledgment goes to the Anthropology work-study students who assisted with some of the data-entry.

Other Past Projects

Can learning be fun and beneficial to others? In 2011, students enrolled in Research Methods in Cultural Anthropology, engaged in service-learning activities. They practiced their interpersonal and observational skills in an unfamiliar but friendly setting — Lakeside’s Beikirch Care Center. This occurred as part of a “Coffee and Conversation” program with a group of lively residents, who appreciated the students’ company.

Will we ever have an African-American in the White House? Some people never thought it possible!

The Election 2008 Oral History Project took place in the spring of 2009. Students enrolled in Cultural Research Methods interviewed participants about their memories and stories leading up to this historical event. Stories were collected at area libraries including the Brockport-Seymour Library. This project was sponsored by the Rochester City Historian’s Office, the Monroe County Historian’s Office, Monroe County Library System and the Rochester Regional Library Council.