E is for Ethnography

An ethnography provides a detailed description of the everyday life, customs, and practices of a culture. They are usually book-sized (if not a whole series of books) but smaller reports have been considered ethnographies in more recent times. They are written using the information gleaned from an anthropologist’s extensive research and (hopefully) direct input and feedback from the people of the culture being described.

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Pictured: A representation of fieldwork notebooks for a chapter of an ethnography

Ethnographies are a fantastic way to learn about another culture. Anthropologists who write ethnographies have lived in their chosen subject culture for an extended period of time–usually years. While they write from the perspective of an outsider, this often allows the writer to bridge the gap between the reader and the foreign culture.

An ethnography is also usually a great introduction to cultural relativism–the concept that a person’s beliefs/behaviors should be understood within the terms of that person’s culture. A good ethnography will frame the entire culture description using cultural relativism.

For school, I’ve read many of the groundbreaking research of foundational anthropologists–Franz Boaz, Maragaret Mead, Clifford Geertz–but I’ve also read ethnographies written by my own professors. I’ve forgotten so much about the Balinese from my sophomore year of college it might just bring a tear to my eye.

If you’re interested in learning about a culture or people you know very little or nothing about, an ethnography may be just your style. Goodreads has an excellent listing and you can usually find anthropologists’ reviews that will help identify work that has treated the culture in question with the dignity and respect it deserves.

Author: JA Goodsell

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is INNATE, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @JAGoodsell or Instagram at books_and_dogs

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