Tips for Mini-Ethnographies

Arnie Schoenberg

Don't confuse:

ethnography = descriptive field work
ethnology = comparative library research

There's not a right or wrong way to do participant-observation, but you definitely have to do both: participate and observe. As a participant you want to do whatever everyone else is doing. As an observer you need to pay attention to patterns of behaviors.

Culture Shock

For this project I want you to do an outsider ethnography. The farther away from your comfort zone, the more culture shock, and the more you have to write about, and so the easier it will be to complete the assignment. Chose a cultural experience that you are NOT familiar with; e.g. if you listen to punk rock, go to an opera, if you are a fundamentalist Christian, observe a Wicca service, etc.

How to generate Hypotheses BEFORE you go

A hypothesis is an educated guess. Use your own prejudices to help formulate what you exepect to see. Make it an educated guess by going through your textbook and finding some idea that supports your expectation.

Many ethnographers advocate a tabula rasa approach to fieldwork where you just show up and keep your eyes wide open. I think it's too risky for you as a student with very limited time to waste, and that it's better to get to a situation with at least something to look for, some hypothesis you can test. The prep work usually pays off. You're not stuck with your hypotheses, you can throw them out or make new ones, but at least you'll have something to write about.

Specific advice depending on the situation


At performance events where there is a separation between stage and audience (play, religious ceremony, concert, lecture, etc.) the ideal position is on the side towards the front, facing the audience if possible. Avoid the temptation to just watch the show on stage, you want to observe culture (patterns of behavior that a bunch of people have in common), you might get your best data from the people milling about before and after the show.


Try to make sure you focus on your own observations of a natural situation, and try not to get roped into a tour. A tour is an intentional presentation of culture, but I want you to do your own observing and come to your own conclusions.

Health and Medicine: 

Anything in the health field will require more sensitivity to ethical concerns and the importance of confidentiality so make sure to address that in the proposal.

Al-Jaber, Hala
2018 "How to Protect Patient Privacy and Information While Conducting Ethnographic Research" Macadamian Blog
May 11, 2018 accessed: September 9, 2018


From the syllabus:

The best way to understand the methods of ethnography is to experience it yourself. Another option for your project is to complete a mini-ethnography project outside of class. The mini-ethnography project has five components, which must be completed in this order: (1) proposal, (2) fieldwork, (3) write-up, (4) peer review, and (5) final version.
The proposal consists of a one-page description of your proposed project. It should focus on who you plan to observe and interview, and what you expect to learn. Ideally, this should be an outsider-ethnography, studying a culture that is not your own. The more cultural shock, the easier you will find the assignment, so chose a cultural experience that you are NOT familiar with; e.g. if you listen to punk rock, go to an opera, if you are a fundamentalist Christian, observe a Wicca service, etc. The proposal must address any ethical issues that might arise during fieldwork, e.g. include a statement that you will protect the confidentiality of your informants so that they won't be hurt by anything that you say about them. The proposal should also state your preconceptions about the culture you will observe, and your theoretical approach to the fieldwork, e.g. do you plan to merely describe the cultural experience in detail, or do you plan to test a hypothesis, such as how your observation will relate to the concepts mentioned in the class and in your textbook. Because your fieldwork in this mini-ethnography is limited to three hours, please limit the scope of your project. Find a situation where you can observe patterns of people interacting. Don't try to be profound, think of it as an exercise, and keep it simple! Before you begin fieldwork you MUST obtain my approval on the proposal. This proposal should be submitted before or as the Week 6 Project Update.
The fieldwork consists of three to five hours of participant observation, and one ten-minute interview with a member of the culture being observed after the observation. Notice the emphasis on observation. This is a not a life history assignment where you would emphasize the interview. It is not self-ethnography where you focus your own culture. Don't hand out surveys. Participant observation is about joining a group of people in their regular activities. For this project, the interview is a just a quick way to get an emic perspective on your observations. The observation must take place in a public area. You must inform the interviewee of your purpose before beginning the interview. During the participant observation and interview you are limited to using only hand-written written notes, and you are prohibited from using cameras or other electronic recording devices. There are several projects where this is not feasible, and you should address this in your proposal. Sketches or diagrams are often useful. Plan time to flesh-out your notes immediately after the observation and interview while it is still fresh in your mind, many enthnographers will type them out at this point and add commentary.