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.

There are some limitations for this project: 1) anything that is physical dangerous is not permitted for this assignment, 2) you are not allowed to observe illegal situations (although participan observation is one of the best techniques for situations where people are hesitant to fill out forms, you can't do it here). Studying vulnerable groups (children, the homeless, the undocumented, the disabled, etc.) requires a carefully designed Project Proposal to minimize the risk of harm to your informants. You are NOT ALLOWED to perform fieldwork until AFTER I formally approve your Project Proposal.

Studying a culture which speaks a different language will produce culture shock but severely limits the kind of data you can gather, so just make a good plan before you get there.

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 group 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