Course: Ethnographic Methods

The Fall 2010 course schedule at the University of Alaska Southeast offered Anthropology 493, “Ethnographic Methods” and I was eager to take this course for my own intellectual stimulation and to begin filling a gap in my education.  The first thing Dr. Monteith said was, “Anthropologists shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.”   He also emphasized that a good ethnographer is someone who knows their subject well, and that means putting the time in with the people.  This course really seemed to be about living people as a source of information and the fieldwork techniques appropriate for gathering that information, as opposed to finding information primarily from written sources.   Indeed, when it became clear that we were not going to analyze texts in this class but actually interview live people, I got pretty uncomfortable.  But some of the best learning happens when you stretch outside your comfort zone, so I forged on.  Glad I did…

I didn’t fully understand various angles of anthropology and a little refresher was helpful.  Anthropology falls within the social sciences, which also includes political science, geography, psychology, economics, history, sociology etc. The point of anthropology seems to be “better human understanding.”  The two cornerstones are said to be culture and ethnography.  Culture is defined as “living dynamic embodied in the cultural participant.”  You’ll sometimes hear the “four fields” which are the long standing sub-disciplines

1. Archaeology

2. Biological/ Physical Anthropology

3. Linguistic Anthropology

4. Cultural Anthropology (called social anthropology in the UK)

This last one, Cultural Anthropology, encompasses many disciplines, including medical, nutritional, ecological, ethnohistorical, kinship, religion etc.   I’m kind of perplexed about how other disciplines have developed parallel to this, such as art history and folklore. In asking Dr. Monteith about this, it seems that a lot of these fields are experiencing some blending now, but they come from different origins and traditions and are thus still considered different disciplines.  Part of this blending is because the use of ethnographic methods has become quite widespread.  I also asked him the difference between ethnology and ethnography.  Off the cuff, he seemed to think “ethnology” was an older term, Victorian even, and perhaps implied the study of cultures as a comparative endeavor.  More of a British term.  I came to realize, actually, that in  layman’s understanding of the field, the distinction between American and British anthropology is not well delineated, but it seems like inside the field it is quite a big deal.  Ethnography, however, is a word that implies more than writing about cultures, but especially the interactive going out and doing it.  Doing the fieldwork, and the observing and participating and interviewing and so on.  Ethnography is perhaps a more contemporary term?

What does that mean for me as an “ethnographic conservator”??  I’m not doing fieldwork.  I’m working with the artifacts.  We say “I’m a conservator specializing in archaeological and ethnographic objects.”  Well, within the field of anthropology, artifacts seem to come through two avenues:  digging them up out of the ground to deal with time periods where there is no longer anyone alive we can talk to, and as part of the “ethnographic record” of time periods when there was someone alive to talk to.  There is a growing trend in conservation of consultation with the culture who made the artifact.  But the vast majority of the time that does not occur, and the reason is usually quite pragmatic.  Not long ago, there was considerable discussion about the name of the ICOM-CC Ethnographic Working Group.  Should it be changed?  I need to go back and re-read those discussions on the listserve archives, as it would make more sense to me now.  The thrust of the discussion was that the term “ethnographic” was hopelessly mired in the “us/ them” problem and was a term that was applied to non-European cultures and Euro-centric ones unequally, as well as reeking of colonialist roots.  Actually, I think that very debate was in the back of my mind when I signed up for this class.

We had various readings assigned, but in general Dr. Monteith doesn’t like textbooks, describing it as “Mother bird regurgitates.”   Indeed, by definition ethnographic methods seem to be all about getting away from your desk and talking to live people.  DR. Monteith gave us a great crash-course lecture on the history of ethnography, but each time I’ve tried to jot that down for the blog, I’ve realized it has to be its own posting and I’d be WAAAAY over my head to attempt it at this point.  So here is the meat and potatoes of what we covered in the class:


Ethics infrastructure protects both the ethnographer and the participant.  Some absolutely awful things have taken place in the past that led to more formalized procedures that  guide appropriate gathering of information from living people.  Some of those included the infamous Tuskegee study or the WWII research done by the Nazi regime.  The Belmont Report gives an overview of this history.

Any institution that receives federal funding or grants for research is supposed to have an Institutional Review Board.  The document is also called an IRB, or human subjects approval form.  If I ruled the world (or at least taught this class) I would have jumped into that even earlier in the course.  It seems so crucial.  The forms refer to “human subjects”.  People you studied or interviewed used to be called “informants.”  Now the term “consultants” or “participants” is considered more appropriate. The IRB form is very involved and specific, and often takes a long time to be cleared by the board itself.  Changes are supposed to be brought back to the board, which I would imagine might happen pretty often as fieldwork can be unpredictable, but they might then take some turnaround time.  Getting the IRB right  seems like a pretty key piece of doing fieldwork.  The IRB form is long and involved and explicitly includes certain protected categories of people.    You are expected to take into consideration the inconveniences and discomforts you might cause to a participant, and how you plan to mitigate those.  In addition to this rather intimidating IRB form, there is a shorter version given to the participant for signature.  It is often part of a packet of paperwork given to the participant during formal interviews, and usually includes the following:

1. An introduction to the researcher and how to contact them

2. A description of the project and its purpose

3. An explicit promise that participation is totally voluntary and one can back out at any time AND/OR take back what they said later without penalty.

4. A description of what will happen to the information they are giving, including what will happen to the physical items like videotape and photos.

5. An informed consent waiver to sign

With our class projects, some participants were put off by the formality and strangeness of all the paperwork.  In other cases, fieldwork was more informal and fluid, like chatting on the phone or casual discussions in social situations, and I struggled a little to try to maintain the ethical standards.  I had no trouble introducing my topic and what I was planning to do with the info, and then at the end of a casual chat I would say “Hey, can I use this info in class?  Would you rather I didn’t, that’s OK! ”  I’m not sure that’s rigorous enough.  I need to work out the kinks on that.  Informed consent is still necessary if you observe something in a public place if it is intended to be used beyond private use.


The basic Anthropological Research Methods include:

  • Researchable problem
  • Literature review
  • Hypothesis
  • Operational definitions/ operational hypothesis
  • Determine research design
  • Collect the data
  • “In the Field”
  • Analyze the data
  • Stating the conclusions
  • Research ethics

Our first assignment was to do a participant observation exercise in a real-life setting.   We were given the reading “Step Three: Making an Ethnographic Record” from the book The Ethnographic Interview by James P. Spradley.  An “ethnographic record” is your fieldnotes, photos, video, audiotapes, etc.  (Incidentally, many of the objects in our museum collections are also part of the ethnographic record, and that is why they are called ethnographic collections!)  Before it begins, we ought to record assumptions and the plan of how we’ll do it.   The article describes different versions of the English language that people use, and how we should try not to paraphrase but capture the real language used since word choice contains important info.  This often means trying to capture something verbatim.  It means writing in concrete language and in detail without adding in our own interpretation, going back to the five senses and trying hard not to make generalizations.  The person we are talking to is already making an interpretation of reality for us, and later on our analysis will be another  generalization, so in the ethnographic record it is important not to generalize. Seems rather like a game of telephone, getting ever-more distant from the original message.   It is a good idea to keep fieldnotes as either condensed accounts or expanded accounts, and also to keep a separate fieldwork journal which is rather like a personal diary and is the appropriate place for personal interpretation, feelings, fears, breakthroughs etc.  This gives a formal place for that kind of thing and helps take into account the influence of personal biases and feelings.

“Step Four: Making Descriptive Observations” from Spradley’s book was also assigned.  There are grand tour observations, which kind of identifies features of a situation.  The three major ones in any social situation are place, actor and activities.  The six minor ones are: objects, acts, events, time, goal, and feeling.  In practice, it was really difficult to divide up acts/events/activities from each other.  A mini-tour takes one of these aspects and goes in depth.  These are the basis of good descriptive questions in an interview situation, and reveal a lot of detail.  The nine dimensions of social situations he describes can be set up as an interactive matrix, which is a worthwhile reason to check out this article.  However, in practice I tried to draw one up and fill out all of the blanks and it was utterly impossible.  One can be a participant/observer, or one can be squirreled away in a corner, scribbling madly and missing 80% of the action.  You’d have to use it as a framework for thought, and be really familiar with it and then just use it to guide one’s instincts.


This was a major focus of the course, and the approximately half the class meetings explored different aspects.  The main techniques include:

  • participant observation
  • interviews
  • geneological method
  • key consultants
  • life histories
  • local beliefs and perceptions (signs, symbols, actions) compared with observers
  • problem-oriented research
  • longitudinal research
  • team research

There were many exercises, assignments and lessons to flesh this out.

First, a brief in-class participant-observation exercise on campus, followed by group  discussion.  We were given the following template:

1. Hypothesis: what did you expect to see?

2. So what?  Why does it matter?

3. Design/ methods

4. What did you observe?

5. Methods, were they good? what could improve?

6. What did you learn?

Two different days, Dan Monteith brought in video cameras and had us try our hand at interviewing and recording.  We were split into groups of three, and took turns being the interviewer, interviewee and cameraman.  One day was simply a “get to know you” sort of 10 minute interview, and the other involved a prop we were supposed to bring in from our daily lives.  There are apparently two main kinds of interviewees: the pragmatic informant, and the philosophical (abstract) informant.  Let me tell you, if you are a pragmatic informant by nature, and then you switch places and interview a storyteller, you feel kind of like a stingy jerk.  Seemed that perhaps shy people made better interviewers.  Is this because they are more comfortable encouraging others to speak?  I found it profoundly awkward to be interviewed, and it is hard for me not to assume everyone has the same feeling about it.  Not long ago I read an article which casually suggested that being shy is actually a manifestation of being overly self-conscious and even too self-centered.  Ouch!  Here are a few of the videography tips, although we were encouraged to take next semester’s course on videography for more development in this area:

  • Beware background noise, other people talking.
  • Is the camera just on your subject?  On interviewer?  Both? Both might be best.
  • Lapel microphones are cheap and make a big difference.
  • Avoid centering the head right in the middle
  • Blocking?  Make it like a talk-show host with both angled a bit?
  • Nice to get the hands in the image, since there is info in gestures.
  • Atmospheric background, lighting etc
  • Above all, let the interviewee do what feels comfortable (ie. leave their hat on, be interviewed in the kitchen etc)
  • Aim to have a few questions to get things rolling, then hope it gets conversational
  • Be aware of circular speech patterns, making concentric circles around the point.
  • As an interviewee, how long to talk?  How much of an answer? Can you hint to them that its OK to be expansive?
  • The question and answer are really both in the interviewee.

This makes me think about the politician, who is often asked devastating questions for which either telling the truth or lying both reflect poorly upon him.  The clever politician instead answers the question that he would have liked to have been asked, and doesn’t answer the question at all.


Another class had a guest speaker who was doing ethnographic methods in her anthropology PhD.  She was in Juneau for an oral history component.  She encouraged us to  strive to be good listeners, and learn to be comfortable in just letting silences be.  Sometimes, she said, our questions are not the right ones, and we need to listen to how others are asking questions.  She gives her participants a list of questions right away, along with a packet of info and permission forms.  I was interested in how she gets entre to her participants.  One is to be affiliated with an institution well known to them.  Another is a personal reference “So-and-so said I should call you.”  It is also appreciated to explain briefly what you know about someone.  Interesting statistics: a one hour interview might mean 10 hours of work.  Perhaps 60% of interesting stuff gets said after the camera is turned off.   She spends at least an hour and a half each day reading articles and books, and recommended several references for us, including Del Hymes’  S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G Model, “The Social Life of Things” by Arjun Appadurai, and  “Visibly Muslim” by Emma Tarlo.  She also encouraged us to learn through making the objects we might be studying.

One class was all about cyber-ethnology, or what we could determine from the internet.  Interesting that people of the diaspora (people living away from their traditional cultural homeland) tend to identify especially strongly with their identity, at least in public forums like the internet.  We were looking at group vs individual, insiders vs outsiders, stereotypes, inconsistencies, empowerment, social media and what influence the internet might have in creating or re-creating culture.

Another class looked into linguistics and ethnographic methods for that subfield of anthropology.  Dr. Alice Taff, research professor at UAF, gave her thoughts about what works for her.   She thinks the best situation for capturing language is to be doing something quiet, something with the hands, where natural conversation will flow.  The best possible audio and video signal are helpful, and being careful with your setup shows that you value and respect the information your subject is giving you.  She uses iMovie and a software called Elan 3.9.0 originally developed for sign language.   There is a text file, a video file, and an audio file.  The conversations are transcribed, time aligned, and proofed by several people.  The work is archives in several forms, mini DV’s, iMovie, Elan, paper printout, optical disc CD or DVD, sometimes another hard drive.  Metadata kept in a relational database like Excel.  Linguisitic fieldwork is incredibly time consuming.  Dr. Taff said it takes an hour to transcribe a minute of conversation, and an hour to translate five minutes.

Another class was all about GIS options for antrhopology.  Sanjay Pyare  teaches the GIS courses at UAS.  GIS means Global Information Systems, and is useful because so many things are tied to a specific place.   ArcGIS is the name of a software that has become the standard for GIS, kind of like Photoshop has set the standard for dealing with images.  ESRI is the company that makes ArcGIS.  Q-GIS is software similar to ArcGIS that is perhaps cheaper for students?

For social sciences, GIS is used in four main ways:

1. Presentation of info (cartography)

2. Storing info

3. Extracting info (analysis)

4. Making predictions

Among the interesting applications: “friction maps” showing where it was costly for ancient people to move.  Land bridges and changing coastal areas.  Overlays of different kinds of data to reveal previously unknown correlations.  Can help give areas of high and low probability for archaeological interest.

Another class discussed some of the aspects that might cause flaws or weaknesses in ethnographic fieldwork.  For example:

  • What if the people you need to talk to are not available?
  • What if you are going at the wrong time of year or wrong season?  That might also make people not available, for example.
  • “Pellet surveys are just what they are” refers to the inaccuracy of recording where animal populations are by their droppings alone.
  • Taking a statistics class very helpful. You become much more insightful about other people’s data and methodology.  If Dan Monteith were writing a grant, for example, he would still recruit someone to help him with the statistical analysis part.
  • Revitalization movements and reemergence as two ways old practices show up again and can be confusing.  Revitalization examples might be the ghost dance among Plains tribes or the ANB/ANS in southeast Alaska.  Ways to deal with the pressures of colonialization.  Re-emergence is a little different.  Pow-wows are an example.
  • Remembering without notes is hard for Euro-Americans, harder than it is for people who come form cultures with strong oral traditions.


Rapid Assessment Processing is something we might hear about.  Apparently, it is rather like an ethnographic SWAT team.  It is efficient.  Corporations, for example, use it a lot.  However, Dr. Monteith feels you can’t get good results with it.

Research ethics now demands a feedback loop.  You need to share what you are finding with the people you are studying.

Ethnographic terminalia: the term for anthropologists showing research in a gallery space, film  etc

Two cornerstones of cultural anthropology: 1. Ethnography field methods 2. Culture as the unit of study.

“Identity” is often the word used instead of “culture.”

People talking about “ethnoscapes” instead of landscapes.

An ethnography is a text or representation of that culture or identity.

World is so complex that you have to make an artificial construction in order to make sense of it.  But be honest about that construction.


Borofsky, Robert. (1986)  Making History: Pukapukan and Anthropological Constructions of Knowledge.  From Chapter One: Differing Accounts of the Past.

Clifford, James.  (1997)  “Museums as Contact Zones.”  In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century.  Harvard University Press.

Fox, Richard G.  (1991) “Introduction: Working in the Present.”  In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present.  Edited by Richard G. Fox.  School of American Research Press.  Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Geertz, Clifford.  (1973)  The Interpretation of Cultures.  Basic Books Inc. New York.   Chapter One: “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.”

Hays, Terence E.  (2003) “From Ethnographer to Comparativist and Back Again.”  In New Directions in Anthropology.  Editors Carol R. Ember, Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine.  Pearson.  Available on CD ROM only?

Spradley, James P.  (1979) The Ethnographic Interview.  Harcourt Brace Janovich.  From Part One, Ethnographic Research “Ethnography and Culture”.  From Part Two, The Developmental Research Structure, “Step Three: Making and Ethnographic Record” and “Step Four: Asking Descriptive Questions.”


One Response to Course: Ethnographic Methods

  1. Perfect GPA says:

    Study Smart…

    Course: Ethnographic Methods « Ellen Carrlee Conservation…

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