Posted by: kararc | May 9, 2013

The Heart of Ethnography: People

This week’s readings on ethnography offer fascinating definitions of the concept. In Qualitative Communication Research Methods, Lindlof and Taylor write that ethnographers study the “observable relationships between social practices and systems of meaning, based upon ‘firsthand experience and exploration’ of a particular cultural setting.” This is a mouthful, but the gist is clear. Ethnography is immersing yourself in a cultural group until you understand it.

In Ethnography and Virtual Worlds, Boellstorff et al define ethnography as the study of “everyday life as lived by groups of people” and go on to emphasize that the ordinary, not the extraordinary, is interesting to ethnographers. They also bring into play a very important word that Lindlof and Taylor’s more labored definition surprisingly leaves out: people.

This distinction occurred to me today as I listened to a fascinating speaker at the PRSA/OCIABC Communicator’s Conference. As Chrissy mentioned, several of us had the wonderful opportunity to hear from Brian David Johnson, Intel Futurist. Johnson is, among other things, an ethnographer. Early on, he clarified what he studies as an ethnographer: people. He said he doesn’t study places, cultures, systems or practices; he stays at the heart of the matter and focuses on people.

This is not to say that our academic texts are wrong; that isn’t the case at all. But I do wonder this: in a field where empathy and understanding are critical, to what extent do academic ethnographers sacrifice the heart of the matter in order to achieve specific and concrete results?


  1. Oooooh… I hope we never sacrifice the heart of the matter in order to achieve specific or concrete results! If we go in thinking something specific is supposed to happen, we fail to look objectively at the complexity and the potential. In fact, we miss the point altogether (imho).

  2. […] The Heart of Ethnography: People ( […]

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