How to Write an Ethnography?

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Originally published Jul 04, 2017, updated Feb 17, 2021
How to Write an Ethnography?

Before we elaborate on how to write an ethnography, we need to understand what it is. The word "ethnography" has a Greek origin. "Ethos" means people, and "graphic" means to write. It is a tool used in social sciences, such as cultural anthropology. It is a detailed description based on different social aspects and patterns within a culture. It focuses on using research methods from social sciences to explain the uniqueness in human behaviors and experiences.

What is Ethnography?

Ethnographic writing is time-consuming. The research and data analysis can take months. An ethnographer lives with a particular community, allowing him to learn about their culture. They observe the behavior and lifestyle of people. Besides observation, they gather data using different methods. The data is the basis of the ethnographic report. Here, we are going to unfold three different styles to approach it:

  1. Interpretive;
  2. Inclusive;
  3. Descriptive.

Steps to Writing an Ethnography

When you begin the research, you should make fieldnotes. The field notes should entail all your experiences, no matter how trivial they seem. They will help in determining what type of style to adopt for your writing. Many students get overwhelmed when writing it due to the heavy volume of observations. They find it challenging to narrow their focus down. With human behavior and social theories, it is easy to go off on a tangent instead of sticking to the topic. You need to break down the paper into different parts. The main steps may include:

Understanding Your Audience and Topic

When writing any document, you need to know your audience. It will help you tailor your tone and style to perfection. To get your point across to the reader, you need to know who they are. If you write it for a student, it will involve a brief explanation of why and how you used those methods. If it is for a journal, you may focus on the writing style of the journal articles.

As social behavior is a broad area, many students find it challenging to keep their focus narrow. If they fail to do so, they are likely to end up creating a vague write-up. It may hardly catch the readers' attention. It will confuse the readers rather than educating them. You must realize what aspect of the culture they want to study. Once you have a clear view of your goal, you can embark on it right away.

Students Away from Their Targeted Community

If you are not fortunate enough to be a part of a community that your ethnography is to be based on, you have a way out. You may ideally glean insights from the works of other ethnographers focusing on your targeted group of people.

The Thesis Statement and Outline

The thesis statement is a key part of an ethnography. It sets the theme of your research. It will help the reader understand the central idea of the paper. When writing your paper, it helps to refer to the thesis statement. It will help you stay focused around the central theme and help integrate your findings logically. It can help organize your creative writing in the paper. The aim of the thesis statement is for the audience to recognize the importance of the social aspect you studied.

After you have determined the theme, central idea, and thesis statement, you move on to the next step. It is a creation of an outline for ethnographic writing. You can use your own work gathered during fieldwork to facilitate you. The outline will help you stay on track with writing and data gathering. You will have an insight into what group of people to engage with more, how to use your daily life experiences, and much more. You will review all the ethnographic data from the field sites to help craft the outline. It will make the writing process easier as well. Your report will be broken down into sections, and you can focus on each section at a time and prevent unnecessary overlapping of information.

Literature Reviews

A literature review is a vital element of an ethnographic report. It is a brief roundup of previous research regarding your current topic. It helps you gather information and adds credibility to your work. Furthermore, it provides a foundation for you to build your argument on. When writing a literature review, you have to focus on the entire study, from the topic to the conclusion. Analyzing the research methodologies and data analysis techniques can help you better understand the methods to use for your ethnographic descriptions. Typically, you should add 3 to 5 literature reviews to your paper.

Data Collection and Analysis

Your ethnographic report should consist of the data collection tools you used. Besides, you have elaborated the reasoning for using those methods. You have to provide the results of the data you have gathered. There are two methods for data collection:

Quantitative Research

As the name suggests, this research method consists of numerical data. You can display it in the form of different graphs and charts as well. They involve gathering data through close-ended questionnaires and surveys, observations, and experiments with results recorded in numerical format.

Qualitative Research

This method involves insight into factors. They include interviewing a group of people and conducting opened ended questionnaires. It also includes your field notes gathered by participant observation.

The next step is the analysis of the data. It is based on how a researcher interprets the ethnographic data from the field site. With data collection, you only gather information. In this step, you use it to get results. You may use various social theories to interpret the data and relate it to their thesis statement. This step also helps remove any unnecessary data.


When writing, reflexivity refers to the details of the research. It explains who the researcher is and why he chooses to study that particular ethnic group or aspect of the culture. The writer also elaborates the reasoning for the research tools used to gather the ethnographic data. It removes any misunderstanding with the data analysis. Furthermore, you may use this part to list any limitations you faced. In reflexivity, you can differentiate your study from previous studies in the field. You also get a chance to elaborate on how your research adds value to the social sciences.

Writing the Introduction and Conclusion

A helpful tip is to write the introduction and conclusion at the end. The introduction is the summarization of the report. It provides the reader with the basics of what to expect from the paper. Writing it at the end can help better articulate your thoughts. It will help you create a platform for the thesis statement.

Every academic report requires a conclusion. The conclusion should be concise and to the point. A lengthy conclusion will lose the interest of the audience. It should highlight the key findings of the research and your interpretation of it.

The Final Draft

The final step in writing an ethnography is proofreading and editing. When you have written the paper, you have proofread it to weed out any errors or mistakes. You can even ask a colleague to read it like a case study and help you make any appropriate changes. At this step, you can determine whether the document is focused on the thesis statement's central theme. Once you have to edit the final draft, it is ready to submit or publish.

Writing an ethnography is a daunting task. It is challenging for students to find a starting point due to the overload of data from the field sites. By following these steps, a writer can articulate their research points and integrate them into a well-written ethnographic paper.

Angelina Grin
Creative Writer and Blog Editor

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