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SAGE Publications Ltd
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Giampietro Gobo and Andrea Molle 2017
First edition published 2008
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What Is Ethnography?
When Hermes took the post of messenger of the gods, he promised Zeus not to
lie. He did not promise to tell the whole truth. Zeus understood. The ethnographer
Vincent Crapanzano, 1986: 53
• To gain an understanding of ethnographic methodology.
• To grasp the differences between attitude, belief and behavior.
• To gain familiarity with the main elements of ethnographic methodology.
• To understand the advantages and drawbacks of ethnographic methodology.
• To appreciate the historical roots of its development.
• To identify the most important methodological differences between doing ethno
graphy in sociology and anthropology.
Most forms of knowledge are situated and socially constructed. In other words, they
arise from people, following specific purposes, in a given historical context whose
features they inevitably reflect, including the tendency to perpetuate stereotypes
and prejudices. Ethnography is not immune to this tendency.
As a methodology with more than 100 years of history, ethnography began to
develop in the context of the Western world as a form of knowledge investigating
distant non-Western cultures, impenetrable to any form of analysis consisting of
fleeting contact or brief conversations. Despite good intentions of gaining a deeper
understanding, ethnography is still a colonial method that must be, in a sense,
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4 Doing Ethnography
de-colonialized. And you, students in every part of the world, can make a crucial
contribution to that end. But first you need to understand what ethnography is,
can be, and most importantly is not.
In recent years, ethnography is gaining increasing currency in social and applied
research, and it may become a mass phenomenon in years to come. Why? Because
we now live in what one might call the ‘observation society’ (see Chapter 17).
The goal of this first introductory chapter is to help to understand the concept
of ethnography, to clarify its main advantages and drawbacks, and to identify and
outline the more urgent tasks of ethnography in contemporary societies.
1.2 An overview of ethnography
Read the following passages from two classical ethnographic works carefully.
The first thing to note is the prevalence of make-do’s. In every social establish-
ment participants use available artefacts in a manner and for an end not officially
intended thereby modifying the conditions of life programmed for these individu-
als. A physical reworking of the artefact may be involved, or merely an illegitimate
context of use [...] In Central Hospital many simple make-do’s were tacitly tolerated.
For example, inmates widely used freestanding radiators to dry personal clothing
that they had washed, on their own, in the bathroom sink, thus performing a pri-
vate laundry cycle that was officially only the institution’s concern. On hard-bench
wards, patients sometimes carried around rolled up newspapers to place between
their necks and the wooden benches when lying down. Rolled-up coats and towels
were used in the same way ... Older patients who were disinclined or unable to move
around sometimes employed strategies to avoid the task of going to the toilet: on
the ward, the hot steam radiator could be urinated on without leaving too many
long-lasting signs; during twice-weekly shaving visits to the basement barber shop,
the bin reserved for used towels was used as a urinal when the attendants were not
looking ... In Central Hospital, toilet paper was sometimes ‘organized’; neatly torn,
folded, and carried on one’s person, it was apologetically used as Kleenex by some
fastidious patients. (Goffman, 1961: 207–9)
When, in the course of a patient’s illness his condition is considered such that he is
dying or terminally ill, his name is posted on the critical patients list ... Posting also
serves as an internally relevant message, notifying certain key hospital personnel
that a death may be forthcoming and that appropriate preparations for that possi-
bility are tentatively warranted. In the hospital morgue, scheduling is an important
requirement. Rough first drafts of the week’s expected work load are made, with
the number of possible autopsies being a matter which, if possible, is to be antici-
pated and planned for. In making such estimates the morgue attendant consults
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What Is Ethnography? 5
posted lists from which he makes a guess as to the work load of the coming week.
The posted list is also consulted by various medical personnel who have some spe-
cial interest in various anatomical regions. County’s morgue attendant made it a
practice to alert the ward physician that Doctor S. wanted to get all the eyes he
could (Doctor S. was a research ophthalmologist). To provide Doctor S. with the
needed eyes, the morgue attendant habitually checked the posted list and tried,
in informal talk with the nurses about the patient’s family, to assess his chances of
getting the family’s permission to relinquish the eyes of the patient for research.
Apparently, when he felt he had located a likely candidate, a patient whose family
could be expected to give permission at the time of death, he thus informed the
pathologist, who made an effort, via the resident physician, to have special atten-
tion given to the request for an eye donation. (At several places in the hospital:
on the admission nurse’s desk, in the morgue, in doctors’ lounges, and elsewhere,
there were periodically placed signs that read ‘Doctor S. needs eyes’, ‘Doctor Y.
needs kidneys’, etc.). (Sudnow, 1967: 72–3)
For some of you this may have been your first encounter with an ‘ethnographic
account’, a distinctive literary genre which in certain respects resembles a novel.
Before moving forward, please discuss with your instructor or classmates:
• Your reactions to the two passages.
• Your emotional reactions to them.
• Have you ever thought such things could be happening in a hospital?
1.3 Defining ethnography
The two above passages were written on the basis of what social scientists call
systematic observations. The authors, Erving Goffman and David Sudnow, were
physically present at the time that this happened and saw it with their own eyes.
The most striking features of these accounts are the precision of the observations,
the number of details presented and the vividness of the text. The two authors
documented the daily routines of an organization with great acumen and insight,
discovering emerging social routines and rituals.
But, one might ask, couldn’t the same information have been collected in a differ-
ent way, for instance by interviewing some of the patients? Perhaps, but this would
have required the interviewees to be extremely aware of their actions and possess
a great capacity to call to mind every single detail of their lives. Neuroscientists
and social researchers would agree that very few people, if any, have these abilities.
Couldn’t the details have been gathered by administering a questionnaire to the