Ethnography is a qualitative research method that aims to holistically understand research subjects in their total socio-cultural context. The practice of ethnography is diverse, but typically involves immersive, long-term field research. Mechanisms for data collection include, but are not limited to: participant observation, interviews, life histories, archival research, and film/video/photography. Ethnographic research focuses on people’s lives and their everyday knowledge; it examines not just what people say, but what they do. It therefore often disrupts taken for granted assumptions and social categories.

Ethnography was originally developed by anthropologists as a method of cross-cultural analysis. Though anthropologists initially conducted ethnographic fieldwork in spatially delimited “small-scale” societies, contemporary ethnographic field sites reflect the fluidity and complexity of the globalized world. Researchers from a variety of disciplines now draw on ethnographic research practices to study the cultural practices of urban communities, institutions, as well as de-territorialized and virtual fields such as social movements, professional associations, and digital networks.

Ethnography is not easily reduced to a method of data collection; it is also a mode of interpretive analysis and a genre of writing committed to excavating and describing an “insider’s perspective” of the ethnographer’s field. Ethnographers’ primary form of data collection is fieldnotes—carefully written, detailed accounts that record their observations, conversations, and experiences. Ethnographers draw on these fieldnotes in constructing interpretive analyses that seek to convey the cultural meanings that their interlocutors give to social phenomena through “thick description.” In doing so, ethnographers must be sensitive to the unequal power relations and conflicts that exist in any given social field. Contemporary understandings of “culture” view it as a fluid, unbounded, and dynamic assemblage of knowledge, practices, and identities that are not necessarily shared by all members of a social group. Ethnographers therefore acknowledge the contingency and partiality of their interpretive accounts.

As with any other aspect of social life, ethnographers examine law holistically in its social context—as a cultural product that is co-constituted with other normative orders. In analyzing the relationship between law and culture, ethnographers examine how law operates as a language, a social and professional practice, a set of institutions, a form of knowledge, and an ideology through which power relations are resisted and reproduced. Ethnographers often focus on disputes, legal forms, and even the material products of law (such as documents) as central objects of ethnographic inquiry.

Given that ethnographers serve as cultural translators often across asymmetrical fields of power, ethnographic analysis necessitates epistemological and ethical reflexivity. First, given that ethnographers are the instruments of their own research, ethnographic interpretation necessitates greater reflexivity than other modes of social analysis. Ethnographers explicitly acknowledge their own positionality and interpretive lens in their accounts. Second, given that ethnography often entails the intimate collection of personal information, ethnographers should have the informed consent of their interlocutors. In most cases, ethnographic data is presented anonymously to protect the identities of its subjects.


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