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The study of people, customs, and culture. Ethnographic inquiry facilitates an in-depth understanding of meanings in the lives of individuals or a community. There are numerous approaches to ethnographic research (i.e., life history, critical ethnography, autoethnography, and feminist ethnography), but its focus on human, society, and culture unites all forms of ethnography. Below you will find definitions and characteristics of ethnographic research that are central to this type of inquiry.


Culture has been variously defined, it essentially refers the beliefs, values and attitudes that structure the behavior patters of a specific group of people.  D’Andrade (1992) outlines the criteria used to determine what is called cultural:

To say something is cultural–is at minimum– to say that it is shared by a significant number of members of a social group; shared in the sense of being behaviorally enacted, physically possessed, or internally thought.  Further, this something must be recognized in some special way and at least some others are expected to know about it; that is, it must be intersubjectively shared.  Finally for something to be cultural it must have the potential of being passed on to new group members, to exist with some permanency through time and across space.


Immersion in the site as a participant observer is the primary method of data collection. Interviews, formal and informal and the analysis of documents, records, and artifacts also constitute the data set along with a fieldworker’s diary of each days happenings, personal feelings, ideas, impressions, or insights with regard to those events.

“Thick Descriptions”

At the heart of of an ethnography is “thick description”– a term popularized by Geertz (1973).  “Culture” Geertz writes, “is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly–that is, thickly–described.”

The write-up of an ethnography is more than description, however.  While ethnographic researchers want to convey the meanings participants make of their lives, they do so with some interpretation on their part.


In all cases ethnographic research should be reflexive, make a substantial contribution toward the understanding of the social life of humans, have an aesthetic impact on the reader, and express a credible reality. An ethnography records all observed behavior and describes all symbol-meaning relations using concepts that avoid casual explanations.

Reflexivity–“the process of reflecting critically on the self as researchers”– requires researchers to explain their biases, dispositions, and  assumptions regarding the research to be undertaken.  Such a clarification provides further understanding as to how the individual researcher might have arrived at the particular interpretation of the data.

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Information for this page has been has been adapted from these  sources:

Merriam, Sharan B.Merriam, Sharan B. (2009) Qualitative research :a guide to design and implementation San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.