Why Ethnography Is Important

Updated on July 23, 2020
melbel profile image

Melanie has been interested in cultures, languages, and travel since her youth.

Zande warriors
Zande warriors

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography is the description of cultures and the groups of people who live within them. It can be useful in personal adaptation, personal success, and to better understand other cultures.

A prime example of using ethnography for success is in US foreign relations, particularly where the work of anthropologist Ruth Benedict was used in deciding how to handle the rebuilding of Japan after the end of WWII.

General MacArthur, after listening to Benedict, chose to keep the emperor of Japan on his throne. This was particularly useful in initializing a working peace in Japan during the post-war period and is a source of the positive relationship the United States has with Japan today.

Understanding Cultural Differences

Understanding other cultures is of major importance in ethnography. People from a different culture may do something that is not only different from what we do but is something we might instantly consider to be “weird” and “messed up” without considering the source of the difference.

For example, the Azande people who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the South Sudan, have beliefs in witchcraft. The Azande believe that disease and (other human misfortune) is caused by the ill will of others. How absurd is this? We know that germs and viruses are the cause of disease.

To the Azande, who, at the time of the study, had little to no exposure to scientific methods, witchcraft is a perfectly legitimate reason that a person becomes ill. In fact, an Azande person, upon hearing about bacteria and viruses, might scoff and think it's ridiculous. Think about it. We actually believe that tiny beings attack our bodies. Though modern medicine allows us to show that viruses do exist, it does nothing in the way of proving that the Azande are, in fact, completely wrong about witchcraft.

Missionary in a Tapuyos village, Brazil
Missionary in a Tapuyos village, Brazil

Missionary Work & The Development of Ethnography

Missionaries found that understanding another culture was important in achieving their goals of conversion. By immersing themselves in a culture, missionaries found that not only were they able to weave Christianity into the target culture, but groups were more receptive to the missionaries' messages than in cases where missionaries refused or were unable to engage with a group.

When working with various cultures, missionaries often took copious notes describing various mechanisms of society within various ethnic groups. This documentation was one of the earliest forms of ethnography. Because of the work they put forth in getting to know other cultures, missionaries can be considered as ethnographers themselves.

Missionaries created an early framework for ethnography, but it wasn't until anthropologists such as Boas, Malinowski, Mead, Benedict, and Evans-Pritchard hit the scene that ethnography started to grow into what it is today.

Ethnography & Changing Perspectives

In a twist of irony, some missionaries (and early ethnographers) sent in by colonial powers to help fight against “savage customs” often fought for the very groups they were supposed to aid in converting or breaking apart.

Kwakiutl mask drawing from "The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians", Boas (1897)
Kwakiutl mask drawing from "The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians", Boas (1897)

Franz Boas: Cultural Relativism

Franz Boas, who is widely considered to be the father of cultural anthropology, really got the ball rolling for ethnography (and cultural anthropology as a whole.)

Boas stressed that cultural differences were the cause of the unique development of various societies and that these developments weren't due to what uni-linear evolutionists believed: that Western society was the pinnacle of society on the basis that cultures evolve and that “The Others” were a part of somehow less evolved societies.

Boas' idea of cultural relativism, that every culture should be judged by its own premises, was used by anthropologists after him and is a belief many anthropologists hold today.

Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on Trobriand Islands (1918)
Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on Trobriand Islands (1918)

Bronisław Malinowski: Participant Observation

Bronisław Malinowski, who was essentially marooned on the Trobriand Islands during the extent of WWI, formed what we know as participant observation.

Malinowski became immersed in the culture of the Trobriand people. He learned their language and worked directly with the people he studied with a focus on understanding cultural customs in their own context.

Many ethnographies written today are drawn from participant observation, where anthropologists live within a group while performing interviews and creating detailed accounts of the lives of members of the group and their society as a whole.

Samoan girl (1896)
Samoan girl (1896)

Margaret Mead: Reflexivity

Margaret Mead, who did her fieldwork in Samoa and Bali, described cultural differences between adolescents in Western culture and the other cultures. Mead hypothesized that problems in adolescents were a result of culture and not the widely help western idea that they were a result of changes in hormones.

Unfortunately, Mead's beliefs in this (as well as her belief that sexual division of labor was also a product of culture) led to others in her field to accuse her of sloppy fieldwork, skewing the facts, and completely fabricating her facts.

These accusations opened up the idea of reflexivity in anthropology, rather, what effect a researcher has on their own research and that a researcher should be aware of their own subjectivity in research.

Margaret Mead at the New York Academy of Sciences in June 1968
Margaret Mead at the New York Academy of Sciences in June 1968

Ruth Benedict: The Essence of Culture

Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist from Columbia University, felt that her own culture made for an inadequate “yardstick” with which to compare other cultures, so she went on to study the “essence” of other cultures.

Benedict drew heavily from Nietzsche and described cultures as being Dionysian (emotional) or Apollonian (intellectual.) While her work is widely considered inadequate in terms of describing a culture, she did bring forth the idea that if a person had been raised a Zuni, they would grow up to be a different person than he would have been had he grown up in Dobuan or Kwakiutl culture.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard: Judging Premises, Not Beliefs

E.E. Evans-Pritchard, a student of Malinowski, studied the Azande people. From his fieldwork, he published Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. With this book, he illustrated the very idea that Boas had stressed: cultural relativism.

With Evans-Pritchard's description of the Azande people, he was able to show that the people's strongly held belief in witchcraft made total sense... within their premises. Evans-Pritchard showed that “if you are going to attack Azande beliefs, you will have to attack their premises, not their logic or rationality.”

There are various ways in which ethnography can be used in personal success (or in the success of foreign relations) and in understanding other cultures.

Anthropologists like Franz Boas, who gave us the idea of cultural relativism; Bronisław Malinowski, who formalized participant observation; Margaret Mead, whose angered colleagues brought us the idea of reflexivity in the study of anthropology; Ruth Benedict, who brought forth the idea that culture, over biology, has an incredible impact on how a person “turns out”; and E.E. Evans-Pritchard, whose study of the Azande illustrated Boas' idea of cultural relativism, serve the illustrate how we are able to use ethnography within our own culture and in understanding others.

© 2013 Melanie


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    • profile image

      Paul Lar 

      3 years ago

      Great write up thanks

    • melbel profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      Thank you so much! I'm glad you found it an interesting read! :)

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      5 years ago

      If ever there was a hub worth reading it is this one, fascinating stuff, really well put together, very interesting, thanks for sharing your knowledge, voted up, Lee

    • Thief12 profile image

      Carlo Giovannetti 

      6 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Wow, another interesting hub, and was also HOTD. You're on a roll! ;-)

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 years ago from Queensland Australia

      I saw this article won HOTD and it sounded interesting so had to check it out. Very well written and informative Melbel. Thanks for enlightening the uninformed amongst us on ethnography.

    • Hui (蕙) profile image

      Hui (蕙) 

      6 years ago

      Ethnography, Azande people..., great and rare knowledge! Never known these before.

    • mintinfo profile image


      6 years ago

      Observation. Ruth Benedict as well as all these other Ethnographists realized the same thing. It was easier to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a primitive culture than to study the faults in their own cultures. They should rename Ethnography (the study of what we consider primitive culture).

      Sorry, but I don't like it when the history of the exploitation of native culture is glossed over by academics. It makes it look like they had a choice before the forced assimilation of religion and culture.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      6 years ago from Planet Earth

      Congratulations on the HOTD, MelBel! This is excellently done, and is a great learning tool. I loved my Cultural Anthropology course, and your hub reminded me of why I still remember it, years later.

    • ocfireflies profile image


      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Greetings! Congratulations! I learned a great deal of interesting information. Thank You.

      ocfireflies aka Kim

    • profile image

      Joy I-Shine Grey 

      6 years ago

      Very interesting hub Melbel. Has some very goods points, and is well written.

    • DreamerMeg profile image


      6 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Interesting hub. I have always loved reading reports on living in other countries, as a member of the local culture. Makes you realise that what we think is "true" is not necessarily so.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Melbel, congratulations on the well deserved HOTD award for this hub. Your hub is very interesting and well-written with good photos. I truly appreciate the work ethnographers have done in the past and present. "Boas' idea of cultural relativism" is a valuable theory and very helpful in understanding other cultures. When I began writing over seven years ago on Native American history, culture, traditions, etc., I relied heavily on the work of ethnographers, such as Edward S. Curtis -- it greatly helped me to understand a lot more. Thanks for writing this hub.

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 

      6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Great work! Interestingly, both the Azande and modern Western science may be correct regarding illness and disease. Bacteria, viruses and stress (caused by "witchcraft" or psycological/social manipulation) play a role in illness. There is so much that Western science does not know about the intercation of bacteria with the human body that it is presumptuous to pretend they do. There is a broader dynamic at work beyond a bacterial and viral framework, the human immune system, vulnerale to emotional stress, plays a vital role on our overall health as well. Thanks for the education on Ethnography.


    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      First, congratulations on HOTD! I can see why it win the award; the topic is one that requires creative writing and you have accomplished it. I learned much from reading your post. It could be a documentary film. Excellent!

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 

      6 years ago from Washington, DC

      This is such an interesting hub, melbel. The names brought back my days in undergrad when I took an anthropology class. Excellent work here, well-written and informative. I definitely agree with Ruth Benedict's notion that culture, over biology, impacts the way we turn out. Congrats on the HOTD nod. Voted up and interesting.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      This is a great article for helping us be aware of cultural differences. We need to be more aware of them, and we don't have to go to a remote country overseas to find them. Cultural differences are all around us, especially here in the US in larger cities as the world becomes more global. Congratulations on HOTD!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Congratulations of HOTD! Well written and well deserved!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Fascinating hub and so true. Those that take the time to understand a culture not their own really understand how to bring peace on earth. Too bad these ideas are not used in geopolitics. Thanks so much for defining ethnology and explaining this fascinating term and idea.

    • loveofnight profile image


      6 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      This is definitely a most interesting and useful hub. You have covered a lot of territory. A good share indeed.

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 

      6 years ago

      A very interesting essay, thank you - and congratulations on a deserving HoTD!

      Of course, it isn't just 'primitive' tribal cultures that believe in witchcraft and hocus-pocus. Various polls have shown that some 75% of North Americans hold superstitious beliefs - be that in ghosts and paranormal powers, astrology, creationism or bogus medicines such as homoeopathy, crystal healing, naturopathy and so on.

      Our resistance to reason and science in the West is unparalleled in the rest of the world.

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 

      6 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Great overview! I learned so much.

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      6 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      Very interesting essay on ethnography! My favorite anthropologist is Ashley Montagu (1905-1999). The British-born American immigrant suffered anti-Semitism during childhood and this is what led to his fascination of other cultures and racial perceptions. The dissertation for his PhD was on native tribes of Australia. Voted up!

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 

      6 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Great hub about ethnography and it's importance. Educative and interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi, I found your post through doing the NaBloPoMo challenge too - and am really glad I did. This is a very interesting topic and a great article!

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Awesome, Melbel! You explain so well why ethnography is an important topic to all of us, even on a personal level. Great job. You're so dang smart--and you write so well!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      6 years ago from Iowa

      Wow. You put a lot of research into this. Good job.


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