Module 1: The Process and Concepts of Ethnography

Study Reminders
Text Version

Fundamental Concepts

Set your study reminders

We will email you at these times to remind you to study.
  • Monday




























Let us continue with our theme of unpacking ethnography. In this section, we would like to
discuss its other major component: the concepts that form the fundamental structure of
ethnographic research.
Along with the process, the method is composed of certain principles that guide its
process and give ethnography its particular way of seeing.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:30)

These ideas and concepts define how and what we see when we set out on our investigation,
and how we understand or interpret our findings. The approach by which we arrive at our
data is as important as the data itself. These principles are the core characteristics or attributes
of the ethnographic method. Let us understand these concepts in greater detail.

As we have seen so far, the experiences and learnings that form the raw material of our
research are gathered in the field, that is., in the context where the phenomena we are
studying occur naturally, or where they commonly occur. This makes ethnography a
naturalistic form of research. Moreover, it has to be conducted in the time in which the
phenomenon is takings place. It cannot be a study of something from the past, or forecasting
of the future. It is in the here and now.

(Refer Slide Time: 1:32)

Therefore synchronic; meaning a research situated in the present. This is why it emphasises
being present at the immediate site and at the time of the occurrence.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:15)

When we experience events in the context as they occur, we also understand the various
perspectives of others who are involved in it and how they experience the event. To be
present is not simply to turn up on the field. An important characteristic of ethnographic
practice is to pay attention to the most minute and mundane details of our participants' lives.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:37)

Here, let us turn to someone who is often credited with laying down some of the
founding principles of ethnographic practice, Bronislaw Malinowski

(Refer Slide Time: 2:47)

. Malinowski was an Austrian anthropologist, who did some of his most significant
work in the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea in the early 1900s. He
put forth the idea that the work of the ethnographer is to gather and make sense of
what he called 'the imponderabilia of actual life'. Let us hear it from the man

(Refer Slide Time: 3:15)

The imponderabilia of everyday life is "A series of phenomena of great
importance which cannot possibly be recorded by questioning or computing
documents, but have to be observed in their full actuality." And to illustrate what
he means, here is an example of his own recordings.

(Refer Slide Time: 3:37)

I would get out from under my mosquito net, to find around me the village life beginning to
stir, or the people well advanced in their working day according to the hour and also to the
season, for they get up and begin their labours early or late as work presses. As I went on my
morning walk through the village, I could see intimate details of family life, of toilet,
cooking, taking of meals, I could see the arrangements for the day’s work, people starting on
their errands, or groups of men and women busy at some manufacturing tasks. Quarrels,
jokes, family scenes, events usually trivial, sometimes dramatic but always significant,
formed the atmosphere of my daily life as well as of theirs.
But why this insistence on imponderabilia? Why is it so central to our work? Let's
see if you can find the answer to that in our discussion on the contextual and
descriptive nature of ethnography.

(Refer Slide Time: 4:45)

We have spoken about how ethnography is naturalistic and synchronic. and can only
be gathered if we are present in the setting and at the time when the phenomenon
occurs. This means that ethnography is inextricably bound to the context. It is,
therefore, a contextual form of research. As ethnographers, we do not simply just list
down the events that we observe. Our task is to analyse our observations and derive
meaning from them. This can only happen if we expand our understanding of the

(Refer Slide Time: 5:20)

Context here does not only refer to what we see or sense as the immediate physical
setting of the phenomenon. It is also made up of intangible factors such as social
hierarchies and dynamics, beliefs and behaviours. The history of a place or a group
forms part of their context. And so does their material world, such as, what
technologies do they use and what kind of trades are they involved in?
(Refer Slide Time: 5:46)

For a community of potters, the context is composed of their environment- where
and how they live. It consists of the craft they practice and how they make a living
from it. This connects them to other communities to whom they sell their wares and
from whom they get their raw material. It includes their position in the social

structure of their village or town- their class and caste positions, for instance. And it
includes the social structure of the community itself- what the gender relations are,
what the family structure is like, and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:30)

To understand this expanded idea of context a bit more, let us bring in another key
figure in ethnography: Clifford Geertz. Geertz articulated and even redefined much
of ethnography and its 'way of seeing' in the 1970s and 1980s.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:44)

Geertz insisted that in understanding the context of a community, ethnographers
must look at the meanings that underlie their everyday practices. These meanings, he
said, signify how people experience and perceive their world. Geertz referred to the

collection or the intricate web of such meanings as culture.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:08)

Culture has been defined in many different ways. So the ways in which we dress, our
food habits, our ways of interacting with others - all these small ways of behaving
constitute the culture that we are a part of. But more significantly, the ways in which
we think, feel and form beliefs, these factors that define our ways of dressing, eating
and so on, are what Geertz terms culture. Take, for example, our collective history of
being colonised. That forms a part of our culture.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:44)

In case of a smaller group, like an educational institute, the collective importance
given to punctuality, or the comfort or cordiality that students feel in approaching

their teachers- that is part of culture too. It is this culture that translates into the
observable, perceivable behaviour such as the conversations that take place between
students and teachers.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:11)

Geertz suggests that in doing ethnography, we need to understand the underlying
culture that gives rise to observable behaviour.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:20)

This is important, he says, because human behaviour can be seen as a set of actions,
each action symbolising some underlying meaning. This meaning is based on how
we, as a social group, collectively understand that action- what it symbolises, what
associations we build around it. We observe behaviours and interactions and

interrogate them for what they are for what they reveal- the social structure, the
symbolism, the associations connected to them. These form the context in which the
action is to be understood. By understanding these, we try to understand the meaning
of the observed behaviours.
(Refer Slide Time: 9:04)

The context is made of imponderabilia that makes up our everyday worlds, the
underlying beliefs, norms and hierarchies that form the social structure, and the web
of meanings which is culture. Let us take an example of a behaviour and reflect on
how we may understand its meaning.
Consider the infamous Indian head wobble. The action itself can mean multiple
things. It sometimes means "yes", sometimes "no", sometimes "maybe". Sometimes
it is just a way of acknowledging another's presence, or what they said. And ever so
often, it is just an absent-minded "hmmm". As ethnographers, though, how do we
decipher its meaning?

(Refer Slide Time: 9:59)

What all do we need to understand in order to make sense of a head wobble,
exchanged between two persons. Write down all the factors that you can think of. In
order to understand what a particular head wobble means, we need to know the
various meanings that the wobble has in that culture. We need to also know the
immediate context in which that particular wobble took place, its imponderabilia.
And we might also need to understand something of the persons between whom the
wobble was exchanged. All of these small and large, immediate and invisible factors
form the context of the wobble and define its meaning.
In our everyday lives, we experience many such small behaviours and gestures. We
understand their meaning without a thought because we belong to this culture and
speak the same cultural language. We are embedded in the context. As
ethnographers, however, we must step outside of what we know, and explore how
these meanings are constructed.
We ended our last session with a discussion on culture, the contextual nature of ethnographic
research, and what context might mean.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:16)

As we discussed, the context includes many layers, some are observable, and some are not.
Our objective is to describe all of these layers, as the background against which our
observations and interpretations take place
(Refer Slide Time: 0:34)

This makes ethnography a descriptive method of research. Geertz suggests that an
ethnographic description ought to bring together the tangible and the intangible aspects of the
context and draw connections between the two
(Refer Slide Time: 0:49)

He calls this thick description. Thick description refers to a description that includes both
observation and analysis. It includes our engagements with the context, and the meanings
derived from these engagements. It is these meanings that provide depth or thickness to a
(Refer Slide Time: 1:13)

Maybe we can better understand the idea by using an example that Geertz borrowed from the
philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle asks us to consider the example of two boys, both rapidly

contracting the lids of one of their eyes like this.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:31)

While one of the boys is twitching his eye involuntarily, the second one is doing it
deliberately. He is trying to make a sign to a friend of his - he is winking! If we focus only on
the movement of the eye, we may not be able to differentiate the involuntary twitch from the
deliberate wink.

Ryle explains that the wink is different from the twitch because in winking, the winker is
communicating, and doing so with some purpose. He is winking to someone, in particular,
trying to hide the wink from others in the group. The wink is meant to impart a certain
message, according to a socially established code that is understood in that group. All of these
form the under-layers of the action of winking.
Ryle explains that the wink is different from the twitch because in winking, the winker is
communicating, and doing so with some purpose. He is winking to someone, in particular,
trying to hide the wink from others in the group. The wink is meant to impart a certain
message, according to a socially established code that is understood in that group. All of these
form the under-layers of the action of winking.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:30)

The meaning of a simple action like a wink or a twitch is composed of the action, the
immediate context in which the action takes place, and, the social and cultural context. When
we see someone winking, e understand all of this as a single gesture. In constructing a thick
description, we try to explore each of the layers that make up the gesture and its meaning. As
you might have guessed, an understanding of culture goes hand in hand with creating a thick
description. Let us bring in Prof. Rowena Robinson to deepen our understanding of these two
(Refer Slide Time: 3:05)

Prof. Robinson is a professor of sociology in the department of humanities and social
sciences in IIT Bombay, and one of the advisors for our course.
Professor Rowena Robinson: My name is Rowena Robinson, and I believe that up till now
you have been studying terms like context and web of meanings. Now, I am going to talk to
you a little bit about that term that we use so much in anthropology which is the term culture
(Refer Slide Time: 3:31)

Culture may be quite simply described as patterns of learned behaviour, shared within a
particular social group or community. From the start, therefore, anthropology has based itself
on the idea that everyone has culture.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:45)

Today, anthropologist think of culture as a process that is dynamic and through which
meanings are constituted, shared and maybe even contested. Therefore, the question of
relationships of power and inequality have become critical to the analysis of culture. Which
group has the power to shape the culture values and believes of a society? Which group's
cultural expressions are marginalised or devalued? Culture is historically constituted, shifting
and processed. Culture is also embedded
(Refer Slide Time: 4:18)

Pierre Bordieu used the term Hexis. To think about culture as the way in which we walk,
move our hands or our bodies, turn or shake our heads, our posture, our domineer or ascent.
If culture is everywhere and belongs to everyone, and is in fact in our bodies, then it is the
stuff of everyday life.
It is embedded in ordinary social processes. So, when anthropologist study culture
ethnographically, they do not focus merely on extraordinary or historical events,. They are
interested in the mandarin and the ordinary, the things that most people take for granted. To
observe these, the ethnographer needs to live with the people she studies or remain in
sustained direct contact and communication with them; to become familiar with them, as
companions and neighbours so that they may continue with their activities unselfconsciously
in front of her.

(Refer Slide Time: 5:18)

The little things, mannose of everyday living is what Malinowski famously spoke of as the
Imponderabilia of everyday life. Why does a woman in this society laugh with her hand over
her mouth? Why does a young a girl put a ponytail? While an adult woman has to bind her
hair and cover her head? Why does one social group begin a meal with something bitter, and
another with something sweet? Why do men shirts have buttons on the right and women's on
the left? Why is the bathing area attached to the kitchen in this region? But the toilet far away
and at a distance at the back of the house? What are the sounds that one hears from dawn to
dusk on an ordinary village day?
Does the day begin with temple chimes, the sonorous sound of the Azaan or the tinkle of the
bells on the fishermen's cycle as she does a round of the neighbourhood? What smells per the
way the houses and feels as one walks the paths from works to home. At mid-day, does one
get the sharp tank of mustard in the air or the full-blooded waft of coconut or the earthy
aroma of maki ki roti.

Does one social group eats sitting at a table, while another in a circle or linear arrangement on
the ground? Why in a community does a woman eat of the same plate left behind by her
husband? While in another a family eats communally from a thal? It is important to
remember that many of these small taken for granted aspects of everyday life will strike the
ethnographer more forcefully in the initial period of fieldwork because of their unfamiliarity
or strangeness. Time in the field will render them familiar and more innocuous.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:59)

That is why it is important for the ethnographer to keep a detailed diary of observations from
the very beginning of her observations. So that she does not lose sight of these aspects while
often hold more relevance than she might have first imagined.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:14)

Attending to these tiny inflexions of culture forms the basis for thinking about the ways they
interconnect and form patterns. Behaviour in one social context has to be observed in relation
to norms and behaviours in other context in order to attain a fuller picture of the society and
culture attend.

This brings us to a more layered and complex understanding of ideas of masculinity and
femininity in a culture of taste and distinction of purity and pollution of auspiciousness and
inauspiciousness of honour shame or structures and notions of privilege and power, status and
class. This is precisely what thick description is meant to convey.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:59)

The layers of meaning and embeddedness of thick description involve understanding and
absorbing the context of a situation, conversation, action or behaviour. Geertz felt that what
the ethnographer does is to give us her own interpretation or other people's interpretations of
what they do or say or think.

Thus, for us the readers of ethnographies, to decern for ourselves the correctness or
incorrectness, the validity or soundness of the author's interpretation, we must be provided
with rich detail of the context which led to those interpretations being constructed. Because
thick descriptions seem a vague concept and one that is not easy to pin down. Sometimes it
has been defined by contrasting it to its opposite thin description. Thin description would be
merely a collection of superficial information. Even if there is a lot of such information or
numerous such facts which are put together.

(Refer Slide Time: 9:01)

If the description does not convey to the reader, a vivid sense of the encounter or situation
and does not analyse its meaning for the social actors involved, it is thin description. A
description is also thin, if the account is not embedded in its historical and social context.
And if we are not able to perceive who the people involved are and what their relationships
with each other are, their intensions and the surrounding circumstances of what they say and
of their behaviour or actions.

As you can see, describing what is thin description gives us a feel for what thick description
might be and vice versa. Firstly what is clear is that the word description in thick description
is inadequate. Thick description is not merely description. It is also interpretation. Secondly,

thick description is not merely about facts and information; it is about various similitude or

This authenticity is intellectual so that we can appreciate the interpretations of the author. It is
like cooking. We do not just eat the dish and try to imagine how it might be made? We do not
just read the recipe, which would be like a thin description of the act of cooking. We are in
the kitchen itself, and we see the cook and what ingredients are put together. The events of
persons involved, perhaps one can say.

And why some of them are more important than others? In what quantities they come to be
mixed. We get the aromas of the dish that arise as each ingredient is added and mingles with
the others. We enter into the assembling of meaning by the author. The authenticity is also
(Refer Slide Time: 10:51)

Thick description should enable us to feel as in a theatre that we are there as events are
unfolding. We can enter into the social actors' sentiments and motives, hear their voices and
see their movements, behaviour and relationships with each other. We know what they wear
and where they are? We become aware of if who is present and who is not. This is not a
surface account of what is happening. It goes beyond the present.

It locates incidence information and situations in terms of past events, and the intersecting
biography is of individual actors. This embedding of events and experiences in their social
and historical context enables us to comprehend why a particular situation or series of
incidence is significant in the social and cultural life of people and in what way? It has been
argued by the sociologist Normann Denizen, that for a thick description to be thorough, it
needs to capture all of 5 aspects.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:50)

The biographical, the historical, the situational, the relational and the interactional. Let us
examine how these elements are brought out in the following example. This is an incident
from 1934 described by Doctor BR Ambedkar regarding his visit to Daulatabad fort in
waiting for a visa.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:12)

Our tour programme had not announced and quite deliberately. We wanted to travel
incognito, in order to avoid difficulties which an untouchable tourist has to face in outlying
parts of the country. We had informed only our people at those centres at which we had
decided to halt. Accordingly, although on the way we passed many villages in the Nizams
States, none of our people had come to meet us.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:40)

It was naturally different at Daulatabad. There our people had been informed that we were
coming. They were waiting for us and had gathered at think entrance to the town. They asked
us to get down and have tea and refreshment first, and then to go to see the fort. We did not
agree to their proposal. We wanted tea very badly, but we wanted sufficient time to see the
fort before it was dusk.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:08)

We therefore left for the fort, and told our people that we would take tea on our return.
Accordingly, we told our drivers to move on, and within few minutes we were at the gate of
the fort. The month was Ramjan, the month of fast for the Mohammedans. Just outside the
gate of the fort there is a small tank of water full to the brim. There is all around a wide stone
(Refer Slide Time: 13:33)

Our faces, bodies and clothes were full of dust gathered in the course of our journey, and we
all wished to have a wash. Without much thought, some members of the party washed their
faces and their legs on the pavement with the water from the tank. After these ablutions, we
went to the gate of the fort. There were armed soldiers inside.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:57)

They opened the big gates and admitted us to the archway. We had just commenced asking
the guards the procedure for obtaining permission to go into the fort. In the meantime, an old
Mohammedan with a white flowing beard was coming from behind shouting The Dheds
meaning untouchables have polluted the tank.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:18)

Soon all the young and old Mohammedans who were near about joined him and all started
abusing us. The Dheds have become arrogant. The Dheds have forgotten their religion that is,
to remain low and degraded. The Dheds must be taught a lesson. They assumed a most
menacing mood. We told them that we were outsiders and did not know the local custom.

(Refer Slide Time: 14:45)

They turned the fire of their wrath against the local untouchables, who by that time had
arrived at the gate. Why did you not tell these outsiders that this tank could not be used by
untouchables? Was the question they kept on asking them. Poor people. They were not there
when we entered the tank area. It was really our mistake, because we acted without inquiry.
(Refer Slide Time: 15:11)

The local untouchables protested that it was not their fault. But the Mohammedans were not
prepared to listen to my explanation. They kept on abusing them and us. The abuse was so
vulgar that it exasperated us. There could easily have been a riot, and possibly murders. We
have, however, to restrain ourselves.
(Refer Slide Time: 15:35)

We did not want to be involved in a criminal case which would bring our tour to an abrupt
end. One young Muslim in the crowd kept on saying that everyone must conform to his
religion, meaning thereby that the untouchables must not take water from a public tank. I had
grown quite impatient, and asked him in a somewhat angry tone.
(Refer Slide Time: 15:58)

Is that what your religion teaches? Would you prevent an untouchable from taking water
from this tank if he became a Mohammedan? These straight questions seemed to have some
effect on the Mohammedans. They gave no answer, and stood silent. Turning to the guard I
said, again in an angry tone. Can we get into the fort or not? Tell us.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:23)

If we cannot, we do not want to stop. Guard asked for my name. I wrote it out on a piece of
paper. He took it to the Superintendent inside, and came out. We were told that we could go
into the fort, but we could not touch water anywhere in the fort. And an armed soldier was
ordered to go with us to see that we did not transgress the order
(Refer Slide Time: 16:41)

This example brings out all the 5 aspects that Denizen was speaking about.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:53)

This is eminently biographical as well as historical. It tells us about the experiences of
Ambedkar as he travelled in India as part of his movements against the untouchability and his
political activities during the period of the freedom struggle. It lays were the situation of
intense humiliation. He and his party faced when they used the public tank after the dust and
stress of their travel.
And how the touch of the Dheds was perceived as polluting even for the Muslims. It captures,
for instance, the interactions between Ambedkar's party and the old Mohammedan, the young
Muslim and even the guard and their motions and internal turmoil wrote by these encounters.
The relational aspects of untouchability are grippingly evoked by the narrative.
For those of you who would like to read a very engaging example of thick description in
ethnography, refer to an article by Clifford Geertz.
(Refer Slide Time: 17:53)

The article is called Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight. It is a rich and very enjoyable
description of a cockfight in Bali, Indonesia. And there is a quiz that you can take to test your
understanding of the text.
(Refer Slide Time: 18:10)

Let us get back now to our discussion of the fundamental concepts of ethnography. Our
research is not a presentation of facts. It brings together multiple points of view, each of
which might have their own perspective and interpretation of a phenomenon. Thus,
ethnography is interpretive in nature.
(Refer Slide Time: 18:29)

As we engage in fieldwork, we select what to observe and record. Some of this selection may
be conscious, and some not. We may pay more attention to some events than to others. Or
give more weightage to the perspectives of certain participants, over others. This makes
ethnography a subjective form of research. And this raises an important question for us. If
ethnography is simply our subjective interpretation of a phenomenon, can it be called
research at all?Let us pause the lecture and ponder this question
(Refer Slide Time: 19:09)

Is it possible, in ethnographic research, to have knowledge that is objective in nature? Think
about this and write down your responses. Some of you may have said that objectivity is an
essential characteristic of research. Others may disagree with this. It is an interesting question
to consider and to be frank, not a simple one. In order to deliberate this question, we need to
dig deeper into the meaning of subjectivity with regards to ethnographic research.
(Refer Slide Time: 19:43)

What, or rather, whose subjectivity defines the research? Whose perspective is represented in
the ethnographic knowledge we construct? Our research is not simply a presentation of our
subjective interpretations. An ethnography is a play of multiple subjectivities. Our task is to
bring together these varying and sometimes, contrasting perspectives. We try to make sense
of them by interpreting them, exploring the meanings they convey, and weaving these into a
cohesive narrative.

(Refer Slide Time: 20:22)

As Geertz has said, "that what we call our data.. are really our constructions of other people's
constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to". To use a metaphor, ethnographic
knowledge is not a monolith that we come across while wandering around our chosen
context, which we can pick up and take back as our 'finding'. It is instead like a patchwork
quilt made of several small pieces, each piece representing a different perspective.

The ethnographer puts these together to construct a cohesive and complex narrative of the
phenomenon. In that sense, the knowledge we construct through ethnography is the
handiwork of the ethnographer. And so it is subjective and interpretive.

For this reason, we must be conscious of the role that our subjectivity plays in the research.
This is what ethnographers often refer to as self-reflexivity.
(Refer Slide Time: 21:21)

It is the practice of reflecting and being aware of our biases and letting this awareness filter
into our research practice. It involves actively reflecting on our ideas and pre-conceived
notions. Among the things we recognise is that the context changes when we are present in it.
Basically, when we enter the room the dynamics have changed. It is just not possible to be a
fly on the wall.

Applying this understanding to our practice can help us produce research that is more
cognizant of the multiple subjectivities that form the context.