Module 1: Introduction to Ethnography

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Building an equal and engaging relationship with our participants requires work and
thought. This is because the researcher is often from a position of greater privilege,
socially or economically. Recognising these privileges is part of understanding the
position that we occupy in society and in the research interaction with our participants.
This kind of understanding must go beyond politeness or kindness.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:34)

Politeness, devoid of such a recognition may translate into a patronising attitude, which
cannot generate an empathetic understanding of the other. Experienced researchers
continue to grapple with these complexities. Perhaps the best way to deal with these
complexities is through empathy, as we go from project to project, engaging with our
participants. Before we go further, let us discuss empathy.

(Refer Slide Time: 1:03)

Empathy enables us to place ourselves in the position of the other, allowing us to bridge
distances that exist or the distances we sometimes create, between the other and
ourselves. At the core of the idea of empathy lies the belief that in learning about the
other, we learn about ourselves, and, it is by learning about ourselves we are able to
better understand the other.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:29)

Thus, self-reflexivity, or being conscious of our own actions and intentions is a core part
of empathy. Empathy and self-reflexivity enable us to be more open, more accepting of
world-views and ideas that differ from our own. They help us see the differences in our
reality and that of the other, making it possible to bridge the gap created by ‘othering’.
But can empathy be actively practised in one’s work? Is empathy an inherent trait, or
can empathy be taught? Well, we would like to say, “It can be cultivated”, like
cultivating respect for others and for oneself.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:17)

Cultivating empathy as a conscious practice is like teaching oneself new ways of seeing
what is already familiar. It is, literally, the act of shifting our points of view so that we
may be able to share someone else’s perspective. For this, we need to immerse ourselves
in the world of the other, which we also refer to as their context. Spending time in the
physical surroundings they occupy introduces us to the social and material realities of
their worlds.
We believe that by immersing ourselves in different aspects of the other’s world, we
come to understand their ways of seeing their world. So then, when we interact with
them, we are able to better understand the meanings and associations underlying their
narratives and descriptions. We are able to form shared meanings with them. This idea of
shared meaning is central to empathy.

Immersion in the other’s context is, broadly speaking, the practice through which we
hope to build shared meanings, and hence, empathy. Perhaps we can explain this
through an example.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:30)

In 1993, a devastating earthquake shook Latur, in Maharashtra. Almost 10,000 people
died, and many public amenities were destroyed, including roads. Engineers working on
road-building in post-earthquake Latur wanted to find out what kind of roads were
required for the town.

(Refer Slide Time: 3:55)

Let’s pause the video here. Do you think it would have helped if the engineers and

administrators had asked the townspeople to select what kinds of roads they wanted-
straight or curved? Would this have led the engineers to make a correct assessment of

the need of the townspeople? How would you justify your answer? Some of you may
have thought it is fine to ask the townspeople to choose from two given options. Others
might have their doubts. Let us see how things actually turned out.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:33)

Here we have a short video from filmmakers Anjali Monterio and K P Jayasankar. This
is an excerpt from their film Punarvasan, which is about the rehabilitation process in
Latur. [Video being played: Most of the donor constructed villages consist of row after
row of identical concrete box-like structures with uniformly broad roads. Such layouts
which have perhaps been lifted from urban housing schemes are unsuited to the hot,
dusty climate of the area involve unnecessary infrastructural cost and do not take into
account specific local needs for community spaces and access to fields.
However, in some village planning exercises done by the government people appear to
prefer grid to cluster layouts. The biggest benefit of a linear grid pattern is every house
has a road approach and more important nobody encroaches upon any open space in
terms of his own influence in the village. So, this is the reason why the linearity is really
being preferred.
It is a bad plan, it is a bad space it is, it does not suit their lifestyle but why still people are
choosing the same, why? They were, and I realised there were so many mistakes which
happened actually that you asking, you ask questions like this that you want straight
roads or curved roads? And the obvious answer will be straight roads (bu) by asking this
question like you want a straight road or curved road you are trying to get the information
explicit and this process of making the implicit information into explicit was distorting
the product, the result.[Video ends]

In this excerpt, we see the impact of the engineers’-administrators’ approach to road-
building in Latur. The options they gave the townspeople were based on their knowledge,

which had its own assumptions and gaps. It did not take into consideration the needs and
knowledge of the townspeople.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:45)

Had they spent more time talking and listening to people, they may have got more
insights into what the people required, and importantly, what different groups of people
required. What we want to emphasise through this example is that even a common thing
like a road is not simply ‘straight or curved’. The road, and everything else that
constitutes our lives has many meanings associated with it.
To understand these meanings, we have to understand the persons and their context. It is
this kind of multi-layered, complex understanding that we may gain through ethnographic

(Refer Slide Time: 7:27)

And it is this that has made it the research method of choice for a wide range of subjects
and projects. This includes projects which need to look into intimate spaces - homes,
kitchens, ideas of the body, belief systems and so on. These are subjects which are
difficult to understand through large scale surveys or even limited duration interviews.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:56)

Ethnography is increasingly applied to projects where one is trying to understand
practices that are both widespread and locally rooted. It has also proved useful for

understanding complex systems like healthcare and education, where one needs a
nuanced understanding of people’s interactions with these systems.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:16)

Even when we need numbers and statistical analysis, ethnography provides a nuanced
understanding of the phenomenon that may validate or interrogate or further elaborate
upon the numerical data.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:28)

Similarly, when a project requires some kind of projection - like fashion forecasting or
trend analysis, ethnography can provide additional insights to the statistical or survey
data collected for such an endeavour. For those of you interested in exploring
ethnography for social development issues and design projects, see the additional
material provided. And there is a quiz that you can take to test your understanding of this
In the previous section, we saw how each of us may have a very different view of the
world, even when we are looking at the same thing. This raises a pertinent question for us
as researchers- which of these views is more ‘valid’ or ‘real’?
(Refer Slide Time: 0:21)

What is reality and whose reality is more real are questions that are particularly important
to our work as ethnographers because ethnography is a research method that emphasises
on engaging with and learning from the real world. So, when we observe ‘reality’ of a
context, we have to wonder, is this what we are observing, ‘real’? What makes us think
that this is actually real, and not fiction?And whose perceived reality is more real - ours
or our participants’?

(Refer Slide Time: 0:55)

Is it possible that one person’s reality can be another person’s fiction? These questions
indicate there is more to ‘reality’ than what we perceive on the surface. It is not like what
you see is what you get. We go about our days with an understanding that things are what
they are, we take the world around us, and its underlying forces for granted.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:23)

But underneath this surface lies the machinery of human society- structures such as social
and economic hierarchies, beliefs and knowledge systems, social contracts and so on.

This underlying machinery manifests in the everyday interactions, behaviours and
functions that we see on the surface. It is through observing this surface that we as
ethnographers try to understand the structures that lie beneath.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:49)

The sociologist Emile Durkheim put this very simply and beautifully, when he said,
“Sociality is built into structures and institutions.” It is a way of saying that everyday
life is governed by social structures. What is right and wrong; what is normal or
extraordinary; what is moral or amoral; what is real and what is unreal... Each of this is
defined as per the context it is situated in.
What is ordinary in one context may be completely bizarre or strange in another. The
institutions and structures that we see around us, such as marriage, family, friendships
and other relationships; or institutions such as governments, educational institutions,

(Refer Slide Time: 2:41)

These are all governed by an underlying logic of social agreements and contracts defined
by the cultural context in which each of them operates. But not everybody has the same
beliefs. Reality is not one reality. In fact, realities are constructed. Let’s consider an
educational institute:
(Refer Slide Time: 3:02)

If a building is designated as an educational institute, the way it functions will be defined
by the characteristics that we, as a society, associate with the idea of an educational
institute. We designate it as a place where people go to learn and to teach and to
administer other related functions. If, for whatever reason, students stopped going to
classes, or teachers stopped teaching, or the institution lost its funding, then it will stop
being an educational institute. It will become just a building, or at most, a building that
used to be an educational institute.
The reality of the building will change- not because its structure or shape has changed,
but because, as a collective, we no longer assign the same value or characteristics to it as
we did earlier. What was, so far, the obvious reality of this building will no longer be the

(Refer Slide Time: 4:03)

Therefore, our worlds are really made up and defined by a set of social agreements, of the
ways in which to interact and function, but also of commonly agreed-upon beliefs and
knowledge. A really interesting example of this is the idea of ‘money’. All of us use
money in pretty much the same set of ways- earning, spending, saving, donating, and so
(Refer Slide Time: 4:24)

We base a lot of our life’s functions and even desires on the amount of money we have or

hope to have. But if you stop and think about it- what is money? It is an idea, a medium
through which we can compare cotton to gold, or equate the time and effort of a person to
some material, tangible objects like a set of banknotes.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:53)

Looking at the idea of money in this manner, we realise that as a society, we have come
to a shared understanding of giving value to things so that we can compare them to each
other. Otherwise, can we really compare time and effort to pieces of paper? Are there
really any attributes that can be used to compare gold to cotton? But we have all agreed
to the idea of particular pieces of paper, or metal or plastic, minted in particular factories
and signed by a particular authority, as the physical manifestations of this value. Let’s
pause the video here and ask ourselves this question.

(Refer Slide Time: 5:35)

What is the value and meaning of a debit card to someone who uses an ATM regularly,
and to someone who does not, for example, a young child? Think carefully and justify
your responses. Some of you may have said the value and meaning of a debit or credit
card is the same for all people. And some of you may have answered that the meaning of
the card remains the same, but different people associate different values with it. Let us
discuss the question some more.
Imagine what happens when we lose our wallet with our money and our bank cards in it.
For many of us, the first step of action is to call the bank hotlines and block our cards.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:18)

This is because the cards are the access points to our bank accounts and all the money in
them. Now, imagine that this wallet, and the cards in it, are found by a young child. If the
child has no experience of using debit or credit cards, or even an idea of what they are,
she won’t attach any value to them. She may throw them away or stash them in her toy
In either case, she will not give these pieces of plastic the same kind of importance as
someone who is aware of their usage. This shows that even when we agree almost
universally on an idea, such as the idea of money, the values and meanings attached to it
are far from universal. Each person, each group, has their own reality, which transforms
as circumstances and situations change.

(Refer Slide Time: 7:12)

Each person’s reality shapes the world that they live in. What they define as valuable,
relevant, and meaningful, is a function of the reality they inhabit. This is a complex idea
but an important one. Let us discuss this in detail in our next section.
Often, we think of research and researchers as being concerned with getting to the real,
the objective truth. While this may be true for some disciplines, it is not always the case
with social sciences, where we study people, societies and cultures. In these disciplines,
we accept that there are different ways of seeing and multiple realities. Each person, or
group, has their own subjective view of the world, and these multiple subjectivities are
more important than a single objective understanding.

So, we try to understand a phenomenon by learning the multiple meanings attached to it-
by us, and by different participants. These meanings are a complex of ideas, values,

beliefs and experiences associated with the phenomenon. Our task as ethnographers is to
access these meanings by observing interactions and behaviours.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:07)

Because we believe that observable behaviours are an expression of underlying meanings
and associations. For instance, when a funeral procession passes through a street, some

people, regular passers-by, may stop briefly, bow their heads or fold their hands in the
direction of the procession. And then, continue on their way. These ways in which people
interact with the ritual, shows us that they attach some meaning and values to it, even
when, in all likelihood, they do not know the person who the procession is for.
Observing their behaviour, we try to deduce the meaning that the funeral, or funerals in
general, hold for them. Here, for example, we may infer, that there is a social and
cultural practice of respecting the dead and maybe, death itself.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:03)

This inference is a tiny piece of knowledge about a society in which we observe this
behaviour. In this manner, we analyse and interpret our observations to access
knowledge. This is a simple example to show the task we undertake in doing
ethnography. From our discussion so far, we have seen that there are multiple realities
and multiple meanings that anyone might attach to a phenomenon. As ethnographers too,
we have a particular view of reality. And it isn’t any more or any less ‘real’ than that of
our participants.

(Refer Slide Time: 2:43)

Our interpretation of what we observe is defined by where we stand in relation to the
other - as members of a social-cultural context, and as individuals.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:54)

Consider a scenario. At a busy intersection on a road, an argument is underway between a
motorist and a pedestrian. The incident is witnessed by people standing at different
vantage points- a man standing in a ditch by the side of the road fixing underground
cables; another man standing on the foot overbridge that passes over the intersection;

a traffic policewoman standing on a platform in the middle of the intersection; and
a woman sitting in a bus halted at a red light.
Each of these persons sees the incident, but from a different angle, a different direction.
Each of them sees something that the other does not. And each of them is also busy with
their own activities- digging out cables, managing traffic, talking on the phone, and so on.
Pause the video now, and answer a question based on this scenario.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:02)

The traffic policewoman and the man in the ditch may have very different perspectives
of the incident. Whose perspective will you choose to arrive at the ‘truth’ of the

(Refer Slide Time: 4:18)

Some of you may have said that it might be best to go with the perspective of the traffic
policewoman since, she was closer to the site of the argument. Some others may have
suggested that we should learn what each person sees from their unique perspective. This
answer is more in tune with the principles of ethnography. However, taking this path
leaves us with a complex question:
(Refer Slide Time: 4:42)

What about the whole picture? Is it possible to recognise the ‘truth’ of the incident?

Is there even such a thing called truth? This is a question that people
working in the human sciences and in philosophy have grappled with since time
immemorial. While there is no fixed answer to it, there have been, and continue to be,
several explorations and debates. Some of these discussions have evolved into different
schools of thought that influence how we do ethnographic research today.
One such school of thought says that our task is to record and understand what each of
the persons saw.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:24)

In putting together their disparate perspectives, we will arrive at a more complete, layered
and complex understanding of the incident. Our aim then is not to create a single,
authoritative, objective telling of the incident. But rather, to construct a nuanced
representation, made of multiple descriptions, all of them juxtaposed against each other.
Another school of thought, and one which has become increasingly popular from the
1960s onwards, takes a more ideological, political stand on this question. Broadly
speaking, this school of thought proposes that in doing research in human societies, we
should be able to take into account the differential power equations among those who
occupy a given context.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:07)

(Refer Slide Time: 6:22)

So, in our story of the argument between the motor vehicle driver and the pedestrian, we
need to not only understand and describe each person’s perspective but also understand
how their positions affect their view. For instance, does the account of the traffic
policewoman hold more sway as compared to say, the man in the trench, given the
authority invested in her profession? Or, is there a power difference between the motorist
and the pedestrian, the balance skewed in the favour of one or the other?

As ethnographers, we need to consider how these various power relations feed into the
different interpretations of the incident. Some social scientists argue that in writing our
ethnographies, we must, privilege perspectives and voices of those who are less likely to
be heard given the power structures of this context.
So, in the scenario described here, we might privilege the narrative of the man working in
the ditch. Because his perspective may not find a place in official records of the incident,
such as a police report or a newspaper article. Or, we might want to understand the
unique perspective of the policewoman, playing a role that is mostly associated with men
in our society.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:35)

We could try to understand what it means for her to be responsible for breaking up an
argument between two men in a public place. Each of these would be a different
ethnography. Neither would be any more authoritative or true than the other. But each
could show us a different aspect of the incident, all mediated through the lens of the
These are a couple of approaches that suggest how we may explore the questions and
complexities that come with accepting the idea of multiple realities. For now, we rest our
discussion on the understanding that ethnographic work is based on an acceptance of

(Refer Slide Time: 8:20)

That there is such a thing as ‘the real world’ and its reality is many layered and multiple
in nature. We believe that the context that each person exists in makes up their version of
reality. Each of us takes the reality of our immediate context for granted. And as
ethnographers, our aim is to investigate this reality. Those of you interested in further
exploring this concept of constructed realities, we have some additional material that you
may refer to. And there is a quiz relevant to the material that you can take after going
through it.
Before we close this module, let’s take a look at all that we have covered. We travelled a
rather long and winding road and dug around a bit in the history of ethnography, finding
its parent disciplines of sociology and anthropology.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:21)

We learned about the origins of ethnography- from the early travellers to the modern
disciplines of sociology and anthropology, and the influences of these disciplines on
contemporary principles of ethnographic research. We looked into some of the
fundamental ideas that form ethnographic research: the idea of the ‘other’, and the
relationship between the other and the self, empathy and meaning. We also
discussed some complex questions that emerge from these fundamentals:

(Refer Slide Time: 0:51)

the subjectivity of the researcher;
the power dynamic between the researcher and the participant;
the challenges of establishing empathetic relationships; and,
the difference between a single objective truth and many subjective realities.
In our exploration of the concept of reality, we understood how reality is multiple and
complex in nature, and how it is constructed by the context and multiple subjectivities.
Through all of this, we came to see the importance of understanding the other. To design
products and services that fit their needs and their worlds, we need to develop an
empathetic and immersive understanding of their context.

(Refer Slide Time: 1:36)

But how do we go about this engagement? Are there processes or even best practices?
What are the ways in which people have worked with it? And what do we hope to learn
through our engagements, anyway? To answer these questions, we need to unpack
ethnography a little more. We have just about touched the tip of the iceberg and now
need to engage with it at a deeper level. We need to see the various dimensions of the
method to understand its process. This is what we will discuss in the next module.