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Relationship between Anthropology and Ethnography: Analytical Essay

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Ethnography exists as an integral component of contemporary anthropology, allowing for the exploration and understanding of culture through the study of subjects and their behaviours in given situations. The practice enables the documentation of accounts of livelihood; producing credible accounts wherein knowledge and understanding is received through observation and immersion with participants to form a representation of a community or group. Of course, modern ethnography exists as wholly different to early 20th century practices, and this essay will explore the relationship of ethnography to the study of Anthropology, discussing its developments as a branch of study with reference to key individuals of influence. Furthermore, it will examine the progress made in the production of ethical ethnography and how modern ethnographies can demonstrate ethnography as an indispensable branch of study for anthropological knowledge.

In regards to the relationship of ethnography and anthropology, it is to be noted that the first so-called anthropologists did not undertake ethnographic fieldwork themselves, instead drawing on accounts of groups such as adventurers and merchants; whilst these people brought important items and tales from their expeditions which anthropologists could examine and discuss, their reliability in forming accurate representations of cultures is debatable. This method of ethnographic practice was referred to deferentially as ‘Armchair anthropology’, writers distanced from the subjects and topics of which they wrote. An example of such a text could be discussed with regards to James Frazer’s 1890 text ‘The Golden Bough’. Interestingly, Frazer himself stated that his work, formed from previously discovered ideas and his own theories of the nature of religion and science, would be usurped in the future by texts of greater, factual knowledge. The use of speculative ideas rather than exacted truth, led many anthropologists within his lifetime to disregard his study as having little impact, the text existing as something more literary than academic. In estimation, Frazer’s significance to ethnography is much lesser than his derivatives; a view corroborated by Liendhart; the works of Malinowski, for example, exist as ‘empirical studies of Frazer’s savages...who were found to have much more of interest to say for themselves than Frazer had to say for them.

One of the first moments to exhibit the important relationship of ethnography to anthropological knowledge can be observed with The Torres Strait expedition of 1898, often viewed as one of the first ‘ethnographical’ missions. Although not ‘anthropologists’, following an initial zoological expedition Haddon gained an interest in the studying of material culture and human behaviour of the inhabitants as a means of understanding their community. The aims of the expedition were ‘to study beliefs and superstitions of the society ... every form of observation made to obtain the complete conception of the condition of a people...’ . An example of early ethnography being dedicated to holism, each member of the researching body studied a specialised sector of the community, including ‘native pyschology and community culture’ . These aims exist as an early description of be some of the predominant areas of study for future ethnographers in developing anthropological knowledge. In essence, this influential expedition can be viewed as an early example of ‘fieldwork’, in which the study of the other could subtly protest western prejudices of the so-called ‘primitive’ through the first-hand experiencing of communities more complex than initially thought. Although a poignant mission for empirical anthropological development, it is the turn of the twentieth century wherein the shift to what is known as ‘real’ anthropology became truly noticeable and widely adopted by scholars. Greater numbers of ethnographers began to conduct their own fieldwork, experiencing in person the communities they desired to study. The rising popularity of adopting fieldwork to study the ‘other’ in their natural communities created a shift of interests more holistically within the field of anthropology; the documentation of the social life of communities took importance over archaic armchair cultivations of artefacts and articles as a means of understanding ‘other’ beliefs and customs.

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Malinowski must be considered when discussing the relationship between anthropology and ethnography, regarded as one of the pioneer figures of this first generation of ethnographers and subsequently referred to as the ‘founder of social anthropology. As the first to ‘probe so deeply into the lives of so-called savages’ , he promoted ethnographic fieldwork as the preferable method for the study of socio-cultural anthropology. His study of the Trobriand islanders, in his ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’ exists as one of the first ‘off the veranda’ works, gaining a deeper insight and understanding of cultures than those of his predecessors. Malinowski drew attention to the importance of participant observation, the technique being an effective means to achieve the most in-depth understanding of cultures and communities. Participant observation still exists in contemporary anthropology as the predominant mode of studying communities; in his famous work, Malinowski emphatically denotes the need to ‘grasp the natives’ point of view’ studying what ‘concerns man most intimately. This approach is what constitutes the most successful, insightful ethnographic account. It is to be noted, however, when discussing the changing nature of ethnography within anthropology, that the subject has a problematic colonial history. Many hold the opinion that ethnography, was, to an extent, complicit in the promotion of a colonialist agenda; Malinowski’s account does appear to exhibit a sense of western superiority, the anthropologist using racially based language, regarding himself as existing above his participants. As outlined by Eriksen in his Small Places, Large Issues ; Malinowski refers to his participants as not only savages in his published text, but ‘unwashed’ in his later diaries. Despite his ethnography aiming to highlight the islanders as individuals with clear rational and intellect, subsequently lessening the sense of ‘otherness’ towards a culture different to one’s own, the posthumous publication of Malinowski’s diaries raises concerns about the ethical and moral values of early ethnographic. When reviewed in a modern context, this invites the question as to whether ethnographic work can be as effective and accurate for anthropology if written from a perspective of white, western superiority. Nevertheless, Malinowski’s impact on the practice of ethnography is indeed substantial given his introduction of the now commonplace participant observation technique of research; this can be supported through the microcosmic opinion of later anthropologist Marvin Harris, who described Malinowski’s contribution to the development of ethnography as ‘unexcelled’ the individual ‘still constituting the greatest ethnographic description ever achieved’ in Harris’ time. In evaluation, despite existing as a critiqued figure of superior white masculine ego, Malinowski’s fieldwork is highly influential, providing somewhat of a ‘benchmark’ for future ethnographers whilst affirming his considerable impact on the development of ethnography within the field of anthropology as an effective means of research.

An apt example of the changing techniques of conducting ethnography can be explored in the differences between the documentation of Nuer individuals in ethnographies by Evans-Pritchard and Hutchinson; the span of 50 years between their publishing reflecting the changing aims and developments within the field of anthropology and ethnography and subsequently the ways in which ethnographies are conducted for the greatest outcome and reception. Although an individual who pushed for fieldwork within anthropology, exhibited in ‘I did not want to become.. just an intellectual. I wanted a life of adventure...fieldwork combines both’ , the impact of anthropology’s colonial links is overt with Pritchard’s work. Like many early ethnographers, he carried out studies as a means of gathering information for governing bodies, and has been condemned for not disclosing the colonial forces, the British government of Sudan, as facilitators of his study. The ethical push in ethnography around the 1970s introduced regulations and codes of ethics, the ASA’s guidelines including the giving of consent and the need for the awareness of the observer’s presence and indeed the purpose of the given research; Pritchard’s introduction within his ethnography ‘The Nuer’ provides a poignant and uncomfortable exchange between observer and observed, wherein an individual of the name ‘Cuol’ implies a sense of distrust of the ethnographic mission, reluctant to state his lineage to Pritchard. This can support Rosaldo’s essay within ‘Writing Culture’ wherein he suggests the resistance of the subject is inevitable given Pritchard’s stating of a government force previously ‘raiding a Nuer camp’ . Pritchard’s study undoubtedly reveals some pitfalls of pre-regulation ethnography in its early relationship with anthropology; although influential, the text reflects the problematic colonial history of the field of anthropology which post-regulatory works of ethnography wish to eradicate. Hutchinson’s work of the Nuer people in her ‘Nuer Dilemmas’ exists as a piece of post-colonial ethnography and subsequently holds an acute awareness of the impact of colonialism on ethnographical accounts. Following her studies, Hutchinson quality checked her work with Nuer-linked individuals to ensure both its credibility and quality as a piece of productive ethnographic work. This is an important factor and suggests the productivity of ethnographic work as a research approach for anthropology when conducted with integrity. Although crucial to the development of anthropological knowledge, the effect of colonialism and lack of regulation in ethnography may present culture in a biased, inaccurate manner, and as such, the strive for decolonisation is evident not only in Hutchinson’s work, but anthropology holistically.

Bourgois and Schonberg’s more contemporary ethnographic work, ‘Righteous Dopefiend’ effectively exemplifies the development of ethnography as an important practice within anthropology, whilst questioning if it is possible to remain objective whilst conducting an ethnography. The text examines the distressing, disturbing underbelly of modern society in the homeless addicts of San Francisco; where traditional ethnography often places an emphasis on a foreign sense of the ‘other’, the text effectively exposes the sense of the ‘others’ living among us yet likely far removed from one’s conscience, ethnography a pro-active source of research making such a feat possible. Where the best ethnographic studies are said to be those conducted over a prolonged time, the work spans over twelve years, existing as a true achievement for the field through its effective immersion into a largely scolded, castigated sphere. The pair actively participate in the dangerous world of their participants, having a degree of closeness with them which acts to strengthen the credibility of the account. Through the developments of ethnography, regulatory frameworks have been constructed to ensure the safety of both parties, ‘over-immersion’ feared to jeopardise the quality of the study; Righteous Dopefiend effectively presents these challenges in the production of ethnographies in the ‘distortion of relationships’ that can arise in ‘buying friendship’ to make the study possible. Through accepting requests for ‘favors, spare change and loans of money’, the text highlights the compromising of objectivity for the sake of anthropological knowledge, participating in the dangerous ‘moral economy’ to avoid rejection from the network they wished to study. This modern work proves the importance of ethnography within anthropology; through developments within the ethnographic study, misunderstood, isolated communities like the Edgewater homeless can be studied using participant observation techniques, revealing the community as one of great social complexity, whilst attempting to dispel possible prejudices held against it.

In evaluation, ethnography exists at the core of anthropology and its development as a field of study. Without driven ethnographers whose central purpose was the understating of culture in given communities and groups, anthropology would exist as little but an artefact, tale-based subject, lacking the depth of insight to cultivate texts of objective truth that accurately captured the aforementioned cultures. Anthropology aims to understand human life in a socio-cultural manner; ethnographic practice is how this understanding is best developed, namely in the participation of the observer. From early armchair anthropologists to contemporary anthropology, important figures and texts of ethnographic work have contributed to the knowledge known today; the development of ethnography exhibits the changing interests of anthropology, whilst in its earlier forms suggested to uphold colonial and potentially biased agendas, contemporary work attempts to dispel such notions, proving ethnography as a force of good in securing an understanding of social and cultural ideas of a given group.


  1. “Argonauts Of The Western Pacific : Malinowski, Bronislaw : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive.” 2014. Internet Archive
  2. James Clifford, George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography ([n.p.]: University of California Press, 1986)
  3. Lienhardt, Godfrey. 1993. “FRAZER’S ANTHROPOLOGY: SCIENCE AND SENSIBILITY,” JASO, 24: 1–12
  4. Philippe Bourgois, Jeffrey Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend ([n.p.]: University of California Press, 2009)
  5. SYMMONS-SYMONOLEWICZ, KONSTANTIN. 1982. “THE ETHNOGRAPHER AND HIS SAVAGES: AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF MALINOWSKI’S DIARY,” The Polish Review, 27.12: 92–98 https:www.jstor.orgstablepdf25777865.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:2f5cb80fdf8340b1538764db7e1d1b9d
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  7. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, 4th edn ([n.p.]: London: Pluto Press, 2015).
  8. “Strangers Abroad Off the Verandah,” YouTube
  9. Blackboard. 2021. “Home – Anth DVD Development Course,” Dur.Ac.Uk
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