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Stalking the Wily Ethnography: What is an ethnography and how do I know when I have found one?

An interactive tutorial

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This Web exercise will teach you how to identify ethnographies from library catalog records. Follow the directions below and fill in the blanks.

When you are finished, you can make a printout of your answers if you are doing this assignment as part of a class.


Cover of Earth is my mother, sky is my father Cover of An apache life-way Cover of the huron


  • A FIRST-HAND, descriptive written account of a particular culture or group, focusing on a particular population, place and time, and all with the goal of accurately describing that culture or ethnic group.

  • This first-hand account is produced through participant observation of the culture or group.

participant observation: the anthropologist lives over a period of time with the culture being observed, participates in everyday activities, speaks the language of the culture, and observes life within the group in its everyday context. An ethnographer will live in the community, talk to his/her subjects extensively, and observe the environment. The ethnographer will then derive his or her own conclusions from his/her research, based on his/her knowledge and theoretical framework for the project, and produce a first-hand, written account of his/her observations and conclusions,

  • Can be long (book-length) or short (journal article or single book chapter), but they tend to be long.

  • An additional resource with short ethnographies: Handbook of North American Indians (HNAI)

The Handbook of North American Indians (HNAI) is a multi-volume encyclopedia of the various peoples of the United States, northern Mexico and Canada. It features short works on aspects of Native American life and culture, including ethnographies, written by expert scholars and anthropologists. The HNAI is produced by the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Anthropology.

HNAI is located in the Main Library's Research West wing on the second floor and in the Information Commons on the Main Library's first (basement) floor. Both sets are at E 76.2 .H36.

NOTE:Not all entries in the HNAI are ethnographies. Some are short histories of a particular tribe, while others are descriptions of toolmaking, weaving, pottery and other skills. Read the entry carefully to determine if it is a true ethnography.


Drinking, Conduct Disorder and Social Change (cover). Dine: A History of the Navajos (cover) New Directions in Anthropoligical Kinship (cover)


  • Produced second-hand from first-hand accounts.

  • Simple opinion or observation reports without an analytical component. Examples of such reports include travel accounts, short newspaper or popular magazine articles, articles written for general readership like those in National Geographic, and letters to the editor.

  • A book or essay about proper ethnographic practice.


Review Questions


1. Ethnographies are most often:

a. book-length b. 2 or 3 pages in length

2. The hallmark of an ethnography is:

a. its reliance on the investigations of anthropologists other than the writer.
b. its reliance on objective observation and investigation of a specific culture. The ethnographer must maintain a distance from the culture so that his/her observations are not "contaminated" by interaction with the culture.
c. its reliance on the first-hand investigation and observation of a culture by the author of the ethnography, produced through participant observation.

Here are some real citations. Using the above criteria for ethnographies (audience, length, author, style of language, type of article), review the citation and read the excerpt. Then indicate which type of material each probably is.

3. Bwire Kaare. Field research among the Akie. Anthropology Today, Vol. 11, No. 5. (Oct., 1995), pp. 18-19.
When I first arrived for my research, I encountered a very serious problem in obtaining my daily water. But even more serious than that was the difficulty I had in developing my rapport with the Akie. The Akie at first thought that I was a government official and called me meeyee … I remember one day when we had gone to a nearby shopping village about 10 miles away, a group of Akie youths who had accompanied me dodged me and went back home.

a. This IS an ethnography b. This is NOT an ethnography c. Don't know

4. Lillian A. Ackerman. Nonunilinear descent groups in the Plateau Culture area. American Ethnologist, Vol. 21, No. 2. (May, 1994), pp. 286-309.
Nonunilinear descent groups were not well understood until Oceanian societies were studied in depth after World War II … This problem was later investigated on the Colville Reservation, with its 11 constituent tribes …, on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, and among people from additional Plateau tribes whom I met … actual fieldwork took place in the areas mentioned.

a. This IS an ethnography b. This is NOT an ethnography c. Don't know

5. Robert. Paine. Herds of the Tundra: A Portrait of Saami Reindeer Pastoralism. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
This book is about reindeer and their Saami (Lapp) herders in the tundra landscape of northernmost Norway … I first accompanied a Saami camp on the autumn migration of 1951. Then in 1953 I was employed as a herdsboy for nine months … I returned to these pastoralists for intensive ethnographic work for six months in 1961 and 1962, and have visited numerous times since.

a. This IS an ethnography b. This is NOT an ethnography c. Don't know

6. Andrew Nurse. "But Now Things Have Changed": Marius Barbeau and the Politics of Amerindian Identity. Ethnohistory, Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer 2001, pp. 433-472.
Abstract: This essay examines Marius Barbeau’s early-twentieth-century Huron-Wyandot ethnography as a case study in the history of Canadian anthropology and in Canadian cultural history. It examines how Barbeau’s ethnographic research became part of a broader, inherently political process, through which an Amerindian identity was remade as part of the ethnographic project.

a. This IS an ethnography b. This is NOT an ethnography c. Don't know

You are done!

Ethnography tutorials index page | Finding Ethnographies at the UA Library

If you have questions about this exercise, contact: heitshus@u.library.arizona.edu

Created by Olivia Olivares, Social Sciences Librarian, University of Arizona
Based on a tutorial by Ruth Dickstein
Additional design by Lisa Bunker

June 30, 2003

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