About Ethnographies

Ethnographies are first-hand accounts about the daily life of a cultural group. They may cover a particular people, geographical area, or social group. They are normally published in books, and many of these are in library collections and can be looked up. Parts of an ethnographic study may be published in journal articles or essays in edited collections, and are therefore also accessible through libraries. Some ethnographies are part of an author’s thesis or dissertation, and other ethnographic works are never formally published or even completed.

Criteria for Ethnographies in Anthropology

Most ethnographies are written by anthropologists or researchers with anthropological training. Some may be written by teachers, missionaries, explorers, travelers, geologists, or others who live temporarily with that culture, but these may not always satisfy anthropological criteria for being an ethnography. Check with your professor or teaching assistant to be sure.

Typical criteria for ethnographies:

  • focused on a specific culture, community, or society
  • the author lives in the field with the cultural group
  • presents an account based mainly on first-hand experience
  • offers extensive cultural description
  • addresses contemporary as well as traditional cultures

Not Restricted to the Anthropology Literature

Since ethnographies are studies of groups of people as they engage in everyday life, these accounts can be found within any subject area.

Suggested Strategies for Locating Relevant Ethnographies

Depending on your topic, one or more of the following strategies may be required.

Strategy 1: Consult the "Classic Anthropology Books" list provided by Dr. Brian Given

The list can be found on the subject guide for Anthropology.  Carleton holds most of these titles.  Since many of the books are out of print, they may not be replaceable.  Please exercise care with them.

Professors may be able to recommend other titles.

Strategy 2: Find out about anthropologists who have conducted ethnographies

Consult the The Routledge dictionary of anthropologists or locate other anthropologists through the subject heading Anthropologists -- Biography.

Strategy 3: Focused keyword searches in the Library Catalogue

Try a fielded keyword search in the catalogue.  In this case, concentrate on information in the subject headings.  Prefix keywords with s: to look in the subject heading specifically for these terms.  Use "ethnology", as this is the term used in libraries.

Make sure that certain words are avoided in the returned information by using the NOT operator.  For instance, we are not interested in research methods or theory.

Here is a suggested search:

s:ethnology AND NOT (s:methodology or s:textbooks or s: fieldwork or s:theory)

You can add to this your own interest; for instance, if you are interested in Africa, you could try a general keyword search for Africa, combined with the fielded search above:

Africa AND s:ethnology AND NOT (s:methodology or s:textbooks or s: fieldwork or s:theory)

For a refresher on Boolean keyword searching (using AND, OR and NOT) please see the Database Search Strategies help guide.

While conducting keyword searches, notice the classifying phrases used in the subject headings, particularly for the cultures.  As well, you may find the phrase "social life and customs" to be useful in locating relevant resources.  For instance:

Melanesia -- Social life and customs

Note that such searches may still return information about ethnography and not ethnographies themselves.  As well, some ethnographies use descriptive titles, never identify themselves as ethnography; they will not be included in such search results.  If unsure, check with your professor or TA.

Strategy 4: Consider relevant book series

Strategy 5: Locate book reviews -- Reviews of ethnographies

Since book reviews are included in databases, select a database from your discipline or select a multidisciplinary that allows you to refine your search by document type.  A good candidate is Social Sciences Full Text.

When at the database set, be sure that the database is selected (check mark beside the title).  Go to the bottom of the page and set the Document Type to Book Review.  For the first concept, enter

ethnolog* OR ethnograph*

This will require the database to return reviews that are about ethnography or that are ethnographies.  Add your own topic keywords in the other text areas.

REMEMBER: The point of book reviews is to make you aware that a book exists.  Book reviews are not peer reviewed, which means that they cannot be used as key resources in most academic papers.

NOTE: Book reviews may not appear for several years after the book has been published.

Strategy 6: Use eHRAF World Cultures

The eHRAF (electronic Human Relations Area Files) World Cultures database contains the texts of ethnographies from all cultures of the world on a comprehensive range of topics.

To find a specific ethnography title
On the main screen, click the Search tab, then the Bibliography tab. Select Title in the Select Field: drop- down list, enter your ethnography title and click Submit Query. Follow the prompts for the full text.

Example: Title Argonauts of the Western Pacific yields 3 hits, Trobriands [the culture of the ethnography]. Click the Trobriands link, and scan for the specific title. Click the See Citation and Document button. The sections of the book are accessible through the index on the left.

To look up a specific ethnographer
On the main screen, click Search tab, then Bibliography tab. Select Author in the Select Field: drop-down list, and enter your ethnographer’s name (family name first).  Follow the links for the full text(s).

Example: Author Redfield, Robert yields 5 hits, three on the Maya of Yucatan, one for the Nahua and one on the Tzeltal of Chiapas. Select one, and read the full-text by navigating through the e-book using the links on the left side of the screen.

To find an ethnography on a specific culture
On the main screen, click Browse. Select the Cultures tab. Search below under the name of a specific culture, and click the links to the various ethnographic works following the brief description of that culture.

Example: Culture Eskimo [the term that was fashionable] yields lists about 7 Eskimo sub-groups. Notice that there are redirects to the updated culture names. Select a sub-group, such as Copper Inuit for Eskimos (Copper). This leads to a page that gives a brief description of the culture and the relevant resources in the database. Select the Collection Documents tab to get a list of the included titles, ordered by author.

Alternatively, in the Browse screen, you can browse cultures by region or country (Regions tab or Countries tab).

Example: Culture Croats under region Country: Croatia, HR yields 6 ethnographies.

To find an ethnography on a specific topic
On the main screen, click Browse, then the Subjects tab. To search by major category, select the Major Subjects tab. If you know the subject by its proper name, you may select from the A-Z Index. 

Strategy 7: Consult journals that are dedicated to ethnography

Try looking for an ethnography in a journal dedicated to ethnography.  You can find such journals in the catalogue by using the subject heading:

Ethnology -- Periodicals

Candidate journals are:

NOTE: if you choose to use a journal article, make sure that your TA and your professor confirm that it is of sufficient detail for the assignment.

Strategy 8: Consult databases that cover the discipline of Anthropology

The following databases cover ethnographic information about specific cultures:

The following databases cover Anthropology generally:

  • Anthropology Plus (covers all aspects of Anthropology)
  • JSTOR (includes older articles from American Anthropological Association)
  • Wiley Online Library (includes newer articles from American Anthropological Association)

Suggested search: (ethnolog* OR ethnograph*) AND <your topic>

Strategy 9: Check the Internet for lists of ethnographies

Try the advanced search mode of Google Scholar.

Try restricting your search to site:.ca or site:.edu so as to restrict to web sites of educational institutions

Look for Ethnographies and (List or Bibliography). You can also limit your return results to “In the title of the page”, for more precise hits.

Note that such lists may include titles that are not strictly ethnographies, or that may be about ethnography rather than the ethnographies themselves.  You may also retrieve promotional material from publishers.  Check with your professor or teaching assistant if in doubt.

Strategy 10: Consult selected reference resources

See the Anthropology subject guide for other suggestions.

Strategy 11: Consider ethnographic film

Consult the subject guide for Visual Anthropology.