What is Ethnography and Participant Observation…and what is involved

Ethnography is a research methodology and participant observation is a specific research technique. Many anthropologists consider ethnography and participant observation as central to anthropology. So what do each of these terms mean?

The term ethnography stems for the Greek words ethnos (people or nation) and grapho (writing). A contemporary definition is the detailed study of humans and cultures. Ethnography is similar to qualitative research but it is generally more involved and conducted over a much longer period of time than commercial qualitative research. Ethnography can include a variety of research techniques such as interviews, discussions, and observations of behaviour. However ethnography is only the beginning of the story and anthropologists regard participant observation as the most important ethnographic research technique. So what is participant observation?

Participant Observation
Participant observation requires that the anthropologist rolls up their sleeves and participates as well observing. I particularly like participant observation because it breaks down the walls between the research and the research subject. Personally I find research where the observer watches (and doesn’t interact with the people being researched) the participant is observed, unnecessarily distant, cold and slightly creepy.

This immersive research method and was pioneered by anthropologists in the early 20th Century such as Bronislaw Malinowski. It a long story but he spend much of the First World War living with Pacific Islanders. He work simultaneously significant and problematic. if you are interested in learning a but more you can read more about him here.

I am looking for open and communicative folk who are interesting in getting involved. Although this project will kick off with some interviews and questionnaires. I will be looking for participants who are interested in keeping in touch over a longer period of time.

That said I am realistic about the amount of time people might have to give and am happy to discuss what would work for you.

If you would like more information, please feel free to contact me and I can talk you through what would be involved. You can email me at:
If you are interested in learning more about this research or would like to share some of your digital nomads stories please get in touch.

Twitter: @iamdavecook

Email: david.cook.15@ucl.ac.uk