Introduction to Ethnographic Research Methods
Open up any introductory textbook in sociocultural anthropology and you will find a section explaining the importance of the concept of holism. The author will typically go on to explain that anthropologists are generally more interested in gaining an understanding of how human lives “make sense” within the contexts in which they live than we are in arriving at universal generalizations or “laws” regarding human behavior. This is particularly true of ethnographic researchers, who traditionally make extensive use of the participant-observation method in their work. Two key terms for an ethnographer are context and pattern. The goal of ethnographic research is to formulate a pattern of analysis that makes reasonable sense out of human actions within the given context of a specific time and place. This task of holism may seem simple enough when a student is reading about it in an introductory textbook, but when the same person turns into a researcher s/he is inevitably confronted with the following two questions: (1) how much context do I have to cover, and (2) how will I recognize a pattern when I see it? These are other ways of asking how a researcher who follows a qualitative, ethnographic strategy can ever know when a “holistic” understanding has been satisfactorily achieved.
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