Video: Penny Harvey

Ethnography by Penny Harvey

Video: Penny Harvey

What is Ethnography? by Penny Harvey

Ethnographic fieldwork as practiced within contemporary social anthropology is a powerful way of opening up and extending understandings of how human beings live in the world. Ethnography is a disciplined preoccupation with the enactment, articulation and transmission of social imaginaries (values, ideas) and material practices. It is a relational approach to social life in which the researcher is fully implicated.

Unlike some methods, ethnography is not a technique that can be first mastered and then applied because in some ways every ethnography is unique, it is something the ethnographer does, a particular mode of attention that requires skills of patience, endurance, perspicacity, diplomacy – and most importantly perhaps for the western academic the willingness to unlearn. In this sense ethnography is also not something that somebody else can easily do for you, and the empirical, the analytical and the theoretical are inter-twined from the start – their relationship crafted in the writing of an ethnographic text.

Key aims

The key theoretical aims of ethnographic work are:

  1. to clarify the relational dynamics that hold existing ways of thinking (and acting) in place in relation to specific situations
  2. to enquire into the spaces in which people make up their minds about things, insisting that making up your mind is always a relational process not the autonomous choice of an individual
  3. to show that things might be otherwise than had previously been assumed, and to bring new questions to the table.

Manchester experts and projects

The anthropologists at Manchester University all work ethnographically in many different regions of the world and on diverse projects. The School of Social Sciences PhD supervision page provides details of people’s interests and projects.

Key publications

The texts below offer interesting accounts of ethnographic work.

  • Westbrook, David. 2008. Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters. The University of Chicago Press. Interesting because it is written by a non-anthropologist – a lawyer who passionately believes that ethnography can revitalize intellectual engagement with the contemporary world.
  • Cerwonka, Allaine and Liisa Malkki. 2007. Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork. The University of Chicago Press. This text is useful as it tracks the fieldwork conversations between a doctoral student and her supervisor.
  • Robben, Antonuis. 2007. Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader. Blackwell. A useful collection of writings on ethnographic fieldwork from the 1920s to the present day.

Staff interested in ethnography


PDF slides

Download PDF slides of the presentation 'Ethnography'