Research Methodology. The Origin and Scope of Thick Ethnography

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2015

29 Pages





Origins of Ethnographic Practice

Ethnographic Literature Contributions

Concept of Thick Ethnography versus Thin Ethnography

Anthropological Research in the Future



This essay is organized as a history of the diverse elements of scholarship by which the field of research methodology in social anthropology has been developed. Ethnography, as a method of empirical data collection is popular in many disciplines and ethnographic approaches to the study of human and social science is the core of social anthropology. This essay presents the ethnographical discourse of Central and Eastern Europe in relation to anthropology and establishes compatibility with research traditions by presenting the literary scholarship of the broader development of this methodology. It is the objectives of this essay to clarify the difference between thick ethnography versus thin ethnography as theory in research methodology and point out how thick ethnography may impact the future of anthropology.

Key words: Anthropology, Ethnography, Research, Methodology, Social Anthropology


The origins, development and scope of ethnographic methodology is examined here. This essay is organized as a history emphasizing the development of ethnography and ethnology and the diverse techniques used by social scientists when conducting research. The analysis also looks at the methodologies by pioneers in the field of anthropology and reviews specific reference to the body of literature that resulted from this practice.

In this essay, I argue that long-term, ethnographic research methodology continues to be the best method of research inquiry at our disposal. Although several factors underlie this perhaps now dissipating and neglected form of methodology, this paper will move beyond the impasse created by differing conceptions by presenting methods of some of the earliest ethnographers and establish the importance of this methodology to social anthropology. Also, it will present the importance of this approach to the profound body of literature that has developed as a result of this methodology. Finally, this essay will pursue the goal of demystifying the distinction between thick ethnography and thin ethnography and will examine some of the assumptions held about the nature of ethnographic methodology as a practical research activity in the future.

Völker-Beschreibung or Ethnography, as the term developed is an interdisciplinary approach that involves a series of data collection methods. Multiple methods may be applied for the purpose of attempting a more personal and in-depth portrayal of a people or their cultural characteristics. According to Malinowski (1922), the “goal of the ethnographer is to grasp the native’s point of view, to realize his vision of his world.” Thus viewed, ethnography relies greatly on up-close, personal experiences, participation rather than just observation, and it can range from an objectivist account of fixed, observable behaviors to an interpretational narrative describing the interplay of individual agency and social structure.

Within a historical context, ethnography attempts to be holistic in nature based in part on emic views. It is written, observational science that provides an account of a particular culture, community or society. Typically, it involves fieldwork or spending a year or more in another society, living among its people, and trying to understand them as much as possible. Further, it is a meeting ground for many disciplines that focus on human and social sciences. Principle among these are sociology, economics, education, religious studies, geography, history, linguistics, psychology and political science. Over time, ethnographic methods have developed other research frameworks such as anthropometry, cross-cultural comparisons, reflexivity, thick description, cultural relativism, emic-etic approaches, and holism.

Ethnographic research methodology produced some of the most prolific, groundbreaking contributions to the scholarship of cultural and social anthropology. Classic examples are found in the work of pioneers such as Müller and Schöpperlin (Larrimore and Eigen 2006), Boas (Müeller-Wille and Barr 1998), Malinowski (1922), Evans-Pritchard (1940), Radcliffe-Brown (1922) and others. As ethnography developed, anthropologists became interested in incorporating other techniques such as phenomenological and communicative approaches in their work. Later, sub-genres such as bio-confessional, reflexive, literary, deconstructive, interpretive, postmodernists and experimental approaches began to influence the manner in which ethnography was conducted. These various forms helped to encourage the evolution of ethnographic research methodology. Moreover, they succeeded in focusing attention on the importance of the relationship between the ethnographer, audience and subject which is one of the central paradigms of contemporary anthropology and ethnographic practice.

Origins of Ethnographic Practice

Ethnography or Völker-Beschreibung probably began with Gerhard Friedrich Müller and the Second Kamchatka Expedition to Siberia. (Larrimore and Eigen 2006) This expedition spanned a period of ten years 1733-1743 and is one of the largest, organized exploration enterprises in history. Due to the immense scale of its achievements – that is, the European discovery of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, the Commander Islands, and Bering Island, in addition to the mapping of most of the Arctic coast of Siberia and parts of the North American coastline, over 3,000 people were directly and indirectly involved. It included ethnographic, historic, and scientific research into Siberia and the Kamchatka River area. During the early part of the eighteenth century, several German-speaking scholars (Messerschmidt, Müller, Gmelin, Steller, Fischer) were connected to institutions such as the Russian Academy of Sciences, the University of Göttingen and the Imperial Library of Vienna. It is believed that their empirical approach and non-speculative descriptions led to the birth of ethnographic methodology. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Johann Friedrich Schöpperlin conducted research of the ancient Swabians, a people of Russian culture. This expedition lasted for eight years (1767–1775). More important, it was the work of German-speaking historians such as Schöpperlin, Thilo, Schlözer, Gatterer, and Kollár, that introduced the term Völkerkunde (Ethnology) into academic discourse.

These two new terms would emerge as part of a new genre of what would later become anthropology but need to be distinguished. In the first half of the eighteenth century, scholars focused mostly on geography, history and linguistics of Central Europe, Northern Europe and Northern Asia developing a methodology for studying the people of those regions. (Vermeulen 2008) However, in the second half of the century, scholars were more interested in developing a general method for studying all peoples of the world. Although in general terms these two approaches shared a common objective, their methodologies were quite different. For example, in the first stage, fieldwork was the primary method for conducting research and investigating culture. While in the second, research in its socio-cultural guise, was carried out inside well-known universities and libraries.

The Second Kamchatka Expedition should be given a special significance in ethnographic history exemplified by the enormity of its collections both natural and cultural. In a more analytical vein, it resulted in an extensive amount of material related to the fields of natural history, geography, cartography, archaeology, ethnography, and linguistics. The enormous amount of information provided in the form of written documentation actually made ethnography, as a method of describing the manners and customs of peoples, into a descriptive science. The Second Kamchatka Expedition, for example, consisted of a sea party led by Vitus Bering to discover the Northwest Passage and included a group of scholars charged with the task of investigating land masses. Müller participated as a professor of history and geography, however he widened his focus to write a historia gentium or Völker-Beschreibung (Müller 1900). During this expedition, Müller actually began practicing a form of ethnography and was the first scholar to make a distinction between his work as a historian, geographer and ethnographer. He developed a methodology that utilized two distinct stages – first a description, then a comparison. (Helimski and Katz 2003) The political context of the expedition was dictated by Russian interests i.e., expanding the empire, trade and taxation, and the scholarly purpose of facilitating research. These two factors, one political and the other scholarly, led to the emergence of a new scientific practice.

In accordance with political motives, the scholarly members of the expedition developed specific instructions regarding the objectives and locations of the collections. The Russian Academy of Sciences, led by Blumentrost and Schumacher, and the Russian State, overseen by Kirilov approved the instructions. As such, all reports, documentation and correspondence, art objects and items of natural history went to the State. Afterward, all scholarly information was forwarded to the Academy of Science, natural and cultural items were sent to the Kunstkamera Museum (established in 1714), and the nautical information was sent to naval authorities. (Vermeulen 2006) In 1747, the Kunstkamera was destroyed by fire and most of the collection perished.

In terms of early ethnographic methodology, the descriptions of Messerschmidt, Müller, Gmelin, Krasheninnikov, Steller, Fischer, Lindenau, and later the work of Rychkov, Pallas, Lepechin, Georgi, Falck, and Merck are considered the most valuable because much of their material remains in manuscript. More important, the amount of material collected among the ethnographic research of the peoples of Siberia and surrounding areas for several decades after the Second Kamchatka Expedition grew to an extent unsurpassed by any other country in Europe at that time.

During the second part of the eighteenth century, Müller’s ethnological perspective was applied by scholars of the German tradition. At the University of Göttingen, for example, between 1771 and 1781, two historians, August Ludwig Schlözer (1735-1809) and his colleague Johann Christoph Gatterer (1727-1799), utilized the terms Ethnographie and Völkerkunde in scientific programs that attempted to widen the scope of world history to include all peoples. (Schlözer 1771) In fact, Schlözer’s publication, Allgemeine Nordische Geschichte 1771, successfully introduced new concepts concerning origins, descent and migrations of peoples in northern Europe and Asia using language as a means of classification. However, it seems that Schlözer actually borrowed this idea from Leibniz who first introduced it in 1691 (Wakefield and Cohen 2008) when he stated that “the harmony of languages is the best means of determining the origin of nations, and virtually the only one that is left to us where historical accounts fail.” (Aarsleff 1982). Apparently, the first to apply this method were Messerschmidt and Strahlenberg closely followed by Müller, Fischer, and others participating in the Second Kamchatka Expedition.

As far as we know, Schlözer used the terms Völkerkunde (Ethnology), Ethnographisch (Ethnographic) and Ethnograph (Ethnographer) in his work but was not the first to use the term Ethnographie (Ethnography) . It appears that the historian Johann Friedrich Schöpperlin (1732-1772) was the first to use the term Ethnographie in Prolvsio scholastica qva Sueviae veteris (1767); the work of an eight-year research expedition to study the ancient Swabians. (Larrimore and Eigen 2006) However, he was the first to introduce the ethnographic perspective at the University of Göttingen. His use of the term Völkerkunde (Ethnology) generally referred to a description of ‘all peoples of the world’ both past and present, however he restricted analyses to specific peoples. On one hand, this distinction resulted in an aggregate of world history and on the other a system of world history. Therefore, it is safe to say that Völkerkunde (Ethnology) was a concept that designated a new research program in the academies of the German tradition while Ethnographie (Ethnography) proceeded it as the first stage of a newly discovered research methodology.


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Research Methodology. The Origin and Scope of Thick Ethnography
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enthnography, anthropology, research, methodology, social anthropology
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Dr. Neil Turner (Author), 2015, Research Methodology. The Origin and Scope of Thick Ethnography, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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