In this occasional series, we ask Arts & Sciences instructors to discuss how they engage students in the great questions of our time.
Kathryn A. Kozaitis
Ethnography in the 21st Century
Q. What is Ethnography?
A. Ethnography is rooted in the Greek words for people and writing. It is a mixed-methods social science research strategy that emphasizes qualitative methods such as interviews and focuses groups to study human behavior. Ethnographic texts are the monographs and articles that anthropologists write and publish based on their systematic research on social and cultural phenomena.
Q. How would you describe this course?
A. This course places a great deal of emphasis on ethnography as a writing genre and research methodology. Students in this course conduct independent ethnographic research. Students are taught ethnography as a literary genre and as a research model. The course engages students in writing essays and stories about people, places, and events.
The course attracts undergraduate and graduate students across different majors, disciplines, and colleges interested in ethnographic methodologies —and especially qualitative research methods, including participant observation, unobtrusive observation, structured and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, life histories, and oral histories, and visual and digital strategies.
Q. What makes this course appealing to students?
A. Students appreciate the opportunity to conduct original research with communities on topics that interest them. Whether a subject they are interested in politically, personally, or intellectually, they enjoy fieldwork and writing assignments, including ethnographic vignettes or reflections based on prompts. Many students talk about how they appreciate finding their voice through the writing assignments.
Some students engage in projects that contribute to their Honors thesis, Master’s thesis, capstone project, or Ph.D. dissertation.
Q. How can students take this course into the workforce?
A. There is a very high demand by different public and private industries for people who have ethnographic skills and can study and write about cultural patterns. Ethnography is both an intellectual process and a marketing toolkit.
The course also emphasizes ethnography as a practice-based research paradigm that guides sociocultural reforms to advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies, practices, and other organizational developments to improve operations and services across various industries.
Ethnography is the study of people. Anybody who works with people may use these tools and skills to improve working conditions.
Businesses are looking for people who can assess problems and create culturally affirming policies. Students who possess ethnographic skills become more marketable.
Q. What got you interested in this subject?
A. Ethnography is my primary research methodology, and I value it because ethnography prioritizes people and their lived experiences. It is also a methodology that advances social justice and human rights.
Additionally, as a cultural and an applied anthropologist, I embrace ethnography because it is the most effective methodology for investigating problems, and assessing and helping to meet a community’s needs.
Q. What’s the most exciting or unusual assignment you give students in this class?
A. Students have said that the most exciting part of the course is their mini-ethnography. It is an assignment that they begin early in the semester. They design an ethnographic study, write a literature review, and then go into the field and collect ethnographic data and write their paper. They conduct collaborative research with members of a community.
The ethnography that they submit at the end of the term is their signature piece. We do quite a bit of reading in the course, and the students learn about writing culture. However, they love the opportunity to write about a problem or a topic that excites them.
The field assignment has been a challenge with COVID-19. Still, students can work around it by working digitally or writing ethnographic vignettes during the semester. These independent research assignments are what students find most enjoyable. They also give an oral presentation of their project at the end of the semester to share with the class what they have learned about their topic.
— Interview by Emma Barrett (B.A., English, ’25). Photo by Melanie Fan.