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Ethnography of Anthropology: A Format for Studying Culture

Updated on December 5, 2015

As with the study of any anthropological culture, with ethnography there are no set methods for documenting that culture or human societies, but much can be said about the methods of attempting to understand a culture by investigating how, exactly, that culture is unique. This tact can take the form of looking into a society’s housing conditions, how they raise their children, how they are educated, what types of religions they may follow, and even how they might bury their dead. In this, ethnographic studies have virtually taken the form of historical case studies—placing a culture down on paper as if the writer were there and intimately understood the culture.

People joke that a degree in anthropology would not be complete without an understanding of ethnographic research and the art of defining a culture down to its smallest and most fundamental aspects. From that ideal, the study of ethnography branched into an understanding of cultural mores (more than studying how and why people bury their dead), and a look was taken into how a society might communicate (both verbally and nonverbally). For example, if an ethnographer were to study high school students of the twenty-first century, they might notice that the cell phone forms the lifeline of communication among the young in society, and from it, an entirely new language of the “instant message” was formed—a language that most modern day “elders” do not comprehend or understand. In this, an ethnographer might note the disconnect between the young and the old in America today. And that, in its most basic form, is the basis for ethnographic research and just one method for employing ethnography to study a culture.

Now, a look will now be taken into a few of the anthropologists that were essential for the major ethnographies along with a comparison of their research methods, successes, and failures. To begin with, Annette B. Weiner wrote “The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea” as an ethnographic study of the relationships between man and woman and their differing perspectives (and courting rituals) including a somewhat feminist approach on the value of a woman and her work within their society.

In 1990, Weiner’s ethnographic work was made into a documentary which focused “on [unexpected] Trobriand social practices – female exchange, mourning practices, cricket, magic, competition between male chiefs, marriage, Christianity on the island – to provide a picture of modern Trobriand society” (Alexy, 2002, par. 1). When Weiner began her research of the Trobriand culture, she “had planned to research tourism and local crafts” (par. 2), while instead she found herself drawn into “explicit and overwhelming female exchange… a ritual mourning ceremony directed by women” (par. 2). In Weiner’s studies, her research also reveals “other dimensions of Trobriand society beyond these ritual exchanges” (par. 4 ). In this, Weiner’s ethnography goes beyond the traditional mode of one aspect of the culture and instead encompasses a vast amount of the societal mores of the Trobriand. Her failings, if there are any, can be defined by the purely feminine approach to her studies, as even the documentary is filmed from the female perspective, which, ultimately, excludes a great deal of the male perspective and culture from her ethnography.

Sharon Graham Davies wrote “Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders among the Bugis in Indonesia” as a case study in cultural anthropology to demonstrate the larger value of multiple genders within the society of Sulawesi, on the Indonesian Island versus the two genders that most societies recognize. Essentially, there is the traditional male and female, and then the Bugis also encompass and recognize the androgynous Shaman, and the male and female transgendered (including gay and lesbian) within their society. For their part, the Bugis can be seen as a liberal New York City melting pot of genders, without judgment, and without shame for their chosen paths in life. Davies, in her ethnology, represents a new theory on the ideal of gender and the social mores founded within each, enlightening the subject of challenging traditional gender mores.

Further, Davies refers to their gender choices as just that, “gender negotiations” (Davies, 2001, par. 3) in which both male and female “to conform to [the] ideals” (par. 3). of most modern societies. More, Davies explained of her work that she refers to “hir and s/he to challenge readers to [imagine] a subjectivity beyond the dichotomous her/his, she/he. The use of hir further signifies the possibility of a third gender not contingent on crossing from one normative gender to the other. Moreover, neither the Indonesian nor Bugis languages discriminate between gender” (Davies, 2001, endnotes). In this effort, Davies is attempting to define, categorically, the gender difference and non-discrimination that the Indonesian people show.

As a gender/sexuality ethnologist, Davies’ research methods seem to comprise the study of the hierarchy within the society and the impact and effect of a chosen gender. Her fundamental stance included the major roles and duties of women, especially, and she defines how “the hierarchical order of a woman’s duties shows that only after a woman has married and produced children is it her duty to be a member of society. Indeed women may not be considered adults until they have married heterosexually” (Davies, 2001, par. 13). In this, perhaps, the failings of Davies, like Annette Weiner, can be blamed upon her feminist approach to her ethnology of the Bugis and their gender relationships. While her research does encompass the duties and roles of men as well, her main focus is upon the objectification of women and the shocking hierarchal implications (indeed there is some judgment, even in within the Bugis) of their chosen gender identities.

Colin M. Turnbull wrote “The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation” as a case study in cultural anthropology of the Mbuti pygmy hunter/gatherers of Zaire. His ethnology focuses on the social organization and environmental tasks and objectives of the pygmies in correlation to their relationship with their non-hunter/gatherer neighboring villages.

Turnbull’s work is purely a historical outline of the location and social structure of the Mbuti pygmies in which he notes their settlement location, languages, hunting party structures, and hunting party jobs, like archer, spearman, etc (Martin, n.d., par. 2). Turnbull discovered that “only political identity they have is in opposition to the village cultivators” (Martin, n.d., par. 4) and the “relationship between the Mbuti and the villagers is maintained on several different levels, centering around trade” (par. 9). In this, Turnbull’s ethnography is highly focused upon one essential aspect of the Mbuti tribes. He does not go any deeper into their culture than trade and hunting, and little is mentioned about social relationships of women within the tribe itself. Indeed, like other ethnographers, Turnbull’s focused approach could be seen as a failing in that there is obviously much more to the Mbuti tribe than their hunting techniques and trade relationships. However, while there must be much more required to understand the Mbuti culture and people, Turnbull’s anthropological research shows, as a case study, and important and driving aspect of the culture.

Evon Z. Vogt wrote “The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life” as an ethnographic case study on the life, rituals, economics, and reproduction in Zinacantan. The main focus of his ethnography, however, is the Zinacanteco belief system and how their beliefs serve as the philosophy for their lives and rituals. Of the ethnographers, Vogt is one of the few to spend time in his documentary to relate his various field work methods and explanations.

More, Vogt goes deeper into the Zinacantan society, remarking on the food that they eat and the clothing that they wear explaining that “virtually all women know how to weave the full range of clothing in the normal Zinacanteco costume; but a few items, like ceremonial clothing and the intricate blouses presented to godchildren, are often produced by specialists within the community” (Cancian, 1972, 14). Indeed, Vogt provides an incredibly detailed account of the Zinacanteco way of life, surveying it as closely and as in-depth as if he had lived within the culture since birth. In this, Vogt’s account seems personal and literally every aspect of the society and culture seems accounted for. While he spends a great deal of his ethnographic survey on the belief system, it can be seen from his studies that the religious ways and methods are the driving force for the Zinacanteco and that the most important aspect has been thoroughly covered.

Finally, William F. Wormsley wrote “The White Man will Eat You! An Anthropologist among the Imbonggu of New Guinea” as a case study into the cultural and social structure of the Imbonggu’s, which includes such aspects as leadership, marital obligations, and even magic and religion. Wormsley is the most unique of the major ethnographers because he spends time focusing on the truth of documenting a tribe, and the reactions, emotions, and ideals of the anthropologist himself while attempting such an ethnographic study.

Mostly, Wormsley’s work stands out among the rest because of his personal immersion in the culture and society. While the other ethnographers, especially Annette Weiner, documented their studies with a point of view, their attempts were to show the cultures and societies without much interaction, to show the society in its cultural bubble without outside influences and distractions. While Wormsley doesn’t impede the culture he is studying by inserting himself into the historical commentary, his immersion impacts a reader into understanding the trials and tribulations from the ethnographer’s point of view, and that makes for a unique and interesting read.

William F. Wormsley, Evon Z. Vogt, Colin M. Turnbull, Sharon Graham Davies, and Annette B. Weiner are among the foremost ethnographers in the study of cultural and sexual anthropology. While their research has proven to be limited in the nature of what they encompass, all highlight the fields within their chosen cultures that they intended. And of them, Wormsley stands out as the ethnographer most immersed in his ethnographic study as he detailed the life and means of his own documentary.


Alexy, A. (2002). Viewing notes for “The Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea.” Accessed July 17, 2009 <>

Cancian, F. (1972). Change and Uncertainty in a Peasant Economy: The Maya Corn Farmers of Zinacantan. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP. Davies, S.G. (2001). Negotiating gender: Calalai’ in Bugis society. Intersections: Gender, History, and Culture in Asian Context 6, Accessed 17 July 2009 <>

Davies, S.G. (2006). Challenging gender norms: five genders among Bugis in Indonesia. Florence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing.

Martin, M.M. (n.d.). Society: Pygmies, Mbuti. Accessed July 14 2009 <>

Turnbull, C.M. (1983). The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Vogt, E.Z. (1990). The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Weiner, A.B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. New York: New York UP.

Wormsley, W.E. (2002). The White Man will Eat You! An Anthropologist among the Imbonggu of New Guinea. Florence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing Co.


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