When we start a new job, or a course in a college or university, we have to find out for ourselves what things are really like there: the informal reality behind the brochures, prospectuses and job descriptions. We do that largely by observing: looking at what goes on, listening to what people say; we look at the work others produce; we read documents – minutes of meetings, notices on notice boards, working papers, and so on. And we ask questions of those we come into contact with. Nothing could be more natural, and one of the reasons for the appeal of ethnographic methods is that they seem the most naturalistic, the most 'real' approach to finding out what people do and think in a particular setting.
What exactly is ethnography? Very simply, it is the method of producing a written (and sometimes illustrated) account of a particular group or institution or local culture. The term overlaps with social and cultural anthropology but there is a curious convention that those terms are mainly applied to foreign 'primitive' societies about which we may know very little and where all aspects of culture and social relations are novel to the investigator. Ethnography is a term more often applied to sub-cultures in our own society: intravenous drug-users in an urban setting (Taylor 1993), the inner workings of a Roman Catholic comprehensive school (Burgess 1983) or Whyte's (1955) classic American study of street-corner society. The fact that the people in these 'local' sub-cultures may be every bit as foreign to a middle-class academic researcher as the inhabitants of a village in the Amazon rainforest does not seem to influence the usage.
The vogue for ethnography – as a method as well as the use of the term – is largely a phenomenon of the past 20 years and parallels the increasing emphasis on naturalistic, qualitative methods of research, particularly the case study (Gillham 2000b; Yin 2002). And, as in case study research, ethnography is concerned with the multiple forms of evidence available: getting people to answer questions is just one strand but it is what we are focusing on here.