The goal of ethnography is to obtain an in-depth understanding of the history, practices, values, traditions, and circumstances of the individuals, groups, and surrounding natural and cultural resources being studied. Research is focused on interactions within and among the groups. Ethnographic research requires the use of multiple methodologies, including secondary data research to get background information on the individuals or groups being studied, historical research, observation, and interviewing.

General Information

Stakeholders in and near a resource play a major role in the success of the management initiatives. Ethnographic analysis may help managers better understand the stakeholder groups and the groups with whom they interact.

Understanding a group provides the benefit of improving the quality of interaction between managers and stakeholder groups. This in turn may help with education and outreach efforts, increasing the buy-in and compliance of management policies and regulations, and improving the quality of future interactions.

Ethnographic research may also reveal cultural values and practices, helping managers identify where these values and practices diverge from the resource regulations, and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). TEK is a system of understanding one's environment. Generations of a group or culture have often interacted with the marine environment for survival and have intricate knowledge of specific trends and characteristics of the physical area and the organisms that inhabit it. This knowledge may help managers better understand the resources they protect.


  • Reveals certain characteristics and qualities of stakeholder groups that would otherwise not have been identified

  • Records complexities of group behavior and interaction

  • Provides context for behavior

  • Establishes a baseline for follow-up research


  • Researcher bias can affect data collected

  • Depends on apparent credibility of sources

  • Depends on study groups being representative of entire group or population studied

  • Can be problematic to compare because of qualitative nature

  • Requires time to build the level of trust required in ethnographic research; long-term studies are usually required

Expertise Needed

The level of expertise required depends on the methodology used and the application of the results. Some stakeholder groups have strong customs or beliefs, and managers need to be aware of them. Often an interpreter may be required to translate the language or specific dialect spoken. Some ethnographic research may involve short or long-term stays with the groups being studied. Before engaging in ethnographic research, consultation with an expert is recommended.

Resources: Books and Publications

  • Fetterman, D.M. 1998. Ethnography: Step by Step. 2nd edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

  • Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

  • Van Maanen, J. 1988. Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Resources: Websites