Ethnographic research is usually characterized as involving long-term fieldwork of a year or more in the research environment, although contemporary use of the term ethnography can refer to relatively short periods of fieldwork on the order of a few days. Fieldwork gives the ethnographer the opportunity to develop deep and long-term relationships with the people who live in a particular location.
The video below, about the work of Cambridge University anthropologist Allan Macfarlane provides an excellent sense of what ethnographic fieldwork is like and how it influences the ethnographer and more generally our understanding of human behavior.
Ethnographic fieldwork is systematic, but also involves casual encounters, conversations, and observations. The process of doing ethnographic fieldwork is holistic–not just in terms of looking holistically at the study site, but also in terms of bringing in all aspects of the researcher’s experience and life. Ethnographers live in the community they study, become close friends with people in the community, and learn about the community and its people by living life at their sides, in their homes, and through their gatherings. Fieldwork is an intense and often life-changing experience for the ethnographer that usually challenges assumptions and presuppositions about what is natural and normal in human behavior and thought.
The presentation below gives a very brief introduction to ethnographic fieldwork. Of course, fieldwork is much more complex than the ideas in the video, but this will give you some ideas of what it’s about.