Finding ethnographies

For Library research help, please contact Moninder Lalli, Librarian for Sociology / Anthropology by email or Ask a librarian.

What is an ethnography?

Ethnographies are not always easy to find. In order to find an ethnography, you have to know what it is and the definition shifts according to the discipline and what time frame and/or school of thought you're looking at. There are many definitions of ethnography, but we can start with the following:

Ethnography is an approach to learning about social and cultural life of communities, institutions, and other settings that:

  • Is scientific
  • Is investigative
  • Uses the researcher as the primary tool of data collection
  • Uses rigorous research methods and data collection techniques to avoid bias and ensure accuracy of data
  • Emphazises and builds on the perspectives of the people in the research setting
  • Is inductive, building local theories for testing and adapting them for use both locally and eslsewhere

From LeCompte, M. & Schensul, J. (2010). Designing and conducting ethnographic research - also available in [print]

It is important to remember that ethnography is not ethnography unless it incorporates participant-observation in which the researcher both observes the culture/group/milieu and participates in it to learn more.

Additional definitions and "how to" resources

How do I find an ethnography?

How do you know what you find is actually an ethnography? 

You won't until you look at it. Remember that many ethnographies do not have the word “ethnography” in their titles. 
The term "ethnology" is used by Library of Congress in their Subject Headings for books about ethnographies. 
  See "browse by subject": "Ethnology" to find ethnographic books 
Ethnology -- [geographic area'] for ethnographic books for a certain geographic area.

There are several approaches to finding ethnographies; each depending on your knowledge or comfort level with the course material. 

  1. Look at sources that provide background information on work of anthropologists or sources that provide overviews of cultural groups (encyclopedias, handbooks, bibliographies).
  2. Look for ethnographies in the book form in the Library Catalogue
  3. Look for journal articles that are "ethnographic".
    • Look at "anthropology" journals since there are greater chances of finding "ethnographic" articles.
    • Look at databases that index "anthropology" journals.
    • Look at "annual review" of the field of Anthropology (Annual Review of Anthropology)
  4. Look at the older database focused on "ethnographic" research which contains books, reports and other studies (eHRAF) - but this type of ethnography may not be the current way of doing anthropology.

Background information

The "Just Starting Out" method starts with using background information to look up a particular culture.

The benefits of this method are that the various encyclopedias, handbooks or guides provide an overview of a specific culture or examine the people who conduct ethnography, and, they almost always point to additional readings including ethnographies.

  • Fifty key anthropologists
  • Routledge Dictionary of Anthropologists. [print or online]. Not sure what culture to research?
    • Have a look at this book to find out who has conducted ethnography and what school of thought they belonged to. Because ethnographic field work depends on participant observation, it is impossible to separate the "self" from the research. This book helps situate the anthropologist within their school of thought and helps inform researchers why these scientists came to the conclusions they did based on their education, their influences and their perspectives.
  • Encyclopedia of World Cultures. [print or online] and Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement
    • Arranged by culture, subject and geography
  • Handbook of North American Indians. 2 copies [print]
    • this hand book series is divided geographically so you can locate First Nations people by geographic area such as the Subarctic, Southwest, Great Basin and so on.
  • Other good sources of information are subject bibliographies like
    • The Shawnee Indians an Annotated Bibliography. [print]
  • Routledge companion to digital ethnography

For more:

Find books in the Library

Library Catalogue search guide | Catalogue search tips

Search the SFU Library Catalogue: Advanced keyword

Keyword searches

Use either 'ethnography' OR 'ethnology' in combination with the name of the people you're researching or the geographic region in which they live.

  • Example #1: ethnograph* AND blackfoot [Results]
  • Example #2: ethnograph* AND "great basin" [Results]
  • Example #3: ethnolog* AND(blackfoot OR "great basin")[Results]

Combine different concepts using AND
Combine same concepts using OR
Use quotation marks to search for a phrase
Use brackets for synonyms
Use asterisk (*) for different endings of words

Use pulldown menu and select, "Source Types" as "Books"

Note:  For Catalogue Search, when combining concepts, use CAPITAL letters ( "OR", "AND")

Selected books

Subject searches

To search by Library of Congress Subject Heading use Advanced Search

E.g.  Search by subject, "Indians of North America - Canada"

For specific groups or regions, try "Ethnology" and the name of a country or geographic area.

Examples of ethnographies:

  • Argonauts of the Western Pacific [print]
  • Maps and Dreams [print]
  • The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society [print]

Browse subjects

Browsing by the Subject Heading:  "Ethnology" and the subheading(s) for different geographic region(s) of the world

Find journal articles

How to find journal articles tutorial. 

What is a scholarly (or peer-reviewed) journal?

If the full-text of the article is not available within the database then use the "Get@SFU" link to find it or to initiate an inter-library loan request.

Characteristics of the sources

  • author is an anthropologist (has an anthropology degree) or is working in an anthropology department, and the article is published in an anthropology journal
  • article is based on fieldwork (article will indicate that in the content).... anthropologists are looking at what people do and say about culture and society and everyday life, and it is based on the anthropologist observing these people and being immersed in their social context over a long period of time. Anthropologists tend to speak in anecdotes and from the people's point of view.
  • article looks at how people are affected --going along, resisting, talking about it, how ideas come alive in the life of people, or how it matters in the life of people.

Since the articles need to be from an anthropological point of view, search the A-Z Journals List for the following:

Searching databases for ethnographic articles

Anthropology Focused Databases

  • Anthropology Plus
    • The resource indexes material relating to anthropology and archaeology and many of the journals by the American Anthropological Association
  • AnthroSource -- Full-text access to journals produced by the American Anthropological Association

For a longer list, try  Anthropology Databases, or the Anthropology resource guide.

Non-Anthropology Databases

Your strategies with the non-Anthropological focused databases is to try to limit your searches to journals that are "anthropological." 
Another strategy is to use the words (ethnogr* or ethnolog*) along with words describing your topic/cultural group.

  • Sociological Abstracts -- Sociological aspects of twenty-nine broad topics, including anthropology.
    • first search for "anthropol* - limit to "Publication title -- PUB" index
    • then add your other concepts in other search boxes
  • Social Sciences Full Text -- access to English-language social science journals.
    • first search for "anthropol* - limit to "SO Journals name" index,
    • then add your other concepts in other search boxes
    • Searchable, archival collection of core scholarly arts, humanities and social sciences journals, except for the most current 5-7 years of a journal since this is an "archival" collection.
    • Note: Use "advanced search" and limit the search to "anthropology" subset of journals
      • it will accept the truncation symbol.
      • since full text is being searched, you may consider using putting quotation marks around your "phrase words" to ensure that the words appear together.​
  • Academic Search Premier

Selected journals

For more, try "Browse by Subject" search for Ethnology -- Periodicals

Database for older ethnographies

 eHRAF World Cultures (Human Relations Area Files or HRAF) is wholly comprised of ethnographic material and allows you to focus on specific aspects of a known culture such as demography, economy, social organization and more. Source documents on cultures of the world. The text is subject-indexed for quick information retrieval.

Find author affiliation

If you want to check if an author is an anthropologist and it is not apparent from the article itself, try checking the "author affiliation" in these sources:
  • Web of Science -- A combined search of all of the Web of Science Citation indexes. This database does not do any "subject" indexing but it does provide author affiliations
  • Google Scholar -- Search specifically for scholarly literature. This would be good for when you do find something useful, enter the details of the reference, and then see who is citing those article -- use the link "cited by"

Library guides

Writing help

Selected resources on writing

Ethnology -- Authorship (books on writing ethnographies)