An ethnography is a form of writing that uses thick description to explore a place and its associated culture. By attempting this method on a small scale, you can practice specific, focused description.
Find a place in which you can observe the people and setting without actively involving yourself. (Interesting spaces and cultures students have used before include a poetry slam, a local bar, a dog park, and a nursing home.) You can choose a place you’ve been before or a place you’ve never been: the point here is to look at a space and a group of people more critically for the sake of detail, whether or not you already know that context.
As an ethnographer, your goal is to take in details without influencing those details. In order to stay focused, go to this place alone and refrain from using your phone or doing anything besides note-taking. Keep your attention on the people and the place.
- Spend a few minutes taking notes on your general impressions of the place at this time. Use imagery and thick description to describe the place itself. What sorts of interactions do you observe? What sort of tone, affect, and language is used? How would you describe the overall atmosphere?
- Spend a few minutes “zooming in” to identify artifacts—specific physical objects being used by the people you see. Use imagery and thick description to describe the specific artifacts. How do these parts contribute to/differentiate from/relate to the whole of the scene?
After observing, write one to two paragraphs synthesizing your observations to describe the space and culture. What do the details represent or reveal about the place and people?