What is ethnography?

Learning about cultures is a great way for youth to expand their knowledge and communication skills.

Participants in the 4-H Leadership and Global Citizenship Spectacular interview each other to learn about culture. Photo by Jan Brinn, MSU Extension.

Participants in the 4-H Leadership and Global Citizenship Spectacular interview each other to learn about culture. Photo by Jan Brinn, MSU Extension.

Ethnography is the study of culture. From the Dictionary of Multicultural Education, ethnography is “a qualitative research process and product whose aim is cultural interpretation. The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience and works to explain how these represent the webs of meaning in which we live.”

Michigan 4-H has many resources for young people to explore and learn about cultures. Understanding cultures can help us learn more about the world around us, value and appreciate differences amongst people and communicate more effectively.

All cultures are a collection of traditions formed over many generations in response to a variety of outside influences such as geography, governments and politics, and major events. As children grow up, it is hard for them to be aware of their own culture; to them, what researchers call “culture” is simply how life happens around them.

However, if we can take a step back and see our own culture as a series of influences and traditions, it will be easier to recognize these influences and traditions in other cultures as well. This recognition will lead to a better understanding of other cultures because young people will be able to see others as not just “different from me,” but also how diverse influences can shape a culture’s unique traditions.

Understanding your own culture is one step towards appreciating other cultures. Learning about other cultures in this context can be very insightful for many young people. One resource that is helpful in this journey is the Michigan 4-H curriculum “Backpack to Adventure: Youth Leaders in a Global World.” This curriculum explores a variety of ways to learn about other cultures, as well as activities to dive deeper into your own culture and traditions. In a globally connected world, successful leaders are competent communicators with knowledge of their own and other cultures.

Try out the “Day in the Life of an American Teen” activity to get started on an ethnographic journey!

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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