An ethnography is a detailed study of the life and activities of a group of people by researchers who may live with that group over a period of years (Feagin. Orum, and Sjoberg. 1991).
Although this approach is similar in some ways to participant observation, these studies typically take place over much longer periods of time. In fact. ethnography has been referred to as "the study of the way of life of a group of people" (Prus, 1996). For example. Middletown and Middletown ill Transition describe the sociologists Robert Lynd and Helen Lynd's (1929. 1937) study in Muncie, Indiana, The Lynds. who lived in this midwestern town for a number of years. applied ethnographic research to' the daily lives of residents, conducting interviews and reading newspaper files in order to build a historical base for their own research. The Lynds showed how a dominant family "ruled" the city and how the working class developed as a result of industry moving into Muncie. They concluded that the people had strong beliefs about the importance of religion. hard work. self-reliance. and civic pride. When a team of sociologists returned to Muncie in the late
1970s, they found that the people there still held these views (Bahr and Caplow, 1991).
In another classic study, Street Corner Society. the sociologist William F. Whyte (1988/1943) conducted long-term participant observation studies in Boston's low-income Italian neighborhoods. Whereas "outsiders" generally regarded these neighborhoods as disorganized slums with high crime rates, Whyte found the residents to be hardworking people who tried to take care of one another. More recently, the sociologist Elijah Anderson (1990) conducted a study in two Philadelphia neighborhoods-one populated by low income African Americans, the other racially mixed but becoming increasingly middle- to upper-income and white. Over the course of fourteen years, Anderson spent numerous hours on the streets, talking and listening to the people (Anderson, 1990: ix). In this longitudinal study, Anderson was able to document the changes brought about by drug abuse, loss of jobs, decreases in city services despite increases in taxes, and the eventual exodus of middle-income people. As these examples show, ethnographic work involves not only immersing oneself into the group or community that the researcher studies but also engaging in dialogue to learn more about social life through ongoing interaction with others (Burawoy, 1991).