A Good Linguist Should be a Good Ethnographer

By Sandra Topelko

Ethnography is the study of people; more specifically, it is the study of cultures and societies. And a serious program of study in linguistics is incomplete without a course in Anthropological Linguistics.
The ‘Anthropological Linguistics: Ethnography’ class offered at CanIL draws upon a ‘participant observer’ methodology; students interact with the people who are part of the study through conversation, and shared experiences. CanIL subscribes to the view of Murchison stated in ‘Ethnography Essentials’ (2010), that “from the standpoint of ethnography, the only plausible way to study social and cultural phenomena is to study them in action” (p 4).

From that basis, the ethnographers’ first necessity is to learn how to observe – not to see things as he or she believes them to be, but to see them as they really are. An analogy from my own experience would be learning to paint landscapes. When one looks to paint anything, one is immediately struck by the infinite complexity of clouds or water, for example, compared with what one had previously consciously observed. To observe well is to pay attention to detail. As Murchison states, “good observational research and data make use of all five senses” (p 88).

The second necessity for the ethnographer is to observe what is said and done without assigning one’s own meaning to it. This is more difficult than it seems. As human beings, the meanings we infer from every day social interactions are shaped by our social and cultural experiences, and are deeply ingrained in us. However, the good news according to Danesi is that “…cultures are both restrictive and liberating” (2004, p 39). He refers to the ‘semiosphere;’ “a term used in semiotics… to refer to culture as a system of signs” (ibid). Danesi claims that “the semiosphere, like the biosphere, regulates human behaviour and shapes evolution (of societies). But although [we] can do little about the biosphere, humans have the ability to reshape the semiosphere any time [we] want” (ibid). Cultural norms aren’t fixed, they shift with time. The important thing to keep in mind is that our perceptions have been formed through our experiences, so the ethnographer must have an open mind regarding differing perspectives.

The following is a grossly oversimplified summary of the ‘big picture’ process of doing ethnographic research in the Ethnography course at CanIL. There are many steps within each phase mentioned below, but their delineation is not afforded within the brief context of this article.

  • In the initial ‘deconstruction’ phase (Gobo, 2008, p 227), the ethnographer as ‘participant-observer’ takes meticulous notes while engaging in increasing degrees of participation. He or she examines the observed phenomena for concepts or categories (organizes and codes the data into observed patterns). In this phase, “the ethnographer seeks to uncover the conventions regulating interactions observed” (ibid).
  • Second, in the ‘construction’ phase the ethnographer tries to “devise a story (theory) about the phenomenon observed” (ibid).
  • In the final stage, the ethnographer chooses which concepts to explore further and checks his or her hypotheses formulated during the construction phase by doing further research.

By learning and practicing these important ethnographic skills, the conscientious ethnographer will have developed a mindset that is necessary for partnering well with language communities, or anyone else. Unchecked, assumptions and expectations derail relationships and impede the work of linguists, even though they may be entirely sincere in their desire to serve alongside language communities through Bible translation, literacy, language survey, and other forms of language development. Cultural understanding goes a long way towards facilitating harmony and productivity. Some key factors to discover include:

  • What do people value?
  • What are the rituals that are significant to life here, and what do they mean?
  • Does this culture have a more individualist or communal ethic?
  • How do they think about work?
  • How is authority and power established?
  • What is the culturally-sanctioned way to address conflict?
  • How do they feel about their language?

When I was a student in the Master of Applied Linguistics and Exegesis program, I did my ethnographic research in the Langley Gardens Senior’s Home – a resident care facility with three levels of assisted living. It was an impactful experience; I missed conversing with the residents when my course there came to an end. I doubt that any ethnographer has had participants who were more eager than mine during interviews! I was regaled with stories of a time when “Vancouver had character and characters!” I found that the majority of seniors had lost their spouse, and the fact that they were surrounded by other seniors who had also lost their spouse created a shared sense of connection – an implicit support group. There was no avoiding the connection between loss, and age and death, which sometimes came out in wry humour.

In the Ethnography class at CanIL, students conduct their research in local settings, using methodology and hopefully acquiring healthy attitudes (ie. teachability) that will be transferable to their future contexts abroad. Because the settings are local, a student may go into his or her observation thinking that he or she is quite familiar with social and cultural situation already, only to discover after close observation and participation that there is much going on beneath the surface that isn’t obvious to the casual observer. After being granted the proper university approval concerning research on human subjects, our students have conducted their ethnographic research in a variety of situations, including a curling rink, an art center, a fishing dock, swing dancing, shopping centers, martial arts training, an eye clinic, a bus stop, and many more.

In keeping with the practical and applied focus of our linguistics programs, Anthropological Linguistics: Ethnography is a required course for the Master of Applied Linguistics and Exegesis and Bachelor of Arts in Applied Linguistics degree programs and a recommended course for our Master of Arts in Linguistics program. It is also required for 7 out of 8 of our short-term training tracks, including Literacy Specialist, Lexicographer, Language Surveyor, Scripture Engagement Specialist, Linguistics Technician, Field Linguist, and Translation Specialist.


Murchison, J.M. (2010). Ethnography Essentials: Designing, Conducting, and Presenting Your Research. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Danesi, M. (2004). Messages, Signs, and Meanings: A Basic Textbook in Semiotics and Communication Theory. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.

Gobo, G. (2008). Doing Ethnography. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.