The “Real Ethnography” of Michael Agar

Several years ago, when working on Applied Qualitative Research Design, I began reading the works of Michael Agar. To simply say that Agar was an anthropologist would be cutting him short; and, indeed, Anthropology News, in an article published shortly after Agar’s death in May 2017, described him as

“a linguistic anthropologist, a cultural anthropologist, almost an South Asianist, a drug expert, a medical anthropologist, an applied anthropologist, a practicing anthropologist, a public anthropologist, a professional anthropologist, a professional stranger, a theoretical anthropologist, an academic anthropologist, an independent consultant, a cross cultural consultant, a computer modeler, an agent-based modeler, a complexity theorist, an environmentalist, a water expert, a teacher…”

One doesn’t need to look far to be enlightened as well as entertained by Mike Agar – On the “Scribblings” page of his Ethknoworks website, he lightheartedly rants about the little money most authors make in royalties stating “If you divide money earned by time invested in writing and publishing, you’ll see that you’d do better with a paper route in Antarctica.” It may be this combined ability to enlighten and entertain that drew me to Agar and keeps me ever mindful of the words he has written and the ideas he instilled.

For some reason I come back to his 2006 article “An Ethnography By Any Other Name…”. In it, Agar explores the question “What is a real ethnography?” with discussions of debates (“tension”) between anthropologists and sociologists, and about various nuances such as whether applied anthropology is actually “real” given that “ethnography no longer meant a year or more by yourself in a village far from home” (Agar, 2006, p. 4), where ethnographers’ focus should be (the community or a particular problem), and geographical (Agar was deemed a “South Asianist”) and institutional labels. These debates have sparked many questions including “Is educational ethnography really ethnography?” (Agar, 2006, p.3) as well as the provocative, Is ethnography really “qualitative research”? These days, Agar might also wonder about modern-day “in-home ethnographies” and “video ethnography,” asking What are these approaches really, and can we really call them “ethnography”?

Of particular interest in this 2006 article is Agar’s discussion of what he considers “acceptable and unacceptable ethnography,” and specifically his focus on abductive logic along with meaning and context. The emphasis here is on the idea that any ethnography “has to produce new concepts” untethered from earlier or existing theories and instead emerging from the researcher’s embrace of “surprises” in the data and an eagerness to pursue them. This willingness to pursue revolutionary observations in the data also supports the added notion of “iterative abduction” which speaks to a flexible approach to ethnography, e.g., altering the interview guide as warranted after each set of two or three interviews. Flexibility is an important attribute to qualitative research and is actually one of 10 unique attributes discussed in an earlier article in Research Design Review.

But acceptable ethnography, according to Agar, goes beyond abductive logic to include meaning and context. Importantly, Agar is referring to the meaning and context which is derived from absorbing a different point of view while in pursuit of surprising concepts. In doing so, the ethnographer is not looking for or analyzing “variables” within an observed event but rather “patterns” of behavior or activities. Like flexibility, meaning and context are two of the 10 unique attributes associated with qualitative research as discussed in the RDR article mentioned earlier. Going one step further, I would suggest that meaning, context, as well as the participant-researcher relationship are the three unique attributes of qualitative research that underscore and serve to define the remaining seven attributes.

An article posted in RDR in 2014 concerns the very topic of contextual meaning in ethnography – see “Observational Research Nurtures a Growing Interest in Contexts.” This article talks briefly about sensory ethnography, quoting Dawnel Volzke

“I find that I am much more able to ‘do sensory ethnography’ when I slow down and take the time to properly assess people and situations. My bias and assumptions need to be set aside, and I must seek to truly sense the truth about the object that I am studying. My view must be both broad and detailed, and my account to others must embody the truest picture possible.”

As in all qualitative research, the research skills of most import in the ethnographic approach are those of patience, reflection, the ability to set aside assumptions and beliefs while also embracing the meaning and context of our participants in order to come as close as we are capable to their reality.

Thank you, Michael Agar.

Agar, M. (2006). An ethnography by any other name…. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7(4), 1–24.

Image captured from:

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.