The Promise of Ethnography for the Study of Politics

Date01 December 2014
Published date01 December 2014
Subject MatterNotes on Methods
Military-Madrasa-Mullah Complex 237
India Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010): 133–149
A Global Threat 237
Notes on Methods*
The Promise of Ethnography
for the Study of Politics
Satendra Kumar
Mainstream political scientists largely prefer broad-based modelling, inter-country comparisons and
quantitative analysis of politics instead of close analysis of messy political conjunctures.1 Even when
political scientists examine political events or change at the level of the village or urban neighbourhood,
they tend to compare many different settlements using a survey approach (for example, Krishna, 2003).
However, appreciation of the micro aspects of politics, including people’s own understanding of the
political, is crucial. On-the-ground, close-up, real-time and long-term observation of people and institu-
tions can offer special insights for the study of politics. The ethnographic gaze can challenge many
assumptions of traditional political studies and may call for a significant re-theorization.
In this note, I present an overview of why the ethnographic approach should be seen as a useful tool
for students of Indian Politics. I suggest three advantages of the ethnographic approach. First, ethno-
graphic studies open a window into micro aspects of politics. Second, this approach is well equipped to
capture a messy and complex picture at the local level by privileging the informants’ point of view or the
emic perspective. Ethnography unravels the intentions and meanings people assign to their actions. An
ethnographic approach provides an opportunity to observe people in different settings through long-term
engagement and immersion into their real lives in contrast to a formal interview or a focus group discus-
sion. Third, the ethnographic approach involves not simply asking people questions but also closely
observing their actions. Carrying out research in the everyday life environments of participants helps to
identify discrepancies between what people say they do and what they actually do. The main objective
of an ethnographic study is to capture the insider’s views or as Malinowski puts it, ‘to grasp the native’s
point of view’ (Malinowski, 1922, p. 25). By extension, the idea is to delineate the inner dynamics of the
functioning of a group, culture or neighbourhood in a holistic manner. Very often, an ethnographic study
is also treated as a micro-study or an in-depth study in social science parlance, though there could be a
sharp difference between a micro-study and an ethnographic study in their objectives and methods.
While the ethnographic study is primarily based on insider’s views and interpretations, a micro-study
may not necessarily involve them.
In contrast with an ethnographer who usually tries to probe the culture and consciousness, the
scholar pursuing a micro-study strives to define the micro-processes evident at the grassroots level.
An ethnographer not only makes observations, as a participant observer, of so-called trivial events,
Satendra Kumar, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad. E-mail:
Studies in Indian Politics
2(2) 237–242
© 2014 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2321023014551889
*This section is coordinated by Divya Vaid (

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