Federal Programs:

Ethnographic Studies Can Inform Agencies' Actions

GAO-03-455: Published: Mar 31, 2003. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2003.

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Donna M. Heivilin
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In this time of emphasis on performance and results, federal agencies and congressional committees can benefit from knowing the full range of social science methods that can help them improve the programs they oversee. Among the methods they might consider are those of ethnography, derived from anthropology. However, information about the past and present uses of ethnography to improve federal programs has not been systematically gathered or analyzed. Therefore, the potential for program improvement may be overlooked. Ethnography can fill gaps in what we know about the community whose beliefs and behavior affect how federal programs operate. This can be especially useful when such beliefs or behavior present barriers to a program's objectives. Ethnography helps build knowledge of a community by observing its members and by interviewing them in their natural setting. Although many people associate ethnography with lengthy anthropological research aimed at cultures remote from our own, it can be used to inform public programs and has a long history of application in the federal government.

Our aim in this study has been to describe how federal agencies have used the results of ethnographic studies to improve agency programs, policies, and procedures. We have done this by examining the range and scope of the use of ethnography in the federal government. In working through a network of anthropologists in the federal government and other social science networks, among our other resources, we constructed a list of examples of the use of ethnography that were established, not merely once-time or grant-funded, elements in agency programs. From this list, we have been able to present case studies that illustrate different agencies whose application of ethnography varies in purpose, method, and the use of results. We believe that this study not only provides examples of how the federal government uses ethnography but also suggests some means of expanding and improving its use of ethnography and its results. We hope that it will provide a resource to agencies that face site-specific or broader issues involving communities or populations important to program success.

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