Federal Programs: Ethnographic Studies Can Inform Agencies' Actions

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

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