Ethnography 101 Masterclass
Ethnography 101 Masterclass

On 5th June 2021, ABYA held its very first cultural masterclass – Ethnography 101: Seeing, Understanding & Using “Culture” In Our Daily Lives. We had the privilege of hearing from Dr Priscilla, a historian and anthropologist, who kindly shared with us her ethnographic research journey, using heartfelt anecdotes from her fieldwork and social experiences in Vietnam.

Written by: Ong Hui Min
Edited by: Isabelle Goh

Dr Priscilla started the masterclass with an introduction on Vietnam’s culture and history and shared with us her first impressions and often humorous encounters while doing research in Vietnam. The masterclass was highly interactive as participants were encouraged to ask questions throughout, allowing us to easily clarify our understanding.


Dr Priscilla’s sharing emphasised the importance of understanding cultural differences and nuances  in Vietnam. As a culture that values trust, community and ‘sentiment’, social ties and connections are essential as they can open doors to more ethnographic opportunities and richer data. It is thus important to spend time building connections and trust with the people or culture you are interested in understanding more about.

She also shared with us her research on the notions of belonging, identity, home and homeland among the returning diaspora in Vietnam. Her findings highlighted that economic and social capital acquired in an overseas setting do not necessarily translate to social acceptance and cultural belonging in Vietnam. Common descent alone does no guarantee social acceptance by the local community. Returnees have to learn and adapt to local cultural norms and expectations in their professional and personal lives there.



During the masterclass, participants also shared their observations and reflections on two videos about Vietnamese Food culture. Some of the key takeaways were the importance of market research and in depth understanding of the specific consumer market traits and needs. Additionally, it was pointed out that the Vietnamese seem more inclined to consume local street food, which was not only more affordable, but also served important communal and social needs.


Dr Priscilla also highlighted that the output of an ethnographic research could come in different forms ranging from formal academic papers to films and books. The two books recommended by Dr Priscilla were:

– Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo in 2012

-The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, a book by Anne Fadiman in 1997.



So, what is Ethnography? In essence, it is a process of studying a social or cultural group with the aim of generating meaningful results. It places an emphasis on the ”insider’s perspective”. One who engages in ethnographic research would have to keep an account of observations, interviews and analyse such research materials appropriately.


The session also covered fundamental aspects of the ethnographic research process and how to record our observations both descriptively and reflectively.

In addition, Dr Priscilla also shared some of the ways in which ethnographic research have adapted to the “new norms” of the pandemic. The landscape of fieldwork has changed rather significantly with other non-contact methods gaining prevalence such as online interviews, digital and social media observations gaining popularity among researchers keen on carrying out *safely distanced* observations and surveys.


Listed below are the checklist items to review when doing field research, as recommended by Dr Priscilla, which may prove useful for researchers doing fieldwork!


The cultural masterclass will not end after a single session. Instead, we hope to continue with a “sequel” in July 2021! Prior to this second masterclass, participants will have the opportunity to embark on a group/individual field research project which will be shared and reviewed in that session. These research projects will be focused on how the pandemic has affected various aspects of culture and society.


I look forward to deepening my understanding of ethnography and sharpening my critical and analytical thinking skills by putting my new understanding of the field into practice.