The ethnography of communication is an academic field of study that was first conceptualized as a branch of sociolinguistics by researchers during the 1950s and early 1960s. As an academic discipline, it studies and analyzes how language is used in cultural settings. Originally, this branch of study was actually called the ethnography of speaking, but the term was changed so the field could also include studies in both the non-verbal facets of communication. Most of the studies done in this area, however, tend to be mainly concerned with speaking, because that is regarded as the leading means of communication.
As a discipline at least partially based in linguistics, the ethnography of communication takes a somewhat different view of communication and language than do other linguistic theories, such as structuralism or transformational grammar. In contrast with these theories, it has as a basic premise, or theory, the view that the meaning of a particular expression or vocalization can be understood only in relation to the speech event or culture in which it is embedded. The view of this field is that communication is an uninterrupted flow of information and not an exchange or transmission of disconnected, separate messages. Communications, rather than specific languages, provide the frame of reference for analyzing the place of language in any particular society or culture.
The focus of studies in the field is on individual speech communities, which are clusters of people using common signs to communicate. Particularly, communication ethnography is interested in the way that communication within a speech community is organized into various systems of communication events and how they interact with every other system in the culture. It looks to answer the basic question of what a speaker needs to know to communicate correctly and appropriately within a given speech community and how a speaker learns to do this.
A researcher might analyze different speech situations, such as ceremonies, or speech events, such as sermons, greetings or compliments, to determine how their structure and content are culturally determined. Regardless of the topic of the study, researchers in the ethnography of communication focus on a speech community. They study speech communities as diverse as African tribal groups or people in highly industrialized societies. Such a community might even be users of a website or message board, if they share rules for speaking to each other online.