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Anthony Kwame Harrison

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780199371785

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199371785.001.0001

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Introduction to Ethnography

Introduction to Ethnography

(p.1) 1 Introduction to Ethnography

Anthony Kwame Harrison

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter introduces ethnography as a distinct research and writing tradition. The author begins by historically contextualizing ethnography’s professionalization within the fields of anthropology and sociology. While highlighting the formidable influences of, for example, Bronislaw Malinowski and the Chicago school, the author complicates existing understandings by bringing significant, but less-recognized, influences and contributions to light. The chapter next outlines three principal research methods that most ethnographers utilize—namely, participant-observation, fieldnote writing, and ethnographic interviewing. The discussion then shifts from method to methodology to explain the primary qualities that separate ethnography from other forms of participant-observation-oriented research. This includes introducing a research disposition called ethnographic comportment, which serves as a standard for gauging ethnography throughout the remainder of the book. The author presents ethnographic comportment as reflecting both ethnographers’ awarenesses of and their accountabilities to the research tradition in which they participate.

Keywords:   anthropology, Chicago school, ethnographic comportment, fieldnotes, interviewing, Malinowski, methodology, participant-observation

In this book, Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research), I offer a wide-ranging guide for conceptualizing, understanding, and critically assessing ethnographic research. Through various discussions, I introduce important issues surrounding research design, implementation, presentation, and evaluation. This book is not intended as a “how to” manual, although certain sections present fundamentals of “how to” conduct ethnographic research in abridged form. Keeping with the title of the series, my aim is to provide an introduction for how to think about and understand ethnography as a research, writing, and representational practice.

Writing a book like this is no small undertaking. As a professionalized research tradition, ethnography has existed for about a 100 years—a short enough timeframe to map its origins but long enough to make the prospect of supplying a thorough historical treatment untenable. As I make clear in the following paragraphs, ethnography enjoys a current popularity—one might even say, “fashionability”—throughout many corridors of academia and increasingly in the professional world. Whether browsing the stacks of a university library or conducting an online search, the volume of work falling under the heading “ethnography” and/or (p.2) claiming to be in some way ethnographic is massive. I am very aware that, in writing this book, I contribute to feeding this behemoth. I would not do so without believing that I have something new and useful to contribute.

In keeping with contemporary ethnographic conventions, I begin by positioning myself as a scholar trained in cultural anthropology, who has spent the majority of his career teaching in a sociology department and interdisciplinary program in Africana studies. For several years now, I have taught a graduate seminar on qualitative research methodologies that draws students from fields as diverse as women’s and gender studies, urban affairs and planning, interior design and architecture, forestry, and theater. With research interests in racial identification and popular culture, I’ve traveled both within and outside of academic fields where ethnography is “at home.” These experiences, I believe, provide me with an informed basis for articulating what ethnography is—or what I believe it should be—thus distinguishing it from other forms of qualitative fieldwork-based research. At the same time, this insider–outsider positioning allows me to anticipate some of the misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations regarding its practices and usage.

From the outset, I should make clear that this book represents a “generalist approach” to understanding ethnography. I do not say this to minimize its importance—in fact, quite the opposite. At a historical moment when numerous cutting-edge types of ethnography have emerged, each having its own descriptive qualification,1Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research) comes with no such qualifiers (see Karam, 2007). It treats ethnography, first and foremost, in its standard sense: as a tradition of research and mode of representing (writing) social life. Throughout Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research), I aim to strike a balance between valuing ethnography’s historical foundations and recognizing the particular character of its contemporary situatedness. I do my best to avoid schizophrenic toggling between, for instance, the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first. However, one contribution of this book, which I take very seriously, is that it introduces students and others who are less familiar with ethnography to founding principles that continue to inform its contemporary practices.2

(p.3) Introductory Understandings

In this opening chapter, I introduce readers to what ethnography is, how it emerged as a professionalized research practice, and what those practices entail. Such a project is admittedly limited in that, to me, one of the great virtues of ethnography is its inherently expansive and continually expanding nature. Nevertheless, there are both core principles and recognized historical precedents that I believe anyone claiming to do ethnography should be aware of and subscribe to. The imperfect process of outlining these is especially critical at a time when ethnography has become something of a buzzword—often simply serving as a proxy for social science field research. Key to the project of defining ethnography, then, is the importance of giving some clarity as to when the label is being properly or improperly used.

In making such a declaration, from the outset I am positioning Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research) in relation to ongoing debates regarding how strictly the borders of ethnography should be policed. Where some see value in providing a more inclusive definition that does not make ironclad distinctions between ethnography and other forms of qualitative fieldwork (Bailey, 2007; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995), others understand their charge—in writing a book or essay about ethnography—as identifying and communicating the essential qualities that do, in fact, distinguish it from qualitative research more broadly (Forsythe, 1999; Spindler & Spindler, 1987; Van Maanen, 2011; Wolcott 1987). I am admittedly partial to this second approach. If this book was simply about doing fieldwork-based qualitative research, outlining what I see as the best approaches, regardless of what we call them, might be enough. However, as a broader undertaking with the additional goals of (a) guiding novice researchers through the process of designing and representing ethnographic projects and (b) serving as a resource for evaluating the ethnographic reporting of others, I recognize both an opportunity and a purpose to providing a more specific sense of what ethnography is.

Part of the problem issues from the fact that ethnographic research practices closely resemble “the routine ways in which people make sense of the world everyday” (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, p. 2). To paraphrase my colleague Carol A. Bailey, no one would think of doing multiple linear regressions without statistical (p.4) data analysis training, yet, quite regularly, people with no background in qualitative research claim to be doing ethnography (see also Schwandt, 2000, p. 206 n. 3). Commenting on the current popularity of “ethnography” in consumer research, Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita M. Denny (2007) remark:

A myriad of research techniques . . . (from the few-minute in-store intercept interview, to the one-hour “depth interview,” to the online focus group) have become redefined as “ethnographic” with barely any change in the underlying assumptions regarding method or analysis. Researchers have transformed themselves into “ethnographers” with few changes in practice beyond the name. (pp. 13–14)

While this example is specific to a single nonacademic arena (consumer research), I argue that even within the academy the proliferation of ethnography warrants a similar response. In his book The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Elijah Anderson (2011) defines folk ethnography as “a form of people watching that allows individuals informally to gather evidence in social interactions that supports their own viewpoints or transforms their commonsense understandings of social life” (p. xv). Although Anderson views this as positive development, it concerns me that the distinction between folk ethnography and ethnography is blurring. I hope this book provides some correction to the notion of ethnography as a qualitative research free-for-all, open for anyone, regardless of background or training, to undertake. As Diana E. Forsythe (1999) argued, it is not “just a matter of common sense.” Ethnography is a specific approach to research with a rich history and established yet evolving set of guiding principles. For those of us who take ethnography seriously, it involves training (usually through advanced coursework and mentorship), reflection, and accountability.

Ethnography, of course, has been variously defined. The following are just a few examples:

  • James P. Spradley and David W. McCurdy (1972) provide a deceptively simple definition when they explain ethnography as “the task of describing a particular culture” (p. 3). (p.5)

  • John Van Maanen (2011) elaborates that it is “the study and representation of culture as used by particular people, in particular places, at particular times” (p. 155).

  • Lila Abu-Lughod (2000), in turn, explains ethnography as “the textual rendering of social worlds” (p. 261).

  • Finally, Laura Nader (2011) defines it as “a theory of description” (p. 211).3

In this small sampling we can see that ethnography involves studying, describing, representing, and theorizing (with a certain degree of particularity) a culture or social world.

Ethnography references both a research and inscription (i.e., writing-process-to-written-product) practice. Ethnography is research in that it describes a methodology (distinguished from a research method) usually conceptualized as involving participant-observation within a community or field of study.4 Thus, a person can speak of doing ethnographic research within, for instance, a migrant community in Accra, Ghana (Pellow, 2002) or among wandering musical performers in India and Bangladesh (Knight, 2011). At the same time, it is an inscription practice in that the products or ethnographic research—typically books like Edmund Leach’s (1954) classic Political Systems of Highland Burma or, more recently, Riché J. Daniel Barnes’s (2016) Raising the Race—are referred to as ethnographies.5

As a research tradition, ethnography’s roots are most firmly planted in the fields of anthropology and qualitative sociology: the former, most often credited to the innovations of Polish-born, British-trained Bronislaw Malinowski; the latter, usually attributed to a collection of researchers associated with the University of Chicago—commonly referred to as the Chicago school. Though these origin myths have been widely discussed and debated (see Becker, 1999; Harrison, 2014a; Kuper, 1996; Stocking, 1983a) and some treatments suggest ethnography began as early as the Greeks and Romans (Arens, 1979), I nevertheless cast it as a relatively recent methodology, which came of age with the professionalization of both disciplines during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Since its early twentieth-century crystallization, ethnographic practices have spread at an accelerating pace to numerous additional fields, including cultural studies, folklore, education, psychology, (p.6) geography, women’s studies, history, criminology, political science, communications, leisure studies, counseling, nursing, psychiatry, medicine, social work, planning, management, marketing, industrial engineering, and law (see Denzin & Lincoln, 2008; Jones & Watt, 2010; Tedlock, 2000), just to name a few. Similarly, practices of ethnographic inquiry are continually expanding. They currently include several traditional qualitative research methods outlined in the pages ahead, as well as more recent innovations that cross into visual and sensory studies (Pink, 2001, 2009), the arts (Leavy, 2009; Schneider & Wright, 2010), autobiography (Adams, Jones & Ellis, 2014; Okely, 1992), and performance studies (Davida, 2012; Denzin, 2003). This is not the place to elaborate on the various dimensions of these multiple approaches, yet I want to be clear in stating that all cohere with the general understanding of ethnography that I am putting forward here.

Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research) follows a five-chapter sequence. My aim in this first, introductory chapter is to establish a foundational understanding of ethnography as a research and writing tradition. Understandings of the past are critical to how we move through the present and into the future, and with the rate of ethnography’s recent proliferated, I see a need to historically anchor its research practices. Accordingly, I spend a good deal of this first chapter contextualizing ethnography’s professionalization in anthropology and urban sociology. In both of these efforts, I seek to complicate existing conceptions by bringing significant, but often less-recognized, influences and contributions to light. I next outline what I consider to be the three principal research methods that most (if not all) ethnographers utilize—namely, participant-observation, fieldnote writing, and ethnographic interviewing. In the final section of the chapter, I shift from method to methodology by explaining the primary qualities that I see separating the ethnographer from the (more general) participant-observation-based fieldworker. If participant-observation and fieldnote writing are understood as primary modes of ethnographic inquiry but not ethnography itself, then what key attributes distinguish the ethnographic from the nonethnographic? Part of this involves introducing a concept that I call ethnographic comportment, which will serve as a standard for engaging and gauging ethnography throughout the remaining chapters. From these basic understandings, we are poised to move into more elaborate discussions of (p.7) how ethnographic research projects are designed (Chapter 2), how ethnographic methodologies are represented in texts (Chapter 3), approaches to ethnographic writing (Chapter 4), and, finally, how to evaluate the quality of an ethnography (Chapter 5).

Professionalization of the Practice

In this section I outline key factors, figures, and events that contributed to ethnography’s emergence as a genre of academic research/writing during the early decades of the twentieth century. Substantive discussions of developments since this formative period will be integrated throughout the book—appearing as currents and eddies covering topics as varying as paradigmatic shifts, different modes of data collection, researchers’ increasing accountability to the communities they research, and the changing nature of the ethnographic “field.” My rationale for this, in part, comes from a recognition that the disciplines having the longest history with ethnography—namely, anthropology and sociology—do not experience coherent radical paradigm shifts but rather methodically evolve through influential cohorts, generational changes in accepted practice, and “big conversations” within the field (Darnell, 2001; Gay y Blasco & Wardle, 2007). Throughout its 100-year history, the meanings and practices associated with ethnography have been continually contested. Thus, an accounting of the changes that have taken place is better achieved through multiple discussions of particular issues, tensions, and seminal works, as opposed to one all-encompassing historical treatment.

It is nevertheless important to set the stage for these subsequent discussions by providing a historical context for understanding not only how ethnography’s practices and dispositions came into being but also how they have been discussed and imagined (Marcus, 1998). I focus my attention on what George Stocking (1989) calls the “emergent moment” of fieldwork as the central research practice occurring within the context of the “academicization” of anthropology (p. 209; see also Marcus & Cushman, 1982) as well as some branches of sociology. It was during this formative period when ethnographers first embraced the self-conscious awareness that they were participating in (and contributing to) a research tradition. One of the principle measures through which I gauge the caliber of contemporary ethnography (p.8) is an historically informed politics of positionality that I call ethnographic comportment—discussed in greater detail at the end of the chapter. Accordingly, a familiarity with the foundational history of ethnography is vital.


During the first two decades of the twentieth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, the nascent academic field of social/cultural anthropology crystallized around a reorientation away from the traditional model of armchair theorizing—best exemplified in the formidable influence of Edward Burnett Tylor—and toward a serious investment in ways of going about collecting and using data.6 The various learned societies dedicated to anthropological interests that emerged during the nineteenth century relied primarily on the reports of colonial administrators, military officers, missionaries, traders, and other travelers for their information. The new class of professional anthropological intellectuals that came into being through these organizations prioritized the need for more formal—and less prejudiced, sensationalized, and unequivocally racist—standards of scientific reporting. British anthropologist Barbara Freire-Marreco observed:

A very dangerous division of labour [had occurred] between the self-made anthropologist in the field—travellers, traders, missionaries, administrators—who were acquiring fragmentary details of savage life, and the literary anthropologists working them into theories at home. Work of great interest and value was being done, but the fact remains that it was not scientific in the strict sense, because the class of evidence supplied by the untrained collectors did not constitute the right material for scientific induction. (quoted in Myers, 1929, p. 29)

In this interest, various sets of anthropological questionnaires and field guides were developed, initially for inexpert travelers but overtime increasingly toward the goal of fostering “precise and exacting” methods among field anthropologists (Urry, 1972, p. 51). The most famous of these was Notes and Queries on Anthropology, issued jointly by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the (Royal) Anthropological Institute.7 Another effort (p.9) to circumvent the limitations of untrained, biased, and otherwise disinterested reporting involved expeditions featuring teams of specialized experts—most notably the Cambridge Torres Straits Expedition of 1898 (Stocking, 1983a); the multiyear Jesup North Pacific Expedition, which lasted from 1897 to 1901 (Rohner, 1969); and a series of privately funded and Bureau of American Ethnology-sponsored expeditions to the American Southwest, occurring throughout the late nineteenth century (Judd, 1967).8

Despite parallel methodological developments, the anthropology community in England lacked the disciplinary organization and academic recognition of its U.S. counterpart (Wallis, 1957).9 With no British anthropology departments, those associated with the field thought it prudent to draw terminological distinctions between different research objectives. Initially, the term ethnology referred to efforts to reconstruct the history of particular peoples, including their language and material culture as reflected in the archaeological record; social anthropology, on the other hand, focused on comparative studies of societies toward the goal of discovering universal laws (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952). Amidst these organizing efforts, in a 1909 meeting of the principals from Oxford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics—the foremost institutes for the study of anthropology in England—it was decided that the term ethnography would be used in specific reference to “descriptive accounts of non-literate peoples” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952, p. 276). We can thus mark this 1909 meeting as arguably the first collective effort to delineate ethnography as the primary mode of research representation within the rapidly professionalizing field.10 By agreeing on a name for its developing methodology, the British anthropological community set the stage for Malinowski to soon emerge as its mythical founder (Jones, 2010; Kuper, 1996).

The following year, a young Bronislaw Malinowski—having earned a PhD in physics and mathematics from Jagiellonian University in Poland and taken two semesters of coursework under the famed “father of experimental psychology” (Hilgard, 1980), Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig in Germany—first traveled to England. Upon arriving he quickly became associated with many of the nation’s leading ethnologists, including Alford Cort Haddon, Charles Seligman, and William H. R. Rivers, who had all participated in the Torres Straits Expedition.11 Under their collective mentorship, Malinowski would embark on his first (p.10) South Pacific fieldwork in 1914. After a six-month “apprentice’s trial run” on the island of Mailu in southern New Guinea (Kuper, 1996, p. 12), the young researcher would more famously carry out two extensive periods, each lasting one year—1915–1916 and 1917–1918—in the Trobriand Islands.12

During his initial Mailu fieldwork, Malinowski realized that his research became more productive when isolated from the prejudicial influences of the European administrators, missionaries, and traders who were also present on the island. Writing about this experience in his first major ethnographic monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski (1922/1966) recounted, “It was not until I was alone in the district that I began to make some headway” (p. 6). This revelation sparked one of his most noted contributions to the practice of ethnography, which George Stocking (1983b) describes as “a shift in the primary locus of investigation, from the deck of the mission ship or the verandah of the mission station to the teeming center of the village” (p. 93). Such a positional shift facilitated a corresponding adjustment to Malinowski’s ethnographic posture:

In this type of work, it is good for the Ethnographer sometimes to put aside camera, note book and pencil, and to join in himself in what is going on.13 . . . Out of such plunges into the life of the native . . . I have carried away a distinct feeling that their behavior, their manner of being, in all sorts of tribal transactions, became more transparent and easily understandable than it had before. (Malinowski, 1922/1966, pp. 21–22)

In the most celebrated histories of anthropology, the idea of participant-observation-based fieldwork, which is at core of modern ethnography, came into being through these innovations. Yet, the myth of Malinowski’s methodological revolution—his prominent position as the founding father of modern ethnography (Kuper, 1996)—belies the tremendous efforts and attention toward refining anthropological research methods that were taking place prior to his arrival in England, as well as across the Atlantic. In addition to the aforementioned development of research field guides and forays into research expedition teams, the work of William H. R. Rivers deserves special attention.

(p.11) Starting in 1907, Rivers would have a leading role in revising the 1912 edition of Notes and Queries on Anthropology. His revelatory contributions, particularly to the new expanded section on sociology, marked a “radical change” from earlier editions (Urry, 1972, p. 51). In 1914, when Malinowski embarked on his initial fieldwork experience in Mailu, he carried a copy of the 1912 edition of Notes and Queries and consulted with it closely (Urry, 1972, pp. 52–54; see also Malinowski, 1967/1989). Months before Malinowski’s departure, Rivers published what is regarded as the most thorough explication of what he called “intensive work” (to be distinguished from the more comparative and informationally superficial, “survey work”):

A typical piece of intensive work is one in which the worker lives for a year or more among a community of perhaps four or five hundred people and studies every detail of their life and culture; in which he comes to know every member of the community personally; in which he is not content with generalized information, but studies every feature of life and custom in concrete detail and by means of the vernacular language. It is only by such work that one can realize the immense extent of the knowledge which is now awaiting the inquirer, even in places where the culture has already suffered much change. It is only by such work that it is possible to discover the incomplete and even misleading character of much of the vast mass of survey work which forms the existing material of anthropology. (Rivers, 1913, p. 7)

When Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published in 1922, Malinowski’s methodological prescripts were received as breakthroughs in the theory of ethnographic fieldwork (Leach, 1957/2000c, p. 44).14 However, comparing Argonauts with the dictates of intensive (field) work outlined by Rivers, it is clear that despite Malinowski’s claims to being “the creator of an entirely new academic discipline” (Leach, 1957/2000c, p. 49), his methodological contributions were not as groundbreaking as is often suggested.

Another challenge to Malinowski’s position as archetypal ethnographer comes from North America where Franz Boas and his students were also in the process of establishing fieldwork as “the basic constituting experience both of anthropologists and of anthropological knowledge” (Stocking, 1989, p. 210). Boas (p.12) conducted his first fieldwork “on the language, customs and habits of the Eskimo” (i.e., Inuit) as part of a yearlong geographic expedition to Baffin Island that he organized in 1883 (Cole, 1983, p. 15). His research itinerary, which included an overland trip across Baffin Island, would make him vulnerable to the environment he came to study and, in all likelihood, obliged a degree of immersion into or dependence on Inuit life ways. Excerpts from the letter-diary Boas wrote to his sweetheart, Marie Krackowizer—the Arctic isolation prevented correspondence between them—corroborate this. For example, On February 15, 1884—approximately six and a half months after landing on Baffin Island—Boas wrote, “I am now a true Eskimo. I live as they do [in an igloo], hunt with them [seal with a spear] and belong to the men of Anarnitung” (Cole, 1983, p. 40).

Though Boas left Baffin with the sense that neither his geographic nor anthropological research had been a resounding success, through the latter he established a foundation for fieldwork—based on proximity to research subjects, language study, intensive data collection, and recognition of common human dignity—that he would develop over the next few decades. Four additional points about Boas’s methodology, which in teaching to his students came to define the American anthropological tradition, warrant mentioning:

  1. 1. His emphasis on the “four-field approach”—which involved a combination of cultural study (ethnography), language study (linguistics), biological study (physical anthropology), and historical material study (archaeology).

  2. 2. His practice of collaborating with native informants—the most notable among these being George Hunt (see Lassiter, 2005).

  3. 3. His advocacy for the importance of documenting what he saw as rapidly disappearing cultures in their entirety, thus according them their rightful place in a collective human history (Clifford, 1986b; Lassiter & Campbell, 2010).

  4. 4. His career-long campaign against the unilineal evolutionist models of understanding human difference, which dominated nineteenth-century ethnology15—as an alternative, Boas proposed a framework that considered each culture’s unique historical development.

(p.13) Each of the previous points magnified American anthropology’s focus on intensive fieldwork observations, meticulous cultural description, and informational synthesis. They furthermore inspired what Luke Eric Lassiter and Elizabeth Campbell (2010) describe as an “optimism for ethnography’s capacity to change—for the better—our ways of thinking about and understanding each other” (p. 763).

There are yet other ways in which American anthropologists had methodological advantages over their British counterparts. First, American fieldworkers, many of whom conducted research within Native American communities, simply did not have to travel as far to reach their subjects.16 Second, since the start of the twentieth century, anthropology in America had been professionalized under the direction of Boas. Having started the first PhD-granting anthropology programs in America—initially at Clark University and later at Columbia (Moore, 2009)—Boas had an institutional platform to advance his ideas regarding the importance of participant-observation-based fieldwork. Indeed, many of Boas’s students went on to start anthropology programs at other institutions, become leading figures in the field, and/or excel in other fields.17

The extent to which Malinowski’s methodological “innovations” were already well known in North America can be gleaned through Edward Gifford’s 1923 review of Argonauts in the journal American Anthropologist:

Throughout the book [Malinowski] dwells frequently and at great length on ethnographical method, a feature that the professional anthropologist will perhaps regard as pedantry; for the author sets forth those matters of method which must be obvious to every properly trained ethnologist. (Gifford, 1923, p. 102; see also Stocking, 1983a)

By the 1920s, then, on both sides of the Atlantic the virtues of participant-observation-based research18 had been legitimized to the extent that “those who went out from the university into the field . . . were confident they were doing ethnography in a different, more efficient, more reliable, more scientific way” than what had come before (Stocking, 1989, p. 209). Yet, considering the contributions of Rivers, Boas, and others,19 why did Malinowski emerge as ethnography’s credited founder? (p.14) His charismatic persona and capacity for self-promotion (Kluchholn, 1943) certainly played a role. As Gifford’s comment on his pedantic attention to methods suggests, Malinowski was exceedingly deliberate in drawing attention to his ethnographic “breakthroughs” (see also Leach, 1957/2000c). However, Malinowski’s position can also be attributed to what Stocking (1989) calls the “mythistorical processes of archetypification, which characteristically coalesce around nodes of person and of moment” (p. 208). In British anthropology particularly, the Great War ruptured the preceding decades of methodological momentum. As the last member of the Cambridge school to get into the field before the outbreak of war (Stocking 1983a, p. 82), Malinowski emerged from his South Pacific fieldwork with a fresh opportunity to relay how the methodological principles he had been trained in were implemented through practice—“without the burdens of catching up with new work or having to compete with others” (Urry, 1972, p. 54).

This is not to imply that Malinowski’s contributions weren’t notable in their own right. One of the most rehearsed explanations of ethnography contained within the pages on Argonauts is Malinowski’s oft-cited goal of “grasp[ing] the native’s point of view” (Malinowski, 1922/1966, p. 25). This decree to recognize and to some degree prioritize the subjectivity of non-Western peoples signaled a transformative moment in how anthropology was practiced. No longer simply viewed as the objects of study, the perspectives of these rational (native) actors provided the materials for developing relativist doctrines, which advocated for an internal logic underlying each culture, thus exposing the prejudicial nature of evaluative statements regarding evolutionary stages and/or degrees of morality. Malinowski was certainly not the first to acknowledge the importance of “native subjectivity”—in fact, several commentators have highlighted this as an area where American anthropologists greatly outpaced their British counterparts (Bunzl, 2004; Darnell, 2001; Lassiter & Campbell, 2010).20 Yet the significance of his powerful articulation of it—as a “goal, of which an ethnographer should never lose sight” (Malinowski, 1922/1966, p. 25)—is illustrated through the frequency with which he has been and continues to be cited. In addition, Malinowski is credited with establishing many of the fieldwork practices still widely adhered to within anthropology. Reading through them, (p.15) we can see parallels with the ideas put forth by Rivers, Boas, and others:

  • long-term residence by a trained researcher;

  • learning the local language rather than relying on interpreters;21

  • collecting as much data as possible on as wide a range of activities as possible—from the spectacular and ceremonial to the everyday and mundane—and taking copious fieldnotes; and

  • when possible, partaking in social activities as a participant-observer.

Together these dictates contributed to the formation of a fieldwork-based research approach that was progressive in its appreciation for the significance of language, cultural contextualization, and native subjectivities.

Although Malinowski was not singly responsible for authoring this program, his archetype status has been significant to its reification. Furthermore, his position during the interwar period as England’s “only master ethnographer,” helped him to further cement his progenitor status; Adam Kuper (1996) recounts that “virtually everyone who wished to do fieldwork in the modern fashion went to work with him” (p. 1).22 For most of the twentieth century and now continuing into the twenty-first, the image of “going off” to a fieldwork site far removed from the university community one is a part of, for a minimum of one year, has been a rite of passage within sociocultural anthropology. And for much of this time, the importance of conducting research in non-Western societies—what many have critiqued as anthropology’s intrinsic process of “othering” (Deloria, 1969; Magubane & Faris, 1985)—was rationalized as “absolutely essential” to the development of an anthropological perspectives (Mead, 1952, p. 346).

Chicago School Sociology

Whereas ethnography’s strongest disciplinary roots are unquestionably in anthropology, in the field of qualitative sociology—and particularly a tradition of urban studies associated with the University of Chicago—ethnographic approaches also gained (p.16) favor. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Chicago had a prominent place in America’s westward expansion, and between 1890 and 1930 the population of the city more than tripled. Thus in 1892, a newly formed sociology department (the first in the United States), as part of the newly established University of Chicago (founded in 1890), found itself situated in a young and volatile urban milieu featuring a diverse influx of immigrants (including Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles, Scandinavians, Jews, Czechs, Lithuanians, Croats, and African Americans from the U.S. South), as well as itinerant travelers. The rapidly industrializing city was ripe with ethnic tensions, class conflicts, poverty, political corruption, and everyday crime.23 By conceiving of urban life as an assemblage of “natural areas” or “little communities,” researchers affiliated with the University of Chicago imagined their city as a social laboratory through which to examine dynamics associated with assimilation, acculturation, amalgamation, and various forms of civic otherness (Vidich & Lyman, 2000).

William Isaac Thomas and Robert Ezra Park emerged as two leading figures in the development of what came to be known as the Chicago school.24 Thomas’s recognized contributions include bringing together two distinct sociological approaches of the period: (a) the rationalist production of grand theories regarding human society and social progress and (b) the practice of sociological fact gathering, based on observable evidence (Blumer, 1998; see also McKinney, 1966). This convergence embodies a long-standing debate regarding what ethnography is and/or should aspire to be. The key issue, to be discussed further in the following pages, surrounds whether ethnography exists as purely description—as the British anthropological community had decided in 1909 (see the previous Anthropology section)—or if a broader sociological/cultural analysis is a necessary accompaniment. Thomas additionally believed that personal documents such as diaries, letters, autobiographies, and other accounts of people’s life experiences held the key to understanding their perceptions of their world, or what he called “the definition of the situation” (Hannerz, 1980; Thomas, 1931).

As important as these contributions were, the ethnographic character of the Chicago school is most credited to Park (as well as to his associate Ernest Watson Burgess). With an extensive background in newspaper work and having served as “a sort of secretary” to Tuskegee Institute founder and notable (p.17) African-American spokesman Booker T. Washington (Faris, 1967, p. 28), Park arrived in Chicago in 1913—at the invitation of Thomas—with keen interests in issues surrounding urban life, race relations, ethnic heterogeneity, and processes of assimilation. Soon thereafter, Park dedicated himself to training graduate students, and, indeed, several of the most significant works to come out of the program during the interwar period were authored by his students (Blumer, 1998).25 Sometime during the 1920s, a young sociology graduate student named Howard P. Becker (not to be confused with the later and better-known Chicago-trained sociologist Howard S. Becker) quite famously recorded Park saying:

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and a liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find musty stack of routine records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats and filled out by reluctant applicants for aid or fussy do-gooders or indifferent clerks. This is called “getting your hands dirty in real research.” Those who counsel you are wise and honorable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needed: first-hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesk. In short, gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research. (Mckinney, 1966, p. 71; emphasis in original)

Through his role as series editor for the University of Chicago Press’s Sociological Series, Park extended the influence of Chicago sociology. Indeed, most of the classic “Chicago ethnographies” (Hannerz, 1980) of the 1920s and 1930s were published in this series. In his editor’s preface to the series inaugural publication—Nel’s Anderson’s The Hobo—Park (1923/1961) echoed Thomas’s emphasis on fact collecting as a means to theory building when he introduced the series as intended to

emphasize not so much the particular and local as the generic and universal aspects of the city and its life . . . [thus] not merely a contribution to our information but to our (p.18) permanent scientific knowledge of the city as a communal type. (p. xxvi)26

While ethnography has long-standing roots in sociology, its centrality to the discipline has never matched its position as the “hallmark methodology” of anthropology (Sunderland & Denny, 2007, p. 13). From the outset, sociology’s ethnographic efforts were firmly intertwined with anthropology. For example, until 1929 the department at Chicago was known as the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Thomas—regarded as “the most important appointment in the first twenty years of the department” (Hannerz, 1980, p. 21)—was regularly described as “working in anthropology” (Blumer, 1980, p. 53; Faris, 1967). Among other notable anthropologists in the department during these formative years were Boas’s students, Edward Sapir and Fay Cooper-Cole; Robert Redfield, who married Park’s daughter; and Ralph Linton, who taught classes there while affiliated with Chicago’s Field Museum (Faris, 1967). Thus, although Chicago sociologists gave a good deal of attention to particular aspects of methodological training, their most inspired forays into fieldwork were often characterized as a closer-to-home version of what anthropologists do.27

We can see this in Park’s justifications for the kinds of research he was most interested in advancing. In an important essay advocating for the scientific value of researching the city, Park (1925/1967) explained:

Anthropology, the science of man, has been mainly concerned up to the present with the study of primitive peoples. But civilized man is quite as interesting an object of investigation . . . The same patient methods of observation which anthropologists like Boas and Lowie have expended on the study of the life and manners of the North American Indian might be even more fruitfully employed in the investigation of the customs, beliefs, social practices, and general conceptions of life prevalent in Little Italy on the lower North Side in Chicago, or in recording the more sophisticated folkways of the inhabitants of Greenwich Village and the neighborhood of Washington Square, New York. (p. 3)

Years later, in describing his own attraction to this ethnographic tradition, Howard S. Becker (1999) explained, “You had all the (p.19) romance of anthropology but could sleep in your own bed and eat decent food” (p. 8).

Nevertheless, the model of urban-based fieldwork put forth by Chicago school sociologists was an important predecessor to the way ethnography is thought of and practiced today. For much of the twentieth century, anthropological field research focused on small isolated communities where it was possible get to know a majority of members, map out kinship relations, and at least imagine that one was getting a comprehensive portrayal of society.28 Today, virtually all ethnographers adopt a topic-oriented approach, which focuses on particular aspects of social networks within what are understood to be more complex and globally interconnected societies (Spradley, 1980). As a consequence of the metropolitan settings of their research, urban sociologists, unlike their colleagues in anthropology, were compelled to acknowledge that they were dealing with specific dimensions of social life and/or subcultures that were situated within larger societal contexts. Furthermore, in this shift from bounded, cultural wholes to, what Spradley and McCurdy (1972) call, interconnected cultural scenes, Thomas’s “definition of the situation” became an important conceptual tool through which to recast the fragmented and contingent basis of cultural understandings (p. 27). A cultural scene, according to Spradley and McCurdy, refers to “the knowledge which actors employ” in the observable places and events that make up a social situation (p. 27). Recurrent social situations both observe and are produced through collectively agreed upon symbols, perspectives, and norms of conduct—in other words, mutual definitions of the situation (see Thomas, 1931).

A lot has changed within ethnography since its formative period. Yet most major developments have been grounded in and/or reactions against fundamental tenets established within anthropology and (to a lesser degree) sociology. During this period anthropologists moved out of their armchairs, into the field, and eventually off the (colonial) verandas to begin immersing themselves within the communities they wished to learn about. This was also a moment when ethnographers, as members of rapidly professionalizing fields of inquiry, began imagining their craft as a deeply contextualized exploration of situated practices and cultural processes. An (p.20) accounting of changes that have impacted contemporary ethnography since this formative period will be interwoven throughout the remainder of this book. Next, I lay out some of the methodological practices and principles that characterize ethnography.

Methods versus Methodology

In discussing ethnography, commentators sometimes, incorrectly, treat it as a method rather than a methodology. The difference is significant. Methodology references established norms of inquiry that are by and large adhered to within a distinct research tradition. Method, on the other hand, refers to a technique or tool used to collect and/or analyze data. Ethnographers typically utilize a variety of tools and techniques during the course of their research. Three of the most fundamental are participant-observation, writing fieldnotes, and conducting interviews.


Participant-observation, as the term suggests, refers to a research disposition somewhere between full participation, just like (or as) a member of a community, and strictly observing. While it is often conceptualized as a location on a continuum between these two extremes—with ideally some level of balance29—I believe it is better thought of as a simultaneous process that oscillates between varying degrees of participation and observation. Such oscillations occur both situationally and temporally. In the case of the latter, they might take place in the context of a particular event or more generally over the course of different research phases. Participant-observation has historically been championed as providing the virtues of both an insider’s (participant) and an outsider’s (observer) perspective. As a foundation of ethnographic understanding, a discussion of this insider–outsider binary is instructive even if such neat distinctions rarely if ever exist in the lived world.

Whereas a recognized goal of ethnography is to grasp people’s understandings of their world, since its inception the primary means of achieving this has been through empathetic and experiential understanding. Writing in his introduction to (p.21) Argonauts, Malinowski (1922) recalled that to “get . . . the hang of tribal life” (p. 5):

I had to learn how to behave, and to a certain extent, I acquired “the feeling” for native good and bad manners. With this, and with the capacity of enjoying their company and sharing some of their games and amusements, I began to feel that I was indeed in touch with the natives, and this is certainly the preliminary condition of being able to carry on successful field work. (p. 8)

Yet to simply grasp the native’s point of view is not enough. Anthropologists have long recognized that “those cultural features of a particular society that are the most deeply ingrained are the least likely to be explicated and questioned by native members themselves” (Wengle, 1988, p. xvii). As a consequence of ethnocentrism—that is, the tendency for all people to position their own cultural beliefs and practices at the center of their worldview (i.e., to see them as “normal”)—native members of a cultural group are at times blind to many of the most salient aspects of their lifeways.30 Thus, a flexible and situated position somewhere between an insider and outsider is typically upheld as ideal.

As a practice, participant-observation involves an inherent critique of interviewing. Although interviewing is fundamental to most ethnographic projects, advocates of participant-observation are quick to point out that, if the goal is to understand behaviors and worldviews in their cultural context, interviews alone will not suffice. There is usually some disjuncture between what people do and what people say they do. At one level this can be seen as a distinction between ideal and actual behavior. In an interview setting, people are more likely to shade their representation of their behavior toward the cultural ideal. For example, several studies—some of the most fascinating emerging from the research field of garbage archaeology31—point out the tendency among Americans to underreport the amount of alcohol they consume (Rathje & Murphy, 1992; Romelsjö, Leifman, & Nystrom, 1995). Whether consciously underreported or not, this pattern is likely connected to the cultural ideal against drinking too much. Yet even in circumstances where a strong cultural ideal is not in play, people’s behaviors amount to more than what they choose or are able to tell an interviewer in the context of an interview. A native language (p.22) speaker, for example, would have considerable difficulty explaining the rules to her language or how she knows what she knows without additional linguistic training. Even in a situation where both of these conditions are met (someone is aware and can explain), an interviewee must make decisions about what to emphasize and what to ignore or gloss over. Such choices might lead her to steer clear of topics that the interviewer would find salient.32

To return to the drinking example, in particular settings where the ability to consume a lot of alcohol is linked to status, it may be likely that quantities will be overreported. Of course, such settings are usually informal, semi-exclusive, and involve peer groups—for example, the stereotypical morning after the college fraternity party. Another advantage of participant-observation over interviewing alone is that it provides access to these interior spaces. Fieldworkers achieve this by locating such spaces, gaining access (including building rapport), and, notably, spending time there. The famous Hawthorne studies on worker productivity found that people tend to alter their behavior for short periods of time under the scrutiny of a researcher or observer (Landsberger, 1958). Such reactivity can significantly jeopardize ethnography’s aspirations for naturalistic inquiry. Thus, an ideal, if nearly unattainable, goal of participant-observation is that the researcher become familiar enough within the research setting that “everyday life” proceeds as if they were not there. Factors surrounding this include:

  • Duration of time in the setting. The general rule is that the longer a researcher stays in “the field,” the more accustomed people become to their presence—not to mention the greater their understanding of what’s going on. While I hesitate to set a minimum time duration for proper participant-observation fieldwork, it is worth noting that within anthropology the Malinowski-derived standard has been a one-year minimum.

  • Resemblance (both physical and social) between the researcher and members of the community in which research is taking place. Greater resemblance, in theory, facilitates “life as usual,” whereas notable differences are a perpetual reminder that there is a researcher present. Some of the most recognizable differences concern (p.23) race, language proficiency, decisions regarding self-presentation, and, in certain instances, age and gender.

  • Level of participation. This is largely dependent on the researcher’s aspirations—for example, a researcher may aspire to a stance that, at different times, involves full participation or minimum participation (Junker, 1960). At the same time, and in conjunction with the previous factors, the various communities researchers engage have differing levels of accessibility and inclinations toward hospitality (e.g., insisting that someone “join in”), and, beyond language alone, researchers have different competencies33—all of which can impact their level of participation.

In sum, participant-observation is simultaneously the most fundamental, complex, and uncertain method of ethnographic research. Its temporal parameters can range from strictly designated fieldwork outings—for example, a few hours in “the field” on a weekday afternoon—to an all-consuming living-experience (24 hours a day) spanning several years. Its spatial parameters—discussed at length in the next chapter—can be as narrow as a Midwest college bar (Spradley & Mann, 1975), as broad as multiple sites across a global landscape (Holmes, 2013; Wulff, 1998), and as amorphous as translocal (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997; Marcus, 1995) or virtual (Nardi, 2010; Steinmetz, 2012) fields of activity. While a good deal of planning goes into participant-observation research projects, the combination of its ill-defined parameters and the fact that it plays out in the lived world render it difficult to forecast and, consequently, difficult to design.

Fieldnote Writing

A second principal method of ethnographic research is the creation and management of ethnographic fieldnotes. These systematic in-the-field writings are inextricably linked to participant-observation in that they serve as the primary means of recording the detailed observations and insights gleaned through such experiences. Accordingly, the quality and character of fieldnote writing has implications on an ethnographer’s ability to accurately and effectively report research findings.34 Because the focus of this book is (p.24) not strictly on doing ethnography but rather on appreciating and understanding how ethnography is done, I will keep my initial comments on fieldnotes to a minimum. I elaborate more on fieldnotes, with respect to research practice and writing ethnography, in Chapters 2 and 4, respectively. Here I provide a brief overview of some of the central practices and concerns surrounding this core ethnographic method.

Historically, fieldnotes received little methodological attention. Like ethnography more generally, their resemblance to people’s everyday activities—particularly the act of keeping a personal diary or journal—cultivated the belief that instructions to simply “write down everything you see and hear” would suffice. In the literature that has since emerged on fieldnote writing, there is no consensus on a single correct method. Additionally, I would advise any researcher to use the available methodological prescripts as guidelines but to develop particular routines and procedures that align with her own best-writing habits as well as the specific circumstances of research. Nevertheless, there are a handful of best practices that consistently show up in the literature and that together illustrate why fieldnote writing and keeping a diary are not one and the same.

Schedule a significant amount of time each day or soon after each fieldwork “outing” to write fieldnotes.35 Details fade with the passage of time so do not unnecessarily delay fieldnote writing. In a full-immersion fieldwork situation—where participant-observation comprises the entirety of one’s living experience—this practice of writing fieldnotes (i.e., articulating and reflecting on observations and experiences) can be thought of as the major nonparticipatory endeavor that the researcher consistently engages in.

Employ jottings or “scratch notes” (Sanjek, 1990, p. 96)—that is, quickly scribbled words or phrases, written in the context of participant-observing and intended to jog one’s memory when writing. A researcher should always carry a small notebook or some equivalent jot-recording technology (e.g., a small handheld recorder). Additionally, when observing/experiencing the world with the intention of documenting it through fieldnote writing, it is important to rely on all one’s senses, not merely vision alone. Sounds, smells, tastes, and touches can all be powerful means to creating scenes on a page (Bailey, 2007).

(p.25) Organize different approaches to fieldnote writing categorically. For example, Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (2011) discuss four general fieldnote subcategories: (a) descriptions based on concrete sensory details of physical spaces, people, objects, or actions; (b) dialogues between people; (c) characterizations portraying how a person acts and lives; and (d) narratives involving either sketches (i.e., snapshots) of a setting/character or episodes illustrated through continuous action and interaction (pp. 57–79). In all of these descriptive processes, it is important for the fieldnote writer to distinguish between that which is concrete and/or directly observed—for example, verbatim quotes—and that which is inferred, approximated, or logically assumed (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995). Fieldnotes can additionally take the form of methodological notes (highlighting research techniques used and/or planned), analytic notes (periodic forays into conceptual understandings that strive to approximate professional writing36), and personal notes (therapeutic and potentially revealing outlets for discussing one’s relationships, feelings, and emotions).


Ethnographers typically conduct interviews as a primary method of research. However, whereas participant-observation is so central to ethnography that some well-practiced scholars might be forgiven for simply—and in my view, mistakenly—equating the two (see Bernard, 1995, p. 136), interview-based research and ethnography are distinctly different (Becker & Geer, 1957; Lamont & Swidler, 2014). Ethnographers, like most qualitative researchers, conduct interviews, but, unlike participant-observation, interviews alone do not come close to approximating ethnography.

Ethnographic interviewing is distinct from what I will call general interview-based research in several ways. First, ethnographic interviews typically take place after a researcher has been in the field for some period of time. Ethnographers do not enter the field assuming they know what is most important (Spradley, 1979); first-hand experience in a social arena is thought to facilitate better interview questions (O’Reilly, 2012). It is furthermore presumed that a level of familiarity between researcher and researched, and perhaps even mutual respect, leads to better research collaborations.

(p.26) Second, ethnographers understand and at times analyze interviews as speech events (Spradley, 1979)—meaning that an interview is more than just a transcript of questions and answers. Contextual factors including (but not limited to) place, time, body language, fluidity of dialogue, and prior relationship between interviewer and interviewee may all have a bearing on the way an interview plays out (O’Reilly, 2012). In fact, an ethnographer may find as much value in what a person chooses not to talk about, as in what they emphasize. Additionally, the texture of statements—such things as inflection, accent, volume, and cadence—combined with context, can often alter the literal meaning of what is said.

Finally, although it may press the boundaries of Institutional Review Board compliance (see Chapter 5), some ethnographers consider everyday dialogue with people in the field as a form of informal interviewing. If an interview is defined as a consciously initiated verbal exchange through which a researcher—primarily via questions and answers—learns from the people they conduct research among about a given topic, we must be cognizant of the fact that, during the course of participant-observation-based fieldwork, these types of exchanges take place all the time. At what point does asking someone how to take the bus downtown or inquiring over coffee about why someone didn’t join his sister in visiting a relative turn into an interview? The point is, with participant-observation research these distinctions are conditional and often undefined.

The distinction between method and methodology is important to my effort to differentiate ethnography from qualitative field research more generally. Participant-observation, fieldnote writing, and ethnographic interviewing are by no means the only research methods ethnographers employ. The data collection techniques of ethnographic research are often determined pragmatically in relation to theoretical orientations and research questions, as well as the availability and appropriateness of various options. Ethnographers also gather and analyze pieces of material culture; make nonparticipatory behavioral observations; record videos; take photographs; engage in community mapping; conduct surveys, genealogies, and domain analyses; and examine archival documents, censuses, and various media materials, in addition to a range of other “methods.”37 Nevertheless, participant-observations, the fieldnotes they inspire, and interviewing make up the core (p.27) practices that ethnographic researchers tend to engage in. I continue the discussion of each of these practices, with specific attention to data collection and analysis in Chapter 2.

Defining Contemporary Ethnography

So what qualities mark an instance of researching and/or research reporting as ethnographic? Lamenting the over use of the term, one of the most stringent defenders of its precise definition, Harry F. Wolcott, asserts that the critical attribute distinguishing ethnography is a focus on describing and interpreting cultural behavior. In other words, at its core, an ethnography must include an intentional engagement with and “working resolution” toward understanding culture (Wolcott, 1987, p. 45). Wolcott calls this ethnographic intent. The specifics of this “working resolution,” of course, may vary: Culture might be thought of as best revealed through people’s behaviors, the expressed ideals that guide such behaviors, or the discovery of underlying frameworks through which situational choices are made. Each of these, or some combination, have implications for how an ethnographer goes about her craft.

Culture, in turn, informs how people define a given situation (Thomas, 1931). The difference between what a people consider “music” and “noise,” for example, depends on agreed upon symbols and perspectives. At the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, in Paris in 1913, the elevated rhythms and perceived strangeness of the score shocked the audience. In the ensuing mayhem—described by Annette Oppermann (1994) as “one of the greatest scandals in the history of theatre”—fist fights broke out in the aisles, and the police had to be called to intervene (Pells, 2011). The sonic assemblages put forth by Stravinsky challenged listeners who were accustomed to more demure musical conventions. Likewise, throughout the twentieth century, several emerging African-American music forms—namely, blues, ragtime, jazz, be-bop, rock ’n roll, and hip hop—were initially received as noise among critics and commentators invested in more established music traditions (Hall, 1997). Similar cultural constructions shape the way we perceive distinctions in colors (Conklin, 1955), time (Gell, 1992), and, in a more general sense, how language structures meaning (Whorf, 1944).38 Culture, according to Stephen A. Tyler (p.28) (1969), provides the framework for recognizing and describing “how other people make order out of what appears . . . to be utter chaos” (p. 6).

Debates over a precise definition of culture notwithstanding,39 ethnography has traditionally rested on a principle of cultural comparison. Classic anthropological ethnographies (ca. 1920s to 1960s; see Rosaldo, 1993, p. 32), where researchers traveled to starkly different cultural settings, featured inevitable comparisons with the home culture (as the term was then understood). At their warmest moments, these appeared as relativistic assertions of common humanity, which insisted that all cultures should be valued and all peoples treated with respect. Yet early ethnographers were also complicit in fashioning conceptions of the “civilized” West through ethnocentric and sometimes racist representations of the primitive “savage” (Trouillot, 1991). As the lens of ethnographic inquiry expanded, this comparative mode of sense-making often became more implicit than explicit. The native ethnographer, for instance, conducting research in her own community, would appear to start from the same cultural foundations as the people she (participant-)observes. Yet, as a trained ethnographer—exposed to a variety of cross-cultural ethnographic studies—she makes sense of her observations in relation to the wealth of documented cultural diversity.40 Thus, she is less likely to generalize distinct cultural practices as the “normal way” all people do things. This comparative approach is perhaps best reflected in the anthropological maxim of “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”

Another aspect of documenting cultural behavior, which strikes at the core of an ethnographic approach, is a strong emphasis on contextualization. Anthropologists sometimes refer to this as holism—a term that to me suggests an unattainable completeness (see Gluckman, 1940).41 To illustrate what I mean by contextualization, I turn to the work of Clifford Geertz (1973), who famously defined ethnography as “an elaborate venture in . . . ‘thick description’ ” (p. 6). Referencing a thought experiment conducted by philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1971), Geertz elaborates on thick description through the example of a rapidly contracting eyelid. Whether such action amounts to an involuntary twitch or a “conspiratorial signal to a friend” (i.e., a wink) is entirely contextual. Accordingly, a thin description of behavior—“Her left eye blinked”—tells us very little. Through understanding such things as the circumstances under (p.29) which the blink occurred, the intention of the blinker, the prevalent social codes that may or may not mark the blink as meaningful, and whether this meaning was received and understood, we get a better sense of what is going on. Thick description, then, in the words of anthropologist Karin Narayan (2012), can be summarized as “layering meaning into closely observed details.” (p. 8). Noticing a blink and even describing it involves careful attention to detail, yet, without proper contextualization, such descriptions have limited ethnographic value.

The ethnographic project is variously empathetic. Through intersubjective engagement, ethnographers aspire to “imaginatively experience the feelings, thoughts, and situation” (Davis, 2014, p. 6) of the people they work among. In this way, the researcher and researched are mutually implicated in the production of ethnographic knowledge (Sluka & Robben, 2012). These efforts tend to look different during different historical periods. During the first half of the twentieth century, many ethnographers were interested in uplifting perceptions of non-Western and otherwise marginalized peoples. As Laura Nader (2011) explains, classic period anthropologists “consistently disturbed received knowledge [about colonized peoples] and challenged many imposed norms of colonial administrations” (p. 215). Influenced by the social reform movement of the early twentieth century, “Chicago sociologists” held similar aspirations regarding their work among urban ethnic enclaves. More recently, there are examples of ethnographers explaining (although not endorsing)—and most notably humanizing—the perspectives and practices of members of hate groups (Blee, 2003; Hughey, 2012; Menon, 2010). Through these various efforts, we see a consistent emphasis on showing the cultural logics that inspire different viewpoints and behaviors.

Ethnographic Comportment

A last attribute that, in my view, distinguishes contemporary ethnography from other forms of participant-observation-based field-research is the previously mentioned politics of positionality, which bears on an ethnographer’s conduct and demeanor throughout the research and writing process. This critical awareness, which I call ethnographic comportment, is both historically informed and future oriented. It includes familiarity with ethnography’s (p.30) problematic past and a disposition of accountability for one’s role in advancing ethnographic practices. Carole McGranahan (2014) explains how ethnographic training within anthropology involves disciplinary knowledge of its history and key debates. This history, further detailed in the following chapters, began during the colonial era at a time when, according to Kathleen Gough (1968), “Western nations were making their final push to bring practically the whole pre-industrial non-Western world under their political and economic control” (p. 401). Anthropologists particularly are well aware of these origins and, as a foundation of contemporary disciplinary training, debate the extent to which past ethnographers were willingly and/or unwillingly complicit in furthering these efforts (see Asad, 1973; Lewis, 2013). Sociologists observe a similar tradition of researching marginalized urban communities (Vidich & Lyman, 2000), and representing them in ways, or through analytical categories, that were often not consistent with community members’ self-understandings and/or best interests.

Training in ethnography should include deliberations on the power dynamics that continue to shape ethnographic encounters (Koivunen, 2010; Wolf, 1996). Such critical awarenesses inspire sensibilities that ethnographers carry with them throughout the research enterprise. Again, I am in no position to prescribe the exact decisions and actions that follow from such ethnographic comportment. Does the white British ethnographer researching in Ghana meaningfully grapple with the politics surrounding the favorable attention she receives as a European in Africa, or does she simply explain that Ghanaians are nice and she had no trouble building rapport? Does she struggle with the historical implications of potentially projecting her own frames of understanding on to contemporary Fanti fishing practices, or does she simply report what she understands she is seeing and move on? The choice is up to the ethnographer; however, it should be made with some understanding of and critical reflection on the enterprise she is taking part in.

On the Run as Illustration

At the time I began writing this book there was a good deal of discussion surrounding Alice Goffman’s (2014) On the Run—a sociological study of a poor black community in West Philadelphia. In (p.31) most reportings, the book is described as ethnography, and I am certainly not going to debate that characterization here. On the Run is a product of six years of participant-observation research in which Goffman, despite her outsider status as an Ivy League-educated white woman, became immersed within the circle of young black men whose lives she was interested in studying. Her observations, vivid descriptions, and meticulous attention to detail are examples of ethnography at its best. Her loyalty to the African-American men she conducted research among is, by contemporary ethnographic standards, at the very least admirable and, at best, beyond reproach.42 Yet what strikes me as the most troubling, even unethnographic, dimension of On the Run is Goffman’s apparent lack of awareness (or perhaps concern) for the ethnographic genealogy she is participating in, as reflected in her decision regarding how to represent the lives of the people she studied.43 For example, in describing a three-generation black household Goffman (2014) writes:

Small roaches and ants crawled incessantly across the countertops and floors, over the couch and TV, and frequently onto the house’s inhabitants. The house itself reeked of cigarette smoke, urine, vomit, and alcohol. In the kitchen, cabinets were sticky with grease and dirt; cat urine and feces covered a corner of the floor. Ashtrays in the kitchen, dining room, and living room collected mountains of old cigarette butts and would frequently topple to the floor, dumping their contents into the carpet. (p. 178)

Another time, one of Goffman’s primary interlocutors, Mike, “paid a woman who lived down the street a bag of marijuana to beat up [the mother of his children] Marie”:

According to him, he and this woman drove up to the bus stop and waited until Marie appeared. The woman then got out of the car and beat Marie against the fence. Mike stayed in the car and called to her to hit Marie again and again. (p. 104)

On the Run’s overall purpose is to show how “historically high imprisonment rates and the intensive policing and surveillance that have accompanied them are transforming poor Black neighborhoods into communities of suspects and fugitives” (Goffman, 2014, p. 8), and, by my reading, the overall scales of benefits versus (p.32) damage tilt in Goffman’s favor. Yet too often I have seen representations of the sort offered by Goffman used to support entrenched positions that some of the most vulnerable members of American society are culturally bankrupt (i.e., in need of civilizing) and ultimately deserving of their fate. With the exception of a single chapter dedicated to “clean people,” Goffman tends to dwell on violence and dysfunction to the point where they appear to be a normal part of everyday life. Although she is critical of the system that causes poor black men to move through the world in a fugitive mind state, her intense focus on individual criminality—and failure to elaborate on structural factors—allows for the impression that Mike and his friends are culpable in creating the conditions of their own demise.

Observing a tradition of liberal white ethnographers who, starting in the 1960s, “set out to explore the newly discovered concrete jungles” of the African-American ghetto, Robin D. G. Kelley (1997) discusses how such works trafficked in well-worn tropes of black pathology by presenting one-dimensional images of urban destitute as the most authentic representations of African America (p. 20; see also Chin, 2001; Young, 2008). Kelley additionally notes how “white America’s fascination with the urban poor translated into massive book sales” (p. 20). While reading On the Run, I was left wondering whether Goffman had been exposed to such critiques—surely she must have—and, if yes, why she appears to have not seriously considered them when deciding how to represent the lives of these young black Philadelphians.44

Goffman’s apparent lack of ethnographic comportment is evidenced by her failure to recognize her complicity in repeating widely discussed ethnographic missteps of the past. Other recent ethnographies of stigmatized communities—for example, Seth M. Holmes’s (2013) Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, which looks at illegal immigrant agricultural workers, or Patricia Fernández-Kelly’s (2015) The Hero’s Fight, which examines poor African Americans in West Baltimore—in my view, do much better jobs empathetically representing conditions of poverty.

To repeat, ethnographic comportment involves an historical awareness and reflexive self-awareness of one’s participation in ethnography as a research tradition. Following João de Pina-Cabral’s (1992) assertion that the ethnographer matches (p.33) what he observes “against the accumulated knowledge of his discipline” (p. 6), I maintain that such knowledge increasingly includes a critical outlook on both the historical and resonating fault lines of ethnography as practiced. In the following chapters, I will elaborate on some of the ways in which ethnographic comportment involves an embodied or dispositional sensibility that informs situational decisions surrounding data collection (Chapter 2), writing (Chapter 4), and ethnographers’ understandings and representations of their own role in producing ethnography (Chapter 3).


At the start of the twentieth century, anthropological communities on both sides of the Atlantic had a keen interest in refining the field through professionalizing their research practices. At a time when the unprecedented proliferation of ethnographic methods has, arguably, untethered it from its disciplinary moorings, I see a pressing need to reprofessionalize ethnography by calling attention to its historical foundations. In this opening chapter, I have historically contextualized ethnography as a distinct yet evolving research tradition, introduced some classic and current debates surrounding the nature of ethnographic projects, outlined its core practices and research principles, and presented new frameworks, which I believe are helpful in grasping and gauging the quality of contemporary ethnography. These discussions will continue throughout the remaining chapters of this book. They are fundamental to what ethnographers do.

An awareness of ethnography’s history should saturate all efforts to move ethnography forward. Beyond core practices such as participant-observation, fieldnote writing, and (ethnographic) interviewing, ethnography is defined by attention to culture as an explanatory construct, empathetic engagement, contextualization, and, during the current era, a historically informed politics of positionality that I call ethnographic comportment. In the chapters ahead, I explain more about how we arrived at this moment of historical awareness and reflexive self-awareness. This book joins of a chorus of works, over the last several decades, aimed at maintaining a tradition of understanding (p.34) ethnography that is at once intellectually rigorous and morally principled.




(1.) For example, visual ethnography (Pink, 2001), sensory ethnography (Pink, 2009), quick ethnography (Handwerker, 2001), autoethnography (Adams, Jones, & Ellis, 2014), duoethnography (Sawyer & Norris, 2012), collaborative ethnography (Lassiter, 2005), and digital ethnography (Underberg & Zorn, 2013), in addition to well-established qualifiers like postmodern ethnography (Clifford & Marcus, 1986), experimental ethnography (Marcus & Fischer, 1986), interpretive ethnography (Denzin, 1997), critical ethnography (Madison, 2011), reflexive ethnography (Davies, 2008), native ethnography (Jones, 1970), and feminist ethnography (Wolf, 1996).

(2.) As an additional caveat, I focus almost exclusively on Anglophone ethnography, with particular attention to work coming out of the American and British traditions (as opposed to France, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere).

(3.) I am well aware that all of these examples come out of anthropology—the discipline to which ethnography is most closely tied (see the section Professionalization of the Practice).

(4.) Here I am using the term field in both the traditional sense of fieldwork conducted within a physical place/space and in the Bourdieuian sense of a field of cultural practice (Bourdieu, 1984).

(5.) Ethnographies can also take the shorter form of essays and professional journal articles, as well as nonliterary forms like “films, records, museum displays, or whatever” (Geertz, 1973, p. 19n; see also Jacobson, 1991).

(6.) Broadly speaking, the distinction between social and cultural anthropology is based on national tradition, with the former practiced in England and the latter in the United States. More specifically, British (social) anthropology has historically stressed the interrelationships between social institutions derived from foundational figures like Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, whereas American (cultural) anthropology recognizes cultural coherences as outlined through the work of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.

(7.) Notes and Queries appeared in six iterations between 1874 and 1951 (Urry, 1972).

(8.) Although important to ethnography’s development, the expedition model proved inefficient in terms of the resources necessary to finance these campaigns, the relatively short period of time that a group of researchers could spend in the field, and the fact that the presence of such a large number of outsiders tended to disrupt the natural observation of social life (Urry, 1972, p. 50; see also Rivers, 1913, p. 10).

(9.) For further elaboration on the differences in these national traditions see Darnell (2001) and Lassiter and Campbell (2010).

(10.) In the introduction to Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski (1922/1966) includes a footnote explaining that “according to a useful habit of the terminology of science, [he] uses the word Ethnography for the empirical and (p.35) descriptive results of the science of Man, and the word Ethnology for speculative and comparative theories” (p. 9, fn.).

(11.) In fact, in the introduction to Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922/1966), Malinowski describes the aforementioned trio as the highest-ranking English ethnographers (p. 23); he also credits them with the methodological achievement of allowing their readers to “visualise with perfect precision the conditions under which the work was done” (p. 3, fn).

(12.) Scholars have debated whether Malinowski’s extended time in the South Pacific was by choice or a result of the outbreak of World War I. The mythic history tends to focus on his “enemy alien” status as a citizen of Austria-Hungary thus suggesting an inability to return to England. Yet according to Stocking (1992), the most consequential outcome of the Great War’s outbreak for Malinowski appears to have been a lack of access to personal funds back in Poland, which placed him at the mercy of local officials and made him dependent on the good will of members of the Australian scientific community (p. 242). The myth of being stranded appears to be a biographic embellishment, for Adam Kuper (1996) contends that “all enemy scientists . . . were allowed to return to Europe” (p. 12).

(13.) Historically, the masculine pronouns he/him/his were used as universal references to all people—in this case falsely implying that all ethnographers were men. Rather than cluttering the text with numerous [sic]s, I let these pass without further comment. In instances where I offer gendered pronouns, as a general (but not exclusive) rule, I use the feminine she/her/hers. Following Margery Wolf (1992, p. 56), I do not do this “to privilege the female voice but to call attention to the way in which the supposedly generic ‘he’ does in fact privilege the male voice.”

(14.) Jeffrey A. Sluka and Antonius C. G. M. Robben (2012) describe Argonauts as “one of the earliest, most widely read, and most influential accounts of fieldwork in anthropology” (p. 12). Yet elsewhere, Edmund Leach characterizes the book’s initial reception as lukewarm, particularly among British reviewers, adding that Malinowski undertook considerable legwork over the next several years—including publishing the provocatively titled follow-up The Sexual Life of Savages in 1929—to build his renown (Leach, 1965/2000b, pp. 40–41).

(15.) The idea that all cultures pass through a series of necessary (evolutionary) stages that allow them to be ordered typically along the lines of savagery, barbarism, and civilization.

(16.) Margaret Mead’s (1928/1961) Samoan fieldwork is a notable exception.

(17.) Their ranks include Alfred L. Kroeber and Robert Lowie, who established a graduate program in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley; Edward Sapir and Fay Cooper-Cole, who established a graduate program in anthropology at the University of Chicago; Melville J. Herskovits, who established anthropology at Northwestern University; Ruth Benedict; Margaret Mead; Paul Radin; Zora Neale Hurston; and Elsie Clews Parsons.

(18.) Or, at the very least, proximate research: In contrast to his Baffin Island experience, as a professional anthropologist, Boas “rarely participated in the daily lives of the Indians” but rather spent a significant amount of time observing, (p.36) recording, and staying in close proximity to the people he worked among (Rohner, 1969, p. xxviii).

(19.) Other prominent candidates for “original participant-observer” within the field of anthropology include Frank Hamilton Cushing who, 35 years before Malinowski, “developed” his own “reciprocal method” of field research (Mark, 1980, p. 123) when he decided to forsake his position as the Smithsonian Institute representative on the 1879 Bureau of (American) Ethnology’s first-ever southwestern expedition to take up residence with the Zuñi Indians; Alice Cunningham Fletcher, who first traveled to Nebraska in 1881 in the interest of studying the life of Omaha women and ended up “traveling with the Omahas for weeks at a time, learning their customs and listening to their fears” about being taken advantage of by the American government (Mark, 1980, p. 67); Lewis Henry Morgan whose League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee (Morgan 1851) has been referred to as “the first ‘true ethnography’ ” (Lassiter, 2005, p. 30); James Mooney, who did pioneering work among the Cherokee and Kiowa as an employee of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Swanton, 1922); James Owen Dorsey, who—at the request of founding-director of the Bureau of Ethnology, John Wesley Powell—spent two years in residence collecting information on the Omahas (Mark, 1982); and Francis LaFlesche, the Native American anthropologist who worked closely with fellow anthropologist Alice C. Fletcher in documenting Omaha rituals and culture (Mark, 1982). Indeed, it has become somewhat of a disciplinary vocation to unearth anthropological participant-observers who preceded Malinowski (see Darnell, 2001; Stocking, 1992).

(20.) Cultural relativism as an anthropological movement was most prominently connected with Franz Boas and his students Margaret Mead (1928/1961), Melville Herskovits (1972), and most famously Ruth Benedict (1934/2005).

(21.) For an excellent discussion of this, see the work of anthropologist Maxwell Owusu (1978), who astutely argues that, in increasingly polylinguistic societies, ethnographers need to be proficient in several local vernaculars.

(22.) A short list of Malinowski’s students at the London School of Economics includes Raymond Firth, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Hortense Powdermaker, Edmund Leach, Jomo Kenyatta, Lucy Mair, Audrey Richards, and Meyer Fortes.

(23.) I recognize that this characterization highlights social problems over the numerous virtues of urban living. Such a focus is consistent with sociology’s emphasis on pathologies of urban communities and aspirations to contribute to social reform. For an excellent discussion of how these social science perspectives have been applied to the black, urban, so-called underclass, see Kelley (1997).

(24.) Howard S. Becker (1999) is critical of this designation arguing that “ ‘Chicago’ was never the unified chapel . . . [nor] unified school of thought” that many believe it to have been (p. 10).

(25.) These include Nel’s Anderson’s (1923) The Hobo, Frederick Thrasher’s (1927) The Gang, Louis Wirth’s (1928) The Ghetto, Harvey W. Zorbaugh’s (1929) The Gold Coast and the Slum, Paul Cressey’s (1932) The Taxi-Dance Hall, and E. Franklin Frazier’s (1932) The Negro Family in Chicago.

(26.) As with anthropology (see note 19), sociology has less-recognized alternative candidates for the founder of its ethnographic approach. Chief among them is W. E. B. DuBois. During the final decade of the nineteenth century, DuBois conducted a resident study of black life in Philadelphia, published as The Philadelphia Negro (DuBois, 1899/1973). Though much of DuBois’s research consisted of detailed questionnaires, the fact that he lived “in the heart of the community to be studied” (Aptheker, 1973, p. 6), his regular house-to-house visits to virtually all the homes in the ward, and his propensity to align with the black people of Philadelphia and, at times, stand in militaristic opposition to what was, at best, a stance of paternalistic benevolence held by the project’s sponsors, from a twenty-first century vantage point, marks the Philadelphia study as profoundly ethnographic. DuBois would go on to do similar field research throughout the South while at Atlanta University (DuBois, 1898, 1903/1996).

(27.) Commenting on the improvisational nature of anthropological ethnography, Lisa H. Malkki (2007) suggests that sociologists approach ethnography “with a different sensibility” (p. 186 n. 2). Additionally, there appears to be some historical reluctance within the sociological tradition to refer to their brand of field research as ethnography. In Buford H. Junker’s (1960) seminal introduction to social science field work, for example, based on extensive interviews with University of Chicago student fieldworkers, ethnography is only referenced on a few occasions. In one telling passage, Junker describes the ethnographer’s task of “start[ing] from scratch by learning the language of his esoteric people” in opposition to the sociological field worker operating “in some part of an otherwise already familiar cultural milieu” (p. 70).

(28.) Malinowski (1922/1966) specifically said that “one of the first conditions of acceptable ethnographic work certainly is that it should deal with the totality of all social, cultural, and psychological aspects of a community, for they are so interwoven that not one can be understood without taking into consideration all the others” (p. xvi). This idea of anthropology as a holistic science—assuming the interconnections and mutual influence between various aspects of social life—continues to be reiterated in the introductory chapters of almost all discipline textbooks.

(29.) These in-between spaces are sometimes distinguished as “observing participation” and “participating observation” (see Bernard, 1995; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995; Junker, 1960).

(30.) This is sometimes referred to as homeblindness—defined as being blind to crucial dimensions of one’s own lifeways because they are taken for granted (Czarniawska, 1997). While I acknowledge that ethnocentrism more typically involves putting one’s culture above others, I maintain that homeblindness is a product of ethnocentrism.

(31.) Garbage archaeology, also known as garbology, is the application of archaeological methods and principles to study contemporary consumption and waste. The most famous garbology project was the Tucson Garbage Project where Dr. William Rathje and his students conducted a multiyear study of landfills and waste disposal units in and around the city of Tucson, Arizona (Rathje & Murphy, 1992).

(32.) Additionally, there might be countless potential reasons for an interviewee to be less than forthcoming.

(33.) For instance, someone doing an ethnography of pickup basketball games may have easier access if they have a background playing basketball.

(34.) There are several excellent books that discuss fieldnote writing; see, for example, H. Russell Bernard’s (1995) Research Methods in Anthropology; Carol A. Bailey’s (2007) A Guide to Qualitative Field Research; and Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw’s (2011) Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. I strongly recommend that any novice researcher carry one when embarking on fieldwork.

(35.) Russell Bernard (1995, p. 191) reasons that two to three hours every working day is a sufficient amount of time but also cites a study by Ralph Bolton stating that practicing anthropologists range from one hour to seven hours per day.

(36.) My definition of analytic notes is more consistent with what Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (2011) call “in-process memos.”

(37.) For a “terrifyingly diverse” list of ethnographic field methods/descriptors, see Roberts (2006, p. 86).

(38.) We can further credit cultural conventions with determining how categories of race (Brace, 2005) and gender (Butler, 1990) are perceived and understood.

(39.) In their 1952 book, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn identified 162 different definitions of culture.

(40.) This is not to suggest, as others have (see Marcus & Fischer, 1986, p. 156), that “native” ethnographers lose their capacity for radical critique as a result of their Western anthropological training (McClaurin, 2001).

(41.) In their defense, the term relates to classic ethnographers’ propensity to conduct research in small communities as well as to emphasize interconnections and mutual influences that other disciplines traditionally sought to isolate (i.e., economic, political, and historical factors).

(42.) I phrase this as such because the ethics surrounding this loyalty—particularly her decision to accompany one of the men in searching for the person who murdered their friend—have been widely discussed and debated (e.g., see Lubet, 2015; Parry, 2015).

(43.) This criticism of On the Run is very similar to the critique lodged by Laurence Ralph (2015) in his excellent review essay “The Limitations of a ‘Dirty’ World.”

(44.) Most visibly, her status as a white ethnographer writing about black communities, yet issues of class are also salient.