how to do ethnography right
Ethnographies are works of deep research based on in-depth, open-ended interviews and keen observations of how people go about their lives in different contexts. Researchers often spend years in their research sites to get to know the people and places they study in a way that can’t be done using other methods. Ethnographies are (arguably) the most visible and relatable research products that sociologists have to offer the general public. They tell stories about our social world backed up by rigorously gathered data. That’s pretty cool.
While ethnographers are very much expert in their research domains, their work is increasingly subject to public scrutiny. It is important for sociologists to develop and maintain professional standards that allow them to conduct the best research without compromising quality in the face of potential criticism and controversy. Recent conversations about the practice of ethnography have been spurred by the responses — public and academic — to high profile books in the past few years. But that is just the current manifestation of an evolving dialogue about the best way to do ethnographic work. A number of important issues have featured in this conversation: data preservation and sharing, replicability and confidentiality, peer review, funding and research support, and others.
At the suggestion of the American Sociological Association’s Council, we organized this special forum with some of the top practitioners in the field. Here you’ll find six papers that lay out “best practices” for ethnographers to follow. (Follow the links to read more!)
- We start with Dana R. Fisher’s paper, “Doing qualitative research as if counsel is hiding in the closet.” Whether you study elites or study the poor, Fisher says you should do your research as if the group you’re working with has legal representation. It could save you headaches (and money, and even your reputation) down the road.
- Ethnographers for the most part work alone, and they use convenience sampling, that is, they talk to people who are conveniently located for them to talk with. Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin argue in their essay, “Want to improve your qualitative research? Try using representative sampling and working in teams,” that ethnographers can, and should, well, use representative sampling and work in teams. This will improve the depth and reliability of your data and your story.
- Another common practice that ethnographers do by default is to provide anonymity for the people they interact with and the places where they do their research. In “Ethnographic masking in an era of data transparency,” Alexandra Murphy and Colin Jerolmack debate the merits of this practice and, for the most part, find it to be unnecessary and, for the purposes of scholarship, counterproductive. They argue that our default practice should be to name names and places, unless there are specific case-by-case reasons not to.
- Sometimes researchers are stymied when they’re trying to study populations that are difficult to get a hold of. Kimberly Kay Hoang and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas tell us how they were able to reach out to, and conduct research with, a broad range of sex workers in Vietnam, and domestic workers in Dubai, in their essay, “Accessing the hardest to reach population.”
- It has become standard for social science researchers to gain approval from their university’s Institutional Review Board before they start work on a project. This can be frightening and frustrating. Abigail E. Cameron gives practical advice in her paper, “The unhappy marriage of IRBs and ethnography,” for how you can navigate the IRB process painlessly. (Ok, less painfully.) Even controversial topics can gain approval if you approach your IRB in the right way.
- The last paper here is by Annette Lareau and Aliya Hamid Rao, “It’s about the depth of your data.” They remind us that ethnographers are not quantitative researchers, and that the small, nonrandom sample ethnographers usually have actually isn’t a problem — in fact that’s a selling point for ethnography. The ethnographer is telling the reader a story, and Lareau and Rao tell us that detailed fieldnotes, lengthy interviews with smaller numbers of people, smartly developed themes and analyses, and crisp writing are the key to good ethnographic storytelling. Sometimes ethnographers forget these things. It’s good that Lareau and Rao are reminding us.
Taken together, we shouldn’t consider these as a blueprint for criticism-free research or a set of “how to” papers. But it’s close. So read, learn, enjoy—and if you’re an ethnographer, go forth and do your thing!