Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (50b)

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!

Comments 7

Pieter Cloete

March 20, 2016

Ethnography is much needed where genarised beliefs, stereotypes and invalidated generalisations direct policy. I find the article helpful as reading for first year students in sociology.

Gene Shackman, Applied Sociologist

March 20, 2016

I strongly disagree with the suggestion to report real names. You get more trust and openness if you keep people anonymous.


March 20, 2016

I did an ethnography back in the 1970's, and wish there had been more guidance like this in sociology for the practice. I had an excellent chair who had himself done a well recognized ethnography in the field, but mostly I relied on advice and guidance from anthropology graduate students who received rigorous training in ethnography. I used real names, real places because my focus was on the building of public, community networks...on the rare occasions that I reported more private opinions and activities, those were often included with descriptors (age, gender, etc.) but without name attribution in the final manuscript (although they still exist in the field notes with full identification). The issue of anonymity versus naming names depends upon the focus and the context of the research - there are any number of famous historical examples (one that comes to mind is Vidich and Bensman's Small Town in Mass Society) where long before the age of the Internet the subjects of ethnography were easily able to identify themselves and others despite all attempts at anonymity by the researchers.

Sarah WillieLeBreton

May 22, 2016

I appreciate the ideas expressed here but the fact that anthropology isn't even mentioned seems an odd absence. Perhaps it's coming from a combined department, but our colleagues in anthropology use ethnography in very similar ways.

Glenna G. Woods

December 15, 2019

These kinds of articles or researches are important for students. Many time I see for students to find the best topic for speech is little bit difficult, even sometime they can't write their assignments by themself. So to say that these aricles is good for students is not wrong.

Stephanie Santos

March 31, 2020

Wow, looks great, especially the end. I was looking for that topic for a couple of days across the nest, but there was nothing precious, only found this, but still so happy to reach your post at the end.
I'm keen on that theme, and I want to be always conscious of the most recent news.
That is a pleasure to read your article and finally clarify the issue myself.

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