conducting ethnographic research

In my previous posts, I’ve discussed the issues of analyzing “unusual” casesgaining access to organizations and dealing with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) about human subjects.  Now I’ll turn to the topic of conducting ethnographic research.  Later, I’ll follow up with a post about writing up research.

Here are some of the readings that I recommend to fellow colleagues and assign to students about how to conduct ethnographic research.  In alphabetical order:

Becker, Howard S.  1998.  Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You’re Doing It. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  Stuck on something in your analysis?  Becker suggests several ways of unraveling puzzling phenomena.

Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw.  1995.  Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  Consult this book for different ways to write up fieldnotes.

Geertz, Clifford.  1977.  “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. Geertz reveals the chain of events that allow him and his wife to gain access to a community.

Harrington, Brooke.  2002.  “Obtrusiveness as Strategy in Ethnographic Research.”  Qualitative Sociology 25(1): 49-61.   Harrington analyzes how Michael Schwalbe (Unlocking the Iron Cage, 1996, Oxford University Press) conducted his research as an observer and participant  in the men’s movement.

IDEO Method Cards. 2002.   IDEO, a product design firm which uses observations of consumers to refine their designs, produced this deck of 51 cards about the research and design process.  Handy for those who want to brainstorm.

Lamont, Michele and Patricia White.  2005.  Workshop on Interdisciplinary Standards for Qualitative Research.  An attempt to set interdisciplinary standards for qualitative research under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.

Malinowski, Bronsilaw.  1989.  A Diary in the Strictest Sense of the Term.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.  An anthropologist’s diary reveals the ambivalent feelings and physical distress that a researcher might experience while in the field.

National Science Foundation.  2004.  Workshop on the Scientific Foundations of Qualitative Research.

Weiss, Robert S.  1994.  Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies.  New York: Free Press.  This book covers the fundamentals of conducting interviews.

Yin, Robert K.  2009.  Case Study Research Design and Methods.  4th ed.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.  The go-to “totem” for case studies.

What are the resources that you would recommend to colleagues and/or students on how to conduct ethnographic research?  In the comments, you can suggest books, articles, or other documents.

Written by katherinekchen

September 25, 2009 at 3:39 pm

18 Responses

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  1. […] For those of you who are interested in learning more about the conduct of qualitative research, including observations and interviews, please see my latest guest blog post at In this post, I suggest books and articles. […]


  2. I thoughy the methods appendix to Sidewalk is worthy of repeated radings.



    September 25, 2009 at 4:39 pm

  3. this list implies an issue that i (a quant who has dabbled in ethnography and advises a few ethno students) have often wondered about. a lot of ethnographers (most famously geertz) have a strong methodological orientation towards grounded theory and thick description, placing the field site center stage. in contrast, econ soc/ OB people (regardless of method) tend to place the theoretical issue or mechanism center stage and in so doing make sites/cases commensurable by means of abstracting general processes from them. (i think it’s telling that a lot of quantitative economic soc articles don’t even mention the empirical case in the title or for the first five pages of an article).

    have you found it to be a conflict in applying a method that is often very thick and substantively oriented to a subfield that is often very abstract and mechanism oriented? would you recommend any of the works in the list as being relevant to this issue?

    (i know that in some ways this is a rehash of the fight over the Lamont committee NSF report, but the opposition to that was mostly from grounded theory people who resisted the idea of conforming to a hypothesis-testing model for grant proposals, whereas i’m asking about ethnographers who, like you, identify with and want to speak to a theoretical literature).



    September 25, 2009 at 4:59 pm

  4. I didn’t know about IDEO methods cards — that looks interesting.

    And, I don’t do qualitative research, though review it for journals occasionally —- the following pieces seem to get cited: Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Eisenhardt, 1989; Miles & Huberman, 1994.



    September 25, 2009 at 5:06 pm

  5. Gabriel – You ought to read Roy Suddaby’s take on grounded theory, “What grounded theory is not”. He discusses this problem and comes down on a side favorable to abstraction, which is not surprising given that he’s writing an organizational theory audience.



    September 25, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  6. Gabriel: On your point — as you may know, there’s a longstanding debate in social/economic anthropology about this exact point: substantivism versus formalism. So, these are essentially two schools of thought to description/ethnography, one emphasizing the idiosyncrasies of the local (George Dalton defends this in a piece you’ll find in JSTOR) and the other emphasizing universals (essentially: general theory and mechanisms) — Malinowski belonged to the latter camp (and actually Geertz took some rather serious swipes at him, particularly when he reviewed the above Malinowski diary that Katherine mentions).



    September 25, 2009 at 7:11 pm

  7. Sorry for the laundry list below, but I have found these especially great for teaching as well as for clarifying theoretical sticking points in ethnographic research. Of special note, check out Becker’s reply to Lamont and White, Luker’s new (2009) text, Burawoy’s answer to the grounded theory debate that folks mention above, and the AJS Wacquant vs Newman, Anderson and Duneier debate. Enjoy!

    • Becker, H. “How to Find Out How to Do Qualitative Research” (this is Becker’s reply to Lamont and White NSF report above)
    • Becker, H. “Cases, causes, conjunctures, stories, and imagery.” In: What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry, C. Ragin and H. Becker, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 205-216, 1992.
    • Becker, Howard S. 2001. “The Epistemology of Qualitative Research.” Pages 317-330 in Contemporary Field Research, second edition. Robert M. Emerson, editor. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
    • Borland, Katherine. “’That’s Not What I Said’: Interpretive Conflict in Oral History Research.” In Gluck and Patai, eds., Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History.
    • Burawoy, Michael. 1998. “The Extended Case Method.” Sociological Theory 16(1): 4-33.
    • Du Bois, W. E. B. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro. New York: Lippincott
    • Grazian, David.2003. Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenicity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
    • Humphries, Laud. 1972. “Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places.” Sociology Full Circle. ed. by William Feigelman. NY: Praeger Publishers, 1972. pp. 259-277. Available at
    • Lincoln and Tierney (2004) Qualitative research and institutional review boards. Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 10, Number 2:261-280
    • Luker, Kristin. 2009. Salsa Dancing in the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    • Patillo-McCoy, Mar. 1999. Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
    • Schwandt, Thomas A. 2000. “Three Epistemological Stances for Qualitative Inquiry: Interpretivism, Hermenuetics, and Social Constructionism.” Pp. 189-213 in Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd ed., edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
    • Smith, Dorothy. 1987. The Everyday World as Problematic Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. “The Everyday World as Problematic.”
    • Oakley, A. 1981. “Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms.” (Ed.) Roberts, H. Doing Feminist Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
    • Ortner, Sherry B. 2003. New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture and the Class of ’58 Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
    • Wacquant, Loïc. 2002. “Scrutinizing the Street: Poverty, Morality, and the Pitfalls of Urban Ethnography.” American Journal of Sociology 107(6):1468–1532, and replies by Newman, Anderson and Duneier.


    Matthew Hughey

    September 25, 2009 at 7:22 pm

  8. brayden,
    that’s a great reference, Suddaby plots a very appealing course. unfortunately i think the fallacies he identifies (making a principle of ignorance, vulgar empiricism, etc) are reasonably common, but at least he’s showing that these are problems that can and should be avoided without going too far the other way and becoming some kind of naive Popperian tester of etic hypotheses or doing the hyper-abstract “let’s see how long we can go before mentioning the empirical setting” thing that’s popular in quantitative econ soc.


    Gabriel Rossman

    September 25, 2009 at 7:25 pm

  9. […] 25, 2009 by Matthew Hughey The good folks at Orgtheory have started a little list on quality ethnographic texts.  They […]


  10. Great Post! The Weiss and Malinowski books are courses themselves.


    Brian Pitt

    September 26, 2009 at 12:49 am

  11. Hi folks,
    Thanks for all your suggestions, especially Matthew’s excellent list of additions! I’m mulling over an extended response to Gabriel’s question, which may comprise a follow-up post.



    September 28, 2009 at 5:31 pm

  12. Katherine: on a related note, I’d be interested in a post on the role of ethnography in terms of generating local description versus general theories/mechanisms (put differently, how does substantivism vs. formalism play out in org’l research?) — this is particularly interesting to me from a comparative orgs perspective.



    September 28, 2009 at 5:37 pm

  13. […] one comment In the comments of my last post about guides for conducting ethnography, Teppo raised the question of “[what is] the role of ethnography in terms of generating local […]


  14. […] She includes some great links towards the bottom. Katherine’s post and her earlier piece on guides for conducting ethnographies are an excellent place to start for a student interested in […]


  15. Thanks for valuable information.



    October 3, 2009 at 8:05 am

  16. […] “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up […]


  17. […] “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography, I discussed various questions […]


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    March 3, 2013 at 9:51 pm

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