ethnography revisited – timing and pacing

In prior posts on analyzing “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 and challenges of conducting ethnography.  In this post, I want to turn to the topic of timing and pacing ethnographic research, particularly during post-graduate years.  When considering what research projects to undertake while in graduate school, I realized that conducting intensive ethnography would be more difficult later in my career.  I thus chose a field site where I knew I could devote my efforts.  Like other ethnographers, I moved to another city for months at a time and regularly conducted up to 12-hour-long observations on weekdays and weekends.

Now, I am working with more constraints.  These include managing increased responsibilities, as well as navigating hurdles that didn’t exist in prior decades, such as explaining research methods that are unfamiliar to a campus Institutional Review Board (IRB).  In addition, disseminating the findings of previous research, as Diane Vaughan wrote about in this AJS article, can cut back time available for on-going projects.

Over the years, I have noticed that some colleagues have switched from ethnography to other research methods.  They may focus on interviews only or engage in archival research, content analysis of publicly available material, quantitative analysis of existing datasets, and theoretical work, all of which are more amenable to less flexible schedules.  Some of these methods don’t (yet) involve writing a lengthy proposal to the IRB or spending months negotiating access to a field site that might ultimately decline.  In addition, some of this research can be conducted from the office or scheduled around other responsibilities.

For those who continue to conduct ethnographic research as a professor, juggling research with increased responsibilities is a challenge. With increased teaching, service, and family commitments to aging parents and/or children, researchers have slimmer blocks of time and energy to undertake observations, write field notes, and analyze and prepare the results for publication.  For those who are eligible, a sabbatical or a course release can free up some time during the school year.  Teaching online, evening, or weekend classes can also facilitate research during the weekdays.  Careful selection of research projects and sites allow some to do research whenever they can travel.

Like researchers who use other methods, ethnographers may train undergraduate and graduate students to help with a larger research project as part of a class assignment or research assistantship.  Because of their relative youth and diverse ethnic and class backgrounds, student researchers may find it easier to enter certain field sites, and they may uncover details that the lead researcher cannot access.  Even though most students will not pursue research as a career, they gain a deeper understanding of the difficulties of conducting such studies.  Moreover, some researchers enjoy mentoring students, and these studies benefit from multiple perspectives.

When conducting observations with an elongated schedule or particularly complex, changing phenomena, researchers may have a harder time determining whether they have reached theoretical saturation such that they are no longer learning something new from observations.  The desire to gather more research is hard to resist.  One colleague has semi-jokingly compared field immersion with becoming a “field junkie.”  Other colleagues have worried whether time spent on various responsibilities away from the field means missing a crucial development.  Eventually, competing commitments or diminishing stamina or interest may force researchers to move onto the next stage.

For readers who are undertaking ethnographic research or have colleagues who do so, what are your tips for sustaining an active research project?  Alternatively, please post your recommendations for relevant readings on this topic below.

Written by katherinechen

July 23, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

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9 Responses

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  1. I don’t have much of an answer for this, as it’s an issue I’m dealing with myself. It’s even more difficult since my research is overseas in a place that is very far away and expensive to get to. I have friends in anthropology who seem to have developed a few standard ways of dealing with this problem: do a historical or textual analysis project that is related to your fieldwork; once you have already done a fair amount of ethnographic work, switch to short-term interview projects and/or outsource your data collection (i.e. hire a research assistant to do interviews). Summers are key. I have also found that sociology departments are aware of these issues, to some degree, and it seems to be part of the reason some are not that keen on hiring ethnographers.



    July 24, 2012 at 3:40 pm

  2. Great post. The question of how to sustain ethnography amidst increasing info-glut and time-sucks is an important one. One strategy is to think of your ethnography (as completed) as a far off finished project that can be slowly build over the next 4-6 (or more!) years, but to also plan out short-term completable components that can allow you time to reflect and that can be spun off for publication (the latter is important for tenure-track folks and the increasingly scary “post-tenure review” mandates that are being implemented across the US). These “mini-projects” are both the building blocks of the larger project, benchmarks of progress, and provide the necessary time to critically think and reflect on the project as it inevitably changes. For me, writing these mini-projects during the ethnographic project was essential to my own reflexivity and to issues of power and representation that helped pull the larger project together into a coherent narrative.. I address some of these issues in my ethnography “White Bound” ( ) in Appendix C: Notes on Decisions, Difficulty, Development and Dangers.


    Matthew Hughey

    July 24, 2012 at 3:58 pm

  3. My sense is that in sociology, a disproportionate number of the ethnographic studies that win book awards, get published in the top journals, and become designated as “classics” are based primarily on research done as part of a dissertation project. But that the opposite holds for quantitative and theoretical work (i.e., a greater portion of the canonized work is produced by scholars at the post-dissertation stage). At Berkeley, this was one of the reasons that students were explicitly advised not to rush through the program: over the course of an academic career, you’ll never have as much time and flexibility as you do at the dissertation phase. Also, you’ll probably never be as stupid and/or brave to put yourself in as many discomforting or downright dangerous spots.

    For references, you might note that for anthropologists this dilemma is quite a bit more tricky, insofar as PO is the gold standard for the field. George Marcus talks about how the geographic scope of one’s second project is typically more restricted than one’s first. Sherry Ortner’s research is a great example: she went from studying Sherpas in Nepal (a PhD project that would later win the field’s best book award and net her a MacArthur genius grant) to an ethnographic project on her high school graduating class in Jersey. So too is Aiwa Ong’s work: from a dissertation project on Malaysian factories to a study of south Asian immigrants in the bay area conducted via what she calls “commuter ethnography.”

    One other way to deal with this general dilemma, hinted at in your title, is through the method of ethnographic revisits. Rather than starting projects anew, one returns periodically (ie, during summers and sabbaticals) to a fieldsite one has previously studied intensely and where one maintains connections such that one does not have to repeatedly negotiate entree each and every time. Or, one can revisit a fieldsite previously studied by another ethnographer; this way, the initial study serves as a baseline for a focused follow-up.



    July 25, 2012 at 5:04 am

  4. […] of post-graduate school ethnography, cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch has just published Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and […]


  5. Jeff, Matthew, and bedhaya, thanks for the thoughtful tips and reading recommendations. Summers/revisits can work assuming that the field site is open (which is not always the case) and one has the mobility to go back and forth. Hopefully these will help others think through how their research projects can unfold.



    July 26, 2012 at 8:55 pm

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