the meaning of field sites in ethnography

I’ve recently been reading the literature on Victor Turner’s theory of communitas, which is simply a social space where social statuses are leveled. One article pointed out that the reason anthropologists lost interest in communitas, relatively speaking, is that communitas theory was developed mainly to describe things like initiation ceremonies, group prayer, and pilgrimage. Because cultural anthropologists moved away from religion as a dominant concern, they chose different field sites.  For example, anthropologists gravitated toward studying tourism because it reflects globalization and it’s a great way to see how local cultures respond to internationalization.

This got me thinking. What does the choice of field sites say about how sociology sees the world? In other words, what is sociology’s implicit model of the world if we look at its prominent ethnographies? For example, we could look at thee the ethnographic works from the ASA book award, such as Love, Money and HIV by Sanyu Majola and Paying for the Party by Armstrong and Hamilton.  We could also look at ethnographies that have become popular, like Desmond’s Evicted and A. Goffman’s On the Run. Three out of four are directly about stratification. I think Majola’s work is a hybrid of many topics, but it is hard to classify it as a classic study of racial or gender stratification.

If you search through ASR from 2016 to 2017 you get 15 articles containing the word “ethnography.” At least 10 are not ethnographies and just mention the word. If ASR publishes maybe 40 articles per year, then that means about 5/80~ 6% of articles use this method. How many deal with stratification as its main topic? I count Rosen 2016 (poor families/neighborhoods), Seim 2017 (poverty and social control/health), Sullivan 2017 (low income housing), and Levine 2016 (politics of poor neighborhoods).   How many other topics? Just one – Brayne 2017 on police use of big data. What if we do the same exercise but use the search term “field work?” An additional item appears, but it is not an ethnographic article.

What does this admittedly brief exercise suggest about the role of ethnography in elite sociology? It’s mainly about stratification and, within that sub-field, mainly about poverty.

Two additional empirical comments: 1. This is only an examination of the most elite outlets for ethnography in the last two years. I hypothesize that we’d see the same pattern, a heavy tilt toward stratification and a more specific emphasis on poverty/low income people. We’d probably see that the non-poverty/stratification ethnographies will be internally diverse. and 2. This suggests that ethnography is used by the profession at the elite level to signal concern about income inequality. I am sure that these articles are good, but any science that has a laser focus on one tail of the distribution is surely missing something.

Post script: What would happen to our journals if there was a “budget” for studies of poverty? In other words, what if the editors of ASR, AJS and SF put a cap on inequality studies – accept the top couple each year and then re-allocate the space to other topics? How would that affect the careers of ethnographers or historical scholars who do qualitative work on non-inequality topics?


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Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2018 at 4:01 am

21 Responses

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  1. Excellent idea! Let’s apply the same “budget” to all survey, network, employment audit and experimental studies of poverty in those journals so that we can broaden the discipline’s focus beyond stratification. Who needs to read quantitative studies of social mobility, residential segregation, union decline, or employment discrimination? I’m sure the editors would be happy because they would have less material to send out for review and make publication decisions on. In the case of ASR, it looks like 94 % of articles are not ethnographic, and so that would free up a big chunk of quantitative articles on poverty for more important topics, since we’ve already figured out poverty, and after all. psychology, economics, and political science do a better job of studying it anyway.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 22, 2018 at 12:59 pm

  2. Joel: You wrote – “Who needs to read quantitative studies of social mobility, residential segregation, union decline, or employment discrimination? ”

    I never said that these studies should be eliminated nor that they are unimportant. Rather, merely that in a journal with a fixed number of pages, we might choose to print the very best of this specialty, and not every piece that that makes it through peer review.

    In Contexts, I am already applying a similar practice. Right now, we are getting tons of submissions that address Trump in some way and I could easily fill an entire three year run with decent articles about the Trump era. But instead, my co editor and I are exercising discretion. We already ran a Trump themed issue, so we are intentionally cutting way, way back on articles in this topic. We are also promoting themed issues, specifically to help generate conversation around particular topics. Some are very core topics to sociology, others will be new.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 22, 2018 at 5:15 pm

  3. Fabio, you seem to have missed the sarcasm in my post. My point was that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    I was responding to your comment: “What would happen to our journals if there was a “budget” for studies of poverty? In other words, what if the editors of ASR, AJS and SF put a cap on inequality studies – accept the top couple each year and then re-allocate the space to other topics? How would that affect the careers of ethnographers or historical scholars who do qualitative work on non-inequality topics?”

    You are reacting to an imaginary problem that our top journals publish too many ethnographies focused on poverty. You noted that ethnographies made up only 6 % of articles in ASR during the last two years. So there is slippage in your analysis between a) an allegedly excessive focus on poverty in *all* articles to b) an allegedly excessive focus on poverty in ethnographic articles, which represent a tiny proportion of articles in those three elite journals and really only appear in large numbers in specialty journals. That 6 % is a huge increase over the nearly 0% in that journal when I started in the profession two decades ago. Should we return to zero and banish ethnography from ASR unless it’s not focused on poverty?

    So, first, before we all panic about our discipline being overrun with studies on inequality, someone could actually do a systematic study of topics covered in x, y, and z journals. If they are disproportionately about stratification (I doubt this given the strength of health, demography, social psych, economic soc, group processes and other areas in elite journals), then that’s something that could be discussed to determine if it is actually a problem. Your review of the tiny number of ethnographies in ASR has not shown that. If anything, those journals could work harder to be pluralistic in the methodological approaches of the articles they publish.

    As for what journal editors should do, I think it’s a little tricky for an open topic flagship association journal like ASR; AJS and SF are independent shops so they have more discretion. My understanding is that ASR sends most submissions out for review and unless they were to establish a desk rejection system, there would be no way to filter submissions the way you do in Contexts, which is a completely different kind of venue with a different mission. Establishing some kind of filter would be controversial among authors submitting manuscripts and members of ASA publications committee — it’s not something that can be established by fiat in the discipline’s principal journal without substantial consultation with the journal’s constituency — us and our peers in the discipline.

    The larger point is that your anecdotal perception that there is too much work published on strat has not been rigorously demonstrated (unless someone published a paper on it). And the idea that elite journals have been taken over by ethnographies of poverty is simply false. So, let’s be a little more clear about the issues at stake.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm

  4. *gathers an overly simplistic anecdote*
    *presents it as a representative sample of “elite sociology” and its “use” of ethnography*
    *makes a jab at sociology’s concern with issues of poverty as if no one is studying the other “tail of the distribution”*
    *gets called out for being dismissive of this work in a general sense because the other kids won’t share their toys (read: physical print space)*

    I think this all connects into that other discussion around job talk questions. There is an important, qualitative difference between posing a question in an attempt to learn something new/understand something deeper and posing a question as a potential “gotcha” moment and then getting annoyed that someone doesn’t fall into the trap.

    In this case, a flippant question is responded to by pointing out that it’s pretty ridiculous. But, then comes defensiveness and also a lateral shift away from actually dealing with the original argument and moving toward something else entirely (in this case: Trump). Yes, blogs aren’t peer reviewed articles but a public, academic conversation should still have some semblance of respect and openness to learning something new, especially because the whole point of this blog post could feasibly become an academic article but it’d only be read by a subset of practitioners. This blog instead offers the potential for a broader readership. But I’m beginning to wonder: how many people hate-read these posts because they’re clearly not being written with any interest in actually developing broader understandings (or, at least subsequent responses make it seem this way)?

    In the original case, the idea of field site choice is intriguing and definitely opens an important conversation on ethnography, access, and academic interest. But, to use scholarly “trends” (which I’m using loosely here) for basically a single time-point to say that we need to stop rewarding/publishing ethnographic studies of poverty at the elite level (implying that they should end up in other venues so that there is more space for other topics) becomes quite the grand claim. But what’s missing here to really argue this point is: what are the proportions of papers submitted by topics? And how do we determine the quotas? Is it by proportions of submissions? By some other metric that requires judgement absent proportionality?

    Liked by 1 person

    some guy

    May 22, 2018 at 6:33 pm

  5. @Joel Stillerman: I apologize if I missed the humor! My bad! In terms of evidence, someone has already done the research you allude to – Jal mehta has a book coming out that focuses on how his field (education/soc of education) is very, very focused on strat:

    You can also read his editorial in the Spring 2018 Contexts – which is coming out in a couple of weeks.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 22, 2018 at 6:34 pm

  6. Fabio, Thanks. I’ll look at Jal Mehta’s work. The table of contents of the book includes numerous examples of people looking at class and racial inequality in education, so I’m not sure how it is *not* about stratification. It seems to include new/different approaches to stratification as well as other topics.

    Regardless, Mehta’s claims about a subfield are of a different order from your claims about generalist journals and their publication of work using a specific method. Off the top of my head, I can think of several examples of recent (in the last few years) ethnographic ASR articles that are not about poverty (articles by Lauren Rivera on elite hiring, Ashley Mears on teen girls who entertain mega-millionaires for free, or Jordana Matlon’s piece on black masculinity in the Ivory Coast). I don’t see the ethnography of poverty trend you identify.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 22, 2018 at 7:45 pm

  7. Joel: Thanks for your response. Two follow ups:

    1. My claim was not that ALL ethnography ever in ASR is strat. Rather, a majority of it is. And my evidence? Click on the link. I just did a search for the word ethnography in the last 2 years of the journal and I said that in the post. Of course, if you go back, you will see more examples and some that are not strat (e.g., Rivera on elite hiring is 2012, or Hallett’s 2010 on organizational turmoil). But I am willing to wager $$ that >50% of published ethnography in ASR, AJS and SF is about strat as traditionally understood – poverty, racial, gender, wage, job, or income inequality.

    2. I strongly recommend that you and every member of the sociological profession get a life time subscription to Contexts and read Jal’s op-ed in the Spring 2018 issue. He’s crystal clear on what he means.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 22, 2018 at 7:52 pm

  8. Fabio,

    Rivera published an article on gender in academic hiring in 2017 in ASR. She calls it a “qualitative case study” but her method was observational, i.e. ethnographic.

    How can we generalize about anything based on 5 articles during two years (from your original post)? And how do five articles demonstrate a discipline’s “laser-like focus” on poverty?

    I get Contexts through my library and look forward to reading the editorial.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 22, 2018 at 8:09 pm

  9. Hi, Joel:

    If someone used the term “observational” it is entirely possible that I missed one (or more). But does the extra data point strengthen and weaken the case? I think a plain reading of Lauren’s worl is that it is about gatekeeping in organizations – a classic strat topic!

    Finally, you ask how you can generalize based on N=5. 1. Jal’s book reports more systematic data. 2. If I ask a question about ASR and all that ASR publishes is 5 (or 7 or whatever) then that is literally the whole data set! And I am open to falsification!

    Liked by 1 person


    May 22, 2018 at 8:22 pm

  10. The idea of analyzing topic trends in sociology is interesting. I think Fabio admitted that his analysis was a cursory glance. I know there are attempts to use citation networks to analyze “areas” in sociology, but some systematic analysis of topics would be really fascinating, especially if you could figure out the variance in topics in the top journals over time. Do people research this sort of thing? Maybe American Sociologist? Also, research like this could answer whether sociology is super trendy, with a bunch of studies about a topic using very similar methods come out after a high profile piece. The issue, like with studies of the Tea Party and Trump, is that the salience of the social problem and the trendiness is potentially conflated.



    May 22, 2018 at 9:01 pm

  11. Hi Fabio,

    You definitely missed a few, including the piece on Ivory Coast. Lauren’s work is on stratification, but not on poverty, which was your original focus. I don’t have the time to plow through all of the articles to potentially falsify N=5 (it seems like it would make more sense to look at trends over a 10-20 year period which is obviously a lot of work).

    My point, however, was that the data set is too small to make the broader claims that you made about elite journals — if they are publishing so little ethnography then it is inconsequential for the main substantive topics appearing in those journals. Soc. of Ed might be a clearer case (my own limited sense of the subfield is that there is a big focus on strat).

    Regardless of the details, I see nothing wrong at all with having a lot of work (qualitative or quantitative) focused on inequality. It’s one of our big talents as a discipline and it’s increasingly important on a global scale.

    If researchers feel that work on inequality is crowding out other topics/approaches that are equally or more important, or simply want to study those other topics, they can make that case through their article submissions and books. Eventually, if it’s top quality work, it will make it into the elite journals. The other factors affecting the supply of submissions on given topics are who trains grad students and whether or not there is an audience for a given topic or approach (and if that audience is widespread or only occupies a niche). These factors may be slow to change, but a journal editor has zero control over them.

    Liked by 1 person

    Joel Stillerman

    May 22, 2018 at 9:11 pm

  12. Joel:

    So, inequality is increasingly relevant to the globe, but in sociology, you seem to describe a functioning meritocracy. Do you really believe that this is how it operates?

    “If researchers feel that work on inequality is crowding out other topics/approaches that are equally or more important, or simply want to study those other topics, they can make that case through their article submissions and books. Eventually, if it’s top quality work, it will make it into the elite journals. The other factors affecting the supply of submissions on given topics are who trains grad students and whether or not there is an audience for a given topic or approach (and if that audience is widespread or only occupies a niche).”

    I know people get mad when I mention Bourdieu, but have you read Homo Academicus? The Bourdieu thing kind of shows that we might be skeptical about the sociological meritocracy argument: he is the most cited scholar in our field and that is often levied as a reason to doubt his model (it is totalizing). I think the idea that Fabio is pointing to is that we should be reflexive about what we study and those trajectories. What does the work we produce say about the perspective/disposition of the field? We are capable of cognitive bias toward scientific work, and might select for certain types of work (ethnography on poverty). Might we want to know about these field dynamics? Not as hopeful as you are about the “self-correcting” mechanism in academia.



    May 22, 2018 at 11:06 pm

  13. Hi Gauchat,

    I’m a huge fan of Bourdieu, so feel free to mention him to me. I’ve not read H.A. but have read many of his other works. Here’s a recent paper of mine using Bourdieusian analysis:

    What you propose is interesting and probably can tell us something about what gets published where. That said, I disagree that ethnography of poverty is dominant in the U.S. sociological field.

    If anything, there are a handful of individual books that have received a lot of praise (and condemnation in the case of Alice Goffman), and ethnographies are often taught in undergraduate classes because they are often very readable, but that doesn’t mean there is some journal reviewer bias in favor of this topic/method, and certainly not in journals that reject that vast majority of submissions like our top 3.

    What Fabio observed is of the tiny percentage of ethnographies actually published in ASR, many focus on poverty. That is no surprise because there is a long tradition of ethnographies focusing on marginalized people. Think back to Herb Gans and William F. Whyte studying working class Italians in the 1940s and 1950s. Ethnography is uniquely suited to studying people who are hard to reach and unlikely to respond to surveys — the poor. But there are important ethnographies of other groups and topics, like Diane Vaughn’s study of the space shuttle disaster. C.J. Pascoe studied homophobia among high school boys. And so on. Bourdieu & Co. did qualitative interviews with the poor in “The Weight of the World.”

    Most of the work in the top generalist journals is quantitative and that methodology is dominant and doxic (94 % of articles according to Fabio’s count). In that regard, the real question is the opposite of what was initially stated — how can more meritorious ethnographic, historical, visual, etc. methods on any topic get published in high status generalist journals given that reviewers and editors tend to favor quantitative work and to question the scientific validity of qualitative work (as we have seen in several posts on this blog)?

    That said, if we look at ASR in 1998 when I finished grad school, it was practically a miracle if they published an ethnography. Since then, there have been NSF funded projects/reports on qualitative research and some pressure from scholars to “open up” ASR in particular. The current editors, when they came on board, published a statement indicating that they wanted to make the journal more pluralistic. So, gradual, partial change can bubble up within the field, but that doesn’t change the fact that quantitative approaches continue to dominate regardless of the substantive topic. As for more substantive pluralism, new research foci emerge periodically. For example, a colleague of mine has been instrumental in making research on trans persons much more visible in the discipline, but it took a long time being on the outside before there was some movement. I think Bourdieu would agree with this description of struggles within the sociological field, but of course, there are diverse interpretations of his work.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 23, 2018 at 1:06 am

  14. Joel,

    I see your point and I agree with you. I’m just not sure he was saying that “ethnographies are dominant in the field.”

    I understood the argument to be that top journals seem to select for a certain type of ethnography, when this type of work is actually more diverse. He reasoned that it signals in elite journals a “concern with inequality.” In my experience, the current editors of ASR have been outstanding in a number of ways. The recognition of ethnographic work–which I greatly value–being one aspect of this. I will read your piece about Bourdieu, I love his stuff too. H.A. is an amazing book, in my opinion, because it is a very straightforward application of field theory and how it relates to the dispositions of sociologists, in particular.



    May 23, 2018 at 2:53 am

  15. The best sociological work bridges two or more fields. For instance, Rivera’s work bridges stratification, culture, and organizations/work. If she focused on the cultural and organizational dynamics of hiring WITHOUT looking at stratification, that would be an extremely bad and limited paper which told us very little about the world. The problem with ed strat literature is that so little of it engages with the other things going on in schools, such as organizational practices and dynamics–not that it engages with strat.

    Inequality exists and permeates every aspect of human social life–this is one of the first things students learn in sociology. Of course there are other things to study too, but I cannot imagine how anyone could find it problematic that a big chunk of the most highly placed literature in our discipline is, in part, focused on inequality. Again, it should be inequality AND, but it is inequality AND that leads to excellent work like Rivera’s.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 23, 2018 at 3:25 am

  16. Mikaila,

    I totally agree. Well said.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 23, 2018 at 12:25 pm

  17. Gauchat,

    Thanks. There’s no evidence provided for this “virtue signalling” hypothesis. It seems to me like an indirect way to question the editors’ judgment and diminish the value of the scholars’ work. It is also a standard that is not applied to “the profession’s” judgments about quantitative stratification work published so it seems like a highly skewed analysis of an alleged problem.

    I’d like to know what someone “signals” by criticizing editors’ sensitivity to inequality. Value free sociology? That’s a new idea…

    Thanks for the read and I look forward to H.A. I really liked The Field of Cultural Production.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 23, 2018 at 12:35 pm

  18. Great point about submissions and quotas. Agree that this is a can of worms.


    Joel Stillerman

    May 23, 2018 at 12:38 pm

  19. “I am sure that these articles are good…”

    I agree. I think orgtheory readers should read them and cite them far and wide. (Kidding, of course. Well, maybe half-kidding.)

    I suppose one way to view this is similar to Fabio: 5 ethnographic studies in the “Americans” in the last 2 years (or 6 if we count Lauren’s), and all are generally interested in inequality/strat. Another way to look at this is that those articles on inequality are in fact quite diverse and actually not about “poverty/low income people” as Fabio writes. Eva and Esther’s paper are closer in line with On the Run and Evicted, yes. But the papers by me, Sarah, and Josh (and Lauren) are not about poor people. My paper is about community-based organizations & political representation, Sarah’s is about a police department, and Josh’s is about ambulance operations. And the theories we draw on/propose aren’t just about poor people; they are about law & society, organizations, labor, etc. Even Eva and Esther’s respective papers are very much about policy (Section 8 vouchers, eviction relocation policy across states) and not just “how do poor people get by.”

    So maybe it’s two sides of the same coin: You can view this as evidence of ethnography skewing toward studies of inequality, and you can also view it as younger sociologists–we are all junior faculty, or soon-to-be–who are moving beyond an emphasis on poor people and pulling ideas from many corners of the discipline to better understand the mechanisms of inequality in different institutional settings.

    Liked by 2 people

    Jeremy Levine

    May 23, 2018 at 1:51 pm

  20. Two points about which I have only indirect data. (1) All ASA journals submit all kinds of reports and have long reported that their acceptance rates for qualitative research is the same as for quantitative. Past reports have repeatedly said that the difference in ASR is entirely a function of who submits to ASR. Non ASA journals (e.g. AJS, SF) are controlled by particular departments and do not have to submit regular accounts of their processes. I have noticed that the ASA journals get a lot more s__t than the non-ASA journals, even though my personal opinion is that there is more evidence of “house effects” in the journals controlled by departments. (2) Reviewer pools. Some “areas” tend to knife each other in the review process, giving the editor only negative reviews, while other “areas” tend to send constructive/positive views. This pattern is by substantive area, not method, although it correlates. It is my entirely subjective observation that qualitative researchers tend to diverge much more sharply than do quantitative researchers in how they evaluate a particular piece of research, thus leading to a higher probability of mixed reviewers for an article that at least some people think deserves a positive review.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 24, 2018 at 1:58 am

  21. For the record Brayne’s 2017 lovely study on police use of big data also has a long section on how the process may be involved in re-producing inequalities (almost all the discussion is devoted to this: p. 996 -1000). This having been said fashion effects are well established in academic work and no one is completely immune from it (authors and editors). If we look at the issue from a sociology of academic practice perspective, rather than an issue of principles, things may look differently. Also sociology has been subject to a diaspora and sociological papers regularly appear in journals in different disciplines (STS, information systems, management , education, medicine). Authors do not send their paper to ASR and AJS because they do not get brownie points for doing so. So again what we may be observing here, at least in part, is a reflection of the current division of labour between sociologists working in different departments. Finally, as it often happens, you discussion assumes that everything that happens outside the USA does not count. We should not confuse “sociology’s implicit model of the world” with the internal politics of north American Sociology departments.

    Liked by 1 person

    Davide Nicolini

    June 4, 2018 at 9:18 am

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