Archive for the ‘ethnography’ Category

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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A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
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Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2018 at 4:01 am

book spotlight: freedom from work by daniel fridman


Daniel Fridman’s Freedom from Work is an ethnographic account of people trying to create economic mobility in Argentina and the United States. The core of the book is a study of people using various “self-help”strategies to improve their economic position. This may include reading self-help books, forming entrepreneur clubs, and, interestingly, playing board games that teach skills that one needs to run a business.

Theoretically, the book is interesting because it is a contribution to a genre that one might call “studies of the self under capitalism.” The phrase comes from Foucault, but it is really a sort of Bourdieusian style habitus study. The idea is that people have a specific set of attitudes and beliefs about the nature of success and mobility. The interesting thing about Freedom from Work is the way these ideas are shaped and reshaped through these self-help activities. Normally, you’d think these activities are uninteresting and frivolous, but they reveal how people understand the nature of success and what individuals can do to affect that.

So what do we learn from the ethnography? A few things. First, from a very basic point of view, is that extracting economic success from a market system requires very specific skills that many (most?) most people do not have. Perhaps a lesson for students of entrepreneurship is that economic actors must be socialized in a specific way. Second, we learn how market logics are applied to individual behavior, which Fridman calls the construction of a neoliberal self.  I normally hate the word “neoliberal,” but I’ll let it slide here. Understanding how market-oriented calculability is applied to daily life and how it transforms the self is a worthwhile topic.

I found the book to be well written and engaging. I think economic sociologists, entrepreneurship scholars, and cultural sociologists will like this book. I also think it is interesting  to those in a Foucauldian tradition, who have a taste for very late Foucault. Recommended!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2018 at 12:55 pm

remaking higher education for turbulent times, wed., march 28, 9am-6pm EDT, Graduate Center

For those of you in NYC (or those who want to watch a promised live webcast at with a livestream transcript here:, the Graduate Center Futures Initiative is hosting a conference of CUNY faculty and students on Wed., March 28, 9am-6pm EDT at the Graduate Center.  Our topic is: “Remaking higher education for turbulent times.” In the first session “Higher Education at a Crossroads” at 9:45am EDT,  Ruth Milkman and I, along with other panelists who have taught via the Futures Initiative, will be presenting our perspectives on the following questions:

  1. What is the university? What is the role of the university, and whom does it serve?
  2. How do political, economic, and global forces impact student learning, especially institutions like CUNY?
  3. What would an equitable system of higher education look like? What could be done differently?

Ruth and I will base our comments on our experiences thus far with teaching a spring 2018 graduate course about changes in the university system, drawing on research conducted by numerous sociologists, including organizational ethnographers.  So far, our class has included readings from:

We will discuss the tensions of reshaping long-standing institutions that have reproduced privilege and advantages for elites and a select few, as well as efforts to sustain universities (mostly public institutions) that have served as a transformational engine of socio-economic mobility and social change.  More info, including our course syllabus, is available via the Futures Initiatives blog here.

Following our session, two CUNY faculty and staff who are taking our class, Larry Tung and Samini Shahidi will be presenting about their and their classmates’ course projects.

A PDF of the full day’s activities can be downloaded here: FI-Publics-Politics-Pedagogy-8.5×11-web

If you plan to join us (especially for lunch), please RSVP ASAP at

Written by katherinechen

March 21, 2018 at 4:53 pm

new book spotlight: approaches to ethnography

New book alert!  For those prepping a methods course or wanting additional insight into ethnography as a research method, sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan*  have co-edited an anthology Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (2017, Oxford University Press).**


In Approaches to Ethnography, several ethnographers, including myself, have contributed chapters that delve into our experiences with ethnography across the subfields of urban sociology, poverty and inequality, race and ethnicity, culture, political economies, and organizational research.  For example, in his chapter, Douglas Harper explains how he integrated visual ethnography to get farmers to discuss experiences of farming past and present, capture the itinerant lives and transitory relations among tramps, and document food traditions in Bologna, Italy.

My own chapter “Capturing Organizations as Actors” was particularly difficult to write, with several major chunks jettisoned and sections rewritten several times to incorporate feedback from an ever-patient Khan.  Eventually, I realized I was struggling with how to advocate what is taken-for-granted among organizational researchers.  Normally, organizational researchers write for audiences who readily accept organizations as the unit of analysis and as important and consequential actors worthy of study.  However, for sociologists and social scientists who are not organizational researchers, the organization falls into the background as static, interchangeable scenery.  Given this anthology’s audience, I had to make an explicit argument for studying organizations to readers who might be inclined to ignore organizations.

With this in mind, my chapter focused on explaining how to use ethnography to bring organizations to the foreground.  To illustrate how researchers can approach different aspects of organizations, I drew on my ethnographic data collected on the Burning Man organization.  Most of the vignettes tap never-before-seen data, including discussions from organizers’ meetings and my participant-observations as a volunteer in Playa Info’s Found.  With these examples, I show how organizational ethnography can help us understand:

  • how informal relations animate organizations
  • how organizations channel activities through routines and trainings
  • how organizations and its subcultures communicate and inculcate practices
  • how organizations handle relations with other actors, including the state

Here is Approaches to Ethnography‘s table of contents:

Introduction: An Analytic Approach to Ethnography
Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan

1. Microsociology: Beneath the Surface
Jooyoung Lee
2. Capturing Organizations as Actors
Katherine Chen

3. Macro Analysis: Power in the Field
Leslie Salzinger and Teresa Gowan

4. People and Places
Douglas Harper

5. Mechanisms
Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans

6. Embodiment: A Dispositional Approach to Racial and Cultural Analysis
Black Hawk Hancock

7. Situations
Monica McDermott

8. Reflexivity: Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument-Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity
Forrest Stuart

* Jerolmack and Khan have also co-authored a Socius article “The Analytic Lenses of Ethnography,” for those interested in an overview.

** I have a flyer for a slight discount that I hope is still good from the publisher; if you need it, send me an email!

Written by katherinechen

January 13, 2018 at 4:55 pm

don’t make ethnography anonymous – new article by jerolmack and murphy

In Sociological Research and Methods, Colin Jerolmack and Alexandra K. Murphy ask if we should use people’s names in quantitative research. We’ve discussed this idea before and now you can read the final article. The abstract:

Masking, the practice of hiding or distorting identifying information about people, places, and organizations, is usually considered a requisite feature of ethnographic research and writing. This is justified both as an ethical obligation to one’s subjects and as a scientifically neutral position (as readers are enjoined to treat a case’s idiosyncrasies as sociologically insignificant). We question both justifications, highlighting potential ethical dilemmas and obstacles to constructing cumulative social science that can arise through masking. Regarding ethics, we show, on the one hand, how masking may give subjects a false sense of security because it implies a promise of confidentiality that it often cannot guarantee and, on the other hand, how naming may sometimes be what subjects want and expect. Regarding scientific tradeoffs, we argue that masking can reify ethnographic authority, exaggerate the universality of the case (e.g., “Middletown”), and inhibit replicability (or“revisits”) and sociological comparison. While some degree of masking is ethically and practically warranted in many cases and the value of disclosure varies across ethnographies, we conclude that masking should no longer be the default  option that ethnographers unquestioningly choose.

Check it out!!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2017 at 12:01 am

super secret ethnography

Thomas J. Roulet, Michael J. Gill, Sebastien Stenger and David James Gill have a new article in Organizational Research Methods about the possible value of covert field work.The abstract:

In this article, we provide a nuanced perspective on the benefits and costs of covert research. In particular, we illustrate the value of such an approach by focusing on covert participant observation. We posit that all observational studies sit along a continuum of consent, with few research projects being either fully overt or fully covert due to practical constraints and the ambiguous nature of consent itself. With reference to illustrative examples, we demonstrate that the study of deviant behaviors, secretive organizations and socially important topics is often only possible through substantially covert participant observation. To support further consideration of this method, we discuss different ethical perspectives and explore techniques to address the practical challenges of
covert participant observation, including; gaining access, collecting data surreptitiously, reducing harm to participants, leaving the site of study and addressing ethical issues.

The article is very thorough in terms of reviewing the relevant issue. This is especially important for org studies people as ethnographers often sign up as employees of firms to study them and they don’t tell the other workers. Recommended!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

March 27, 2017 at 4:35 am

is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.

Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.

Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.

And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.

But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.

Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.

The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.

At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.


Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm