Examples of qualitative inquiry: Ethnography

In the United States, a new academic year is about to begin. I thought it would be useful to mention two recent ethnographies that might be helpful in teaching qualitative research methods.

Matthew Desmond’s (2016) book, Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city is an ethnography that focuses on the plight of families experiencing eviction. Beginning in 2008, Desmond moved to a trailer part in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he got to know residents facing eviction. Later, he moved to the north side of the city where he met several more families facing eviction. Told in an engaging, narrative style, Desmond’s book introduces readers to the contexts in which eviction occurs, who it impacts, as well as what happens after. Desmond explores tenants’ relationships with their landlords, as readers are drawn into the grim realities of life when people cannot make rent and are evicted. This new book has been widely lauded in the media, and the author is a recipient of a Macarthur Fellowship. One of the things that surprised me about this ethnography was the “fly-on-the-wall” realist syle of representation that Desmond used to present the findings from his study. I will be very interested to learn about students’ responses to this style of reporting, as it differs markedly from other recent ethnographies.

Another ethnography is On the Run: Fugitive life in an American city, by Alice Goffman (2014). In contrast to Desmond, Goffman places herself in the narrative, and in a lengthy methodological footnote, discusses her relationship to the participants of her study. This ethnography, conducted over many years, takes readers to Philadelphia, where Alice Goffman explores the lives of young African-American men who live life “on the run.” Touching on what happens when these young men encounter the police, what happens when they run from police, as well as their entanglements with the criminal justice system, Goffman’s study illuminates the details of urban life of the disenfranchised. Since publication, Goffman’s study has received an enormous amount of attention in the popular press, winning accolades and facing critique. Although Goffman won the American Sociological Association’s dissertation award for this study in 2011, she has since confronted many questions to do with ethical and reporting issues related to the study. I have found just such disparate responses from students who have read this book.

Rather than take others’ reviews for granted though, I strongly encourage you to read both of these books, and consider how qualitative approaches to research have been used to examine contemporary social problems.


Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York: Crown Publishers.

Goffman, A. (2014). On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Posted by Kathy Roulston

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