Variations in doing ethnographic research

Qualitative researchers have innovated with ethnographic methods in numerous ways. In this blogpost, Kathy Roulston and Kathleen deMarrais discuss some examples of variations on traditional ethnographies.

Traditional ethnographies call for researchers to spend extensive periods of time in a field setting getting to know people and learning about others’ experiences and cultures. Participation is crucial in doing ethnography. In both classic and contemporary ethnographies, this kind of work has typically entailed living, working, or spending considerable time in a setting (for a variety of examples of studies conducted over the last 50 years, see Desmond, 2016; Goffman, 2014; Ho, 2009; Howell, 1973; Jackson, 2001; Peshkin, 1991; Pollock, 2004; Stoller, 1989; Wolcott, 1973). Yet, in some cases, it might not be practically possible to live, work, or participate in a setting for a lengthy period of time. Further, with new technologies and approaches to research, ethnographers continue to innovate on ethnography, and the methods used to generate and represent findings. What are other strategies that researchers have used when employing ethnographic research?

Working with a research team to generate data

The example of Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s (2013) longitudinal study conducted in a university in the United States provides one example of how researchers might examine a setting. Sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong was an assistant professor of sociology at a Midwestern University when she began to examine the mobility pathways of young college women. Working with her co-author, Laura Hamilton, who was then a graduate student, Armstrong worked with 4 graduate students and 3 undergraduates to spend time on one floor of a student residence known to be a “party dorm” over the period of one year (p. 268). Although the team members did not live there, they observed during evenings and weekends. The research team generated over 2,000 pages of fieldnotes, which were analyzed along with 202 interviews with 48 students and one residential assistant, conducted over a period of 6 years (pp. 6, 270). In this example, the principal investigator worked with others (undergraduates and doctoral students) who were closer in age to the young women who were the focus of the study. For more details on this book, see a review.

Using archival data and interviews to explore a setting

Vanessa Siddle Walker (1996) conducted an historical ethnography which examined the history of Caswell County Training School, which operated in North Carolina, US from 1934-1969. In order to provide the story of the school, she spent six years examining historical documents and interviewing people who were involved with the school (including parents, teachers, students and administrators). Walker’s book includes photos derived from her archival research. In that this study did not use participant observation, it is not a typical ethnography. However, this approach to research shows how detailed portrayals of specific events or contexts can be generated through rigorous examination of archival data.

Using photos to portray the lives of participants

Philippe Bourgeois  is a critical ethnographer who has examined drug addiction and homelessness. The book Dopefiend (Bourgois & Schonberg, 2009) reports findings from a collaborative ethnography in which he teamed with Jeff Schonberg, to examine the lives and experiences of homeless drug addicts in San Francisco. This study uses Schonberg’s photos to document the lives of the participants. Although other examples of ethnographies that include photos of participants (Duneier, 1999; Wacquant, 2004) may be found, this is not typical, mainly because of confidentiality issues. Bourgeois and Schonberg chose to use pseudonyms with the photos that show participants’ faces (p. 9). They argue that showing “jarring photographs” along with ethnographic fieldnotes provides a way to “understand the pragmatic rationality for what at first sight may appear to be entirely self-destructive or immoral” (Bourgois & Schonberg, 2009, p. 9). These authors continue: “embedding the photograph in text allows an appreciation of the effects of social structural forces on individuals” (p. 9). Although these researchers spent considerable time with the participants of the study in their camps, they did not live with them. Interviews were also conducted with family members to gain supplementary data to that provided by the participants.

Using arts based methods with participants

Wendy Luttrell (2003) spent five years examining a high school program developed for teenage mothers. Along with the traditional methods of ethnography: participant observation, interviews, and collection of documents, she explores these young mothers’ self-representations through a variety of activities, including journal writing, media collages, and improvisational role plays (p. xiv). Luttrell explains that through these activities, she wanted to develop an “activist ethnography” that “enables researchers and those who are the subjects of their research to change how they see themselves and are seen by others” (p. 147).

An intimate ethnography

Alisse Waterston’s My Father’s Wars: Migration, Memory, and the Violence of a Century is the result of a decade long examination of her father’s life over the course of the twentieth century through world wars, exile, and finally immigration to the United States.  Waterston uses the term “intimate ethnography” for this work, although one might view it as an autoethnographic account of her own life intertwined with her family’s within historic and cultural contexts of the last century. In addition to extensive dialogues with her father near the end of his life, she examined more than thirty boxes of family documents including letters, notes, legal documents, and manuscripts. Waterston’s narrative laced with rich descriptions is effective in engaging readers and is a fine example of this genre. For more information, see a detailed review of this book.


Armstrong, E. A., & Hamilton, L. T. (2013). Paying for the party: How college maintains inequality. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press.

Bourgois, P., & Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous dopefiend. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

Duneier, M. (1999). Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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

Ho, K. (2009). Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Howell, J. T. (1973). Hard living on Clay Street: Portraits of blue collar families. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Jackson, J. L. (2001). Harlem world: Doing race and class in contemporary black America. Chicago. IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Luttrell, W. (2003). Pregnant bodies, fertile minds: Gender, race, and the schooling of pregnant teens. New York & London: Routledge.

Peshkin, A. (1991). The color of strangers, the color of friends: The play of ethnicity in school and community. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stoller, P. (1989). Fusion of the worlds: An ethnography of possession among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Wacquant, L. (2004). Body & soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Walker, V. S. (1996). Their highest potential: An African American school community in the segregated south. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Waterston, A. (2017). An intimate ethnography: A review of “My father’s wars: Migration, memory, and the violence of a century. Educational Studies, 43(2), 243-245.

Wolcott, H. F. (1973). The man in the principal’s office: An ethnography. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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