Interrogating ethnography

Recently in a graduate class I was teaching, a question was asked about whether researchers conducted ethnography anymore. The concern seemed to stem from how much time it took to conduct ethnography. Who has the time and money to spend six years in a field setting as sociologist Alice Goffman (2014) did for her study? Since many members of the classes I teach work full-time and are taking graduate classes in the evenings, doing ethnography seems beyond the scope of possibility. Yet, the time needed to conduct a “good” ethnography is but one of the challenges of doing this work. Researchers have long discussed challenges involved in using ethnography as a method (e.g., Hammersley, 1990, 1992) to study the social world. This blogpost examines a recent book that takes a critical look at the state of ethnography as a method.

Steven Lubet (2018), who is a professor of law at Northwestern University in the US,  recently published a book entitled Interrogating ethnography: Why evidence matters.  Lubet’s foray into ethnography began when he read Alice Goffman’s book On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Lubet was troubled by by this ethnography, especially when Goffman discusses how she joined her participants (who had become friends) to search for the killer of one of the participants in the study (named Chuck in the book). Lubet questions whether this ethnography exemplifies “valid social science,” asking how the various readers of reports from this study (including Goffman’s dissertation, journal article and book manuscript) could have missed the “factual discrepancies” that he himself notes (p. xiii). Thus, Lubet embarked on an exploration of ethnography, including classic such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1996), and the much discussed study by Laud Humphreys, Tearoom Trade (Humphreys, 1975), as well as more recent works, including Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city (Desmond, 2016).

In conducting his review of ethnography, Lubet asked the following questions (2018, p. xiv):

  • How much have ethnographers tended to rely on rumors or hearsay?
  • How rigorously have they fact-checked their sources?
  • Have they ignored or discounted contrary or inconvenient evidence?
  • Did they accept the word of undependable witnesses?
  • Have they generalized or offered opinions that go beyond their factual support?
  • Did they assume that the criminal law did not apply to their research?

Overall, even though Lubet (2018) found that some ethnographies were “well-founded and revelatory”, he assesses others as “dubious, exaggerated, tendentious, or just plain wrong” (p. 135).

The book is organized in eight chapters with an additional concluding statement. Chapters focus on testimony, opinion and documentation, unreliability, credulity, selectivity, rumors and folklore, anonymity, and criminality. Each chapter begins with a discussion of how these terms are used in the field of law, before applying each concept to how ethnography is conducted and what might be asserted from evidence collected. Lubet draws on specific examples from the ethnographies reviewed in each chapter. For example, in the chapter on credulity, he takes an example from Alice Goffman’s (2014) book in which she describes one of her participants and his brother being pulled over by the police as an example of overpolicing (Lubet, 2018, pp. 49-50). Similarly to other examples provided throughout the book, Lubet took these accounts back to people working in the justice system in the contexts in which events were reputed to have occurred. In this instance, he asserts that his informants were not convinced by the evidence provided. For me this represents one of the key problems throughout the book – that is, Lubet is willing to discount authors’ representation of accounts presented by participants, yet willing to trust those persons he contacted, who quite often were not familiar with the original study. Another example is provided on p. 35, in which Lubet contacted a prosecuting attorney in the state of Mississippi in which the ethnography $2 a Day: Living on almost nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer (2015) was conducted. Again, Lubet finds the prosecuting attorney credible, while finding fault with the authors’ representation. Lubet’s fact-finding mission is complicated, since it is based on the information provided by authors concerning events described. In some cases authors have purposefully anonymized contexts and participants in ways that made it difficult, if not impossible to track down the participants involved in the original studies in order to fact-check accounts. Lubet problematizes the wide-spread practice of anonymization used in ethnography. He critiques the use of composite characters (e.g., Ralph, 2014), commenting that they are “necessarily inaccurate, which is why they are prohibited in mainstream journalism and strongly disfavored in other forms of narrative nonfiction” (Lubet, 2018, p. 95). This viewpoint, while it has some merits, discounts work that has discussed the ethical implications of how ethnographers represent their findings (Ellis, 1995).

Yet, social science researchers do have reason to attend to some of the issues described by Lubet. That is, have researchers done sufficient work to notice when accounts represent rumors and misinformation? Are these portrayed as such? How do researchers assess the credibility of informants’ accounts? How do researchers account for multiple, conflicting accounts of phenomena examined? Lubet concludes the book with some remedies for doing ethnography that attend to the problems discussed. These include fact- and citation-checking (e.g., Lubet praises the employment of a fact-checker in Desmond, 2016), revisits and re-interviews (citing the example of Boelen, 1992 who interviewed participants from  Willian Whyte’s Street Corner Society, 1993/1943) and sharing of fieldnotes. He sums up his recommendations for how ethnography might be improved with respect to accuracy, candor, and documentation. These suggestions are warranted, and represent the kinds of practices one would hope that any good qualitative researcher and ethnographer would engage in. For example, these include suggestions to relate assertions to “specific incidents of observed behavior”, not report second-hand accounts as “statements of fact,” and exhibit care in accurately documenting statements, dates, and locations in fieldnotes (Lubet, 2018, p. 136).

Yet, I do have some reservations about this book. First, Lubet is using what Dingwall (1997, p. 61) calls the “shared interactional practices, knowledge [and]  presuppositions” from the field of law to examine the work of those who practice ethnography (including anthropologists, sociologists etc.). A principal problem for those in the field of law is to determine the evidentiary value of statements in legal proceedings. Yet, anthropologists and sociologists are contributing knowledge and understandings of practices, social settings, and cultures. It has long been understood that understanding can be conveyed by means other than the realist accounts that Lubet prizes (Van Maanen, 2011). For example, findings from Tobias Hecht’s study of Brazilian street children have been conveyed in both a traditional format (Hecht, 1998) and fiction (Hecht, 2006).

Second, although Lubet takes ethnographers to task for numerous short-comings, the problems and challenges of doing ethnography have long been recognized and discussed. For example, when participants of a study provide diverse accounts that do not represent a singular view – that in itself is an object of inquiry. Writing over 60 years ago, Nadel (1949, p. 319) commented that the “diffusion and differentiation of knowledge among the members of a community is itself of considerable sociological significance.” More recently, Atkinson (2015, p. 95) cautions researchers not to treat “interview data as unproblematic forms of representation or reconstruction.” Atkinson (2015, p. 99) argues that the performative qualities of interviews can also be a focus of analysis.

This short post is selective – and much more has been written about the challenges of doing ethnography (e.g., Clifford, 1986; Marcus, 1998) that I have not referenced here. Whatever one’s view of the shortcoming and challenges of ethnography as a method, Lubet’s book provides students and teachers of qualitative inquiry a lot to think about.  One take-away for me is that I will endeavor to be a more critical reader next time I pick up an ethnography. Further, I appreciated Lubet’s comprehensive treatment of a range of ethnographies that I was not familiar with. Certainly, his extensive list of ethnographies reviewed represents a great reading list for the future.

Kathy Roulston 


Atkinson, P. (2015). For ethnography. Los Angeles: Sage.

Boelen, W. A. M. (1992). Street Corner Society. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 21(1), 11-51. doi:doi:10.1177/0891241692021001002

Clifford, J. (1986). Introduction: Partial truths. In J. Clifford & G. E. Marcus (Eds.), Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography (pp. 1-26). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

Dingwall, R. (1997). Accounts, interviews and observations. In G. Miller & R. Dingwall (Eds.), Context and method in qualitative research (pp. 51-65). London: Sage.

DuBois, W. E. B. (1996). The Philadelphia negro: A social study. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Edin, K., & Shaefer, H. L. (2015). $2 a day: Living on almost nothing in America. New York: First Mariner Books.

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

Hammersley, M. (1990). What’s Wrong with Ethnography? The Myth of Theoretical Description. Sociology, 24(4), 597-615. doi:10.1177/0038038590024004003

Hammersley, M. (1992). What’s wrong with ethnography? Methodological explorations New York: Routledge.

Hecht, T. (1998). At home in the street: Street children of northeast Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hecht, T. (2006). After life: An ethnographic novel. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Humphreys, L. (1975). Tearoom trade : impersonal sex in public places (Enlarged ed. ed.). Aldine Pub. Co.: New York.

Lubet, S. (2018). Interrogating ethnography: Why evidence matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marcus, G. (1998). Ethnography through thick & thin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nadel, S. (1949). The interview technique in social anthropology. In F. Bartlett, M. Ginsberg, E. J. Lindgren, & R. H. Thouless (Eds.), The study of society: Methods and problems (pp. 317-327). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ralph, L. (2014). Renegade dreams: Living through injury in gangland Chicago. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Van Maanen, J. (2011). Tales of the field: On writing ethnography (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Whyte, W. F. (1993 [1943]). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum (4th ed.). Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

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