Ethnographic Methods

Course summary

This five-day intensive workshop offers participants an opportunity to explore ethnographic methods, as well as the practical management of the methodological, logistical and ethical challenges that ethnographic research entails. Designed to bridge the gap between fieldwork theory and practice, the workshop explores five key dimensions of ethnographic methods: ethnography and fieldwork; data generation methods; positionality and reflexivity; ethics and trustworthiness; and ethnographic writing.

The workshop is designed  for participants who are either in the process of using ethnographic methods in their research project or who are considering doing so, and who wish to deepen their understanding of the principles, politics and praxis of qualitative-interpretivist ethnographic research. Broadly following the trajectory of ethnographic research from legwork to fieldwork to deskwork and textwork, via a combination of lectures, readings, discussion and practical activities, the workshop will develop participants’ capacity to utilise ethnographic methods critically, reflexively and ethically. 

Format and activities

The workshop will meet each day from 09:30-12:30 and 13:30-16:30 (there will be a 10 minute break approximately mid-way through both sessions). Active participation is required at all sessions.

In the morning sessions, an overview lecture of the day’s topic will be provided, followed by group discussion of the topic and assigned readings, and of issues raised. Afternoon sessions will focus on workshopping participants’ own research projects via short practical activities, small-group work, participant presentations and group reflection.

Topics by day:

Monday: The logics and processes of ethnographic methods. What’s distinctive about interpretivist ethnographic methods? What is fieldwork, who does fieldwork, how does fieldwork happen? What are the “knowledge claims” of interpretivist ethnographic research?

Tuesday: Data generation methods. How can we generate data from observation and/or participation? What do our informants tell us, how do they tell us, and how do we interpret it? What is “thick description” and how thick does it need to be?

Wednesday: Positionality, reflexivity and ethics. What is positionality and how does it matter for our research? What does it mean to be reflexive? What is/isn’t ethical research and who decides? How can (should?) the research manage ethical dilemmas?

Thursday: Evidence, truth and trust. Is ethnographic research trustworthy? How can we establish the trustworthiness of our research accounts and those of others? What is the relationship of ethnographic research to truth?

Friday: Writing ethnographic research. What’s involved in moving from fieldwork to deskwork and textwork? Is writing a (continuation of) method? How does field data travel? How can we navigate the tensions between fieldwork as experience and the demands of academic writing?


There are no formal prerequisites beyond either using or intending to use ethnographic methods in one’s research project. Participants should be open to engaging with materials drawn from a range of social science disciplines including anthropology, human geography, political science, and sociology.

While not compulsory, participants will benefit from having had some prior engagement with the methodological underpinnings of interpretive and qualitative research, ideally including some readings on the philosophy of social science. At the very least, students should be familiar with:

  • Yanow, Dvora & Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds. 2014. Interpretation and Method:  Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn, 2nd edition. Armonk, NY:  M E Sharpe. [Part I]
  • Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine & Dvora Yanow. 2012. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes. New York: Routledge.

While these readings are not directly required for the course, they present essential prerequisite knowledge that is fundamental for the issues discussed.

Preparatory work

Participants must complete the following tasks prior to the start of the workshop:

  • Read Pachirat, Timothy. 2018. Among Wolves. New York: Routledge.
  • Read one of the following:
    (Should you be unsure which text to choose, or if you wish to read a work that is not on this list,
    please contact the instructor to discuss before proceeding.)

    Autesserre, Séverine. 2014. Peaceland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Boo, Katherine. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New York: Random House
    Duneier, Mitchell, 1999. Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated. Durham: Duke University Press
    Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the Weak. New Haven: Yale University Press
    Pachirat, Timothy. 2011. Every Twelve Seconds. New Haven: Yale University Press
    Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press
    Vitebsky, Piers. 2005. The Reindeer People. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
    Wacquant, Loïc. 2003. Body and Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Complete preparatory readings for each day’s topic (provided by October 1)
  • Complete five short exercises and write initial reflections (no more than 5 hours in total; details provided by October 1).
  • Submit a research project outline/proposal (existing versions can be used) and an accompanying fieldwork memo of no more than 1000 words by October 24 to be circulated to all participants (further details to follow by October 1).
  • Read all participants’ outlines and fieldwork memos.

About the instructor

Cai Wilkinson (she/her) is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Deakin University, Australia, where she teaches into a range of undergraduate and postgraduate taught programs as well as supervising Honours, Masters and PhD research projects and serving as the Associate Director of Teaching and Learning for the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Her research focuses on community and individual experiences of insecurity in the former Soviet Union, with a particular focus on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. She has undertaken ethnographic fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan several times, including researching the development of LGBT activism in the republic, and her work has been published in a range of journals and edited volumes. The founder and convenor of the Critical Security Methods Café at the International Studies Association Annual Convention for eight years, Cai is the recipient of the International Studies Association LGBTQA Caucus Eminent Scholar Award in 2019, the Cora Maas Award for best evaluated courses at an ECPR Methods School in 2020, and the 2021 Distinguished Teaching Award from the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Cai holds a PhD in Eurasian Studies, a Masters in Russian and East European Studies, a BA (Hons) in Russian, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, all from the University of Birmingham in the UK. She was part of the organising team of the inaugural ECPR Virtual Methods School in 2020, and is an academic coordinator of the Methods Excellence Network (MethodsNET). 

Indicative readings (full list of readings will be provided)

Bayard de Volo, L. and Schatz, E. 2004. “From the Inside Out: Ethnographic Methods in Political Research” PS: Political Science & Politics 37: 267-272.
Brodkin, E.Z. 2017. “The Ethnographic Turn in Political Science: Reflections on the State of the Art” PS: Political Science & Politics 50(1): 131-34. 
Daynes, Sarah & Williams, Terry. 2018. On Ethnography. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Emerson, Robert L., Fretz, Rachel I. & Shaw, Linda L. 2011. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fine, G.A. 1993. “Ten Lies of Ethnography: Moral Dilemmas of Field Research”. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22: 267-294.
Fuji, L.A. 2012. “Research Ethics 101: Dilemmas and Responsibilities”. PS: Political Science & Politics 45(4): 717-723.
Ghodsee, Kristen. 2016. From Notes to Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Herzog, L. and B. Zacka. 2017. “Fieldwork in Political Theory: Five Arguments for an Ethnographic Sensibility”. British Journal of Political Science 49(2): 763-784.
Loaeza, S., Stevenson, R. and Moehler, D.C. 2005. “Symposium: Should Everyone Do Fieldwork?” APSA–CP Newsletter 16(2): 8–18.
Pachirat, Timothy. 2018. Among Wolves. New York: Routledge.
Popuu, Birgit & van den Berg, Karjin. 2021. “Becoming Fluent in Fieldwork: (Un)learning What Is Good/Ethical/Responsible Fieldwork” Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences (PARISS) 2(2), 236-260. doi:
Schatz, E. 2009. “Ethnographic Immersion and the Study of Politics”. In: Schatz, E. (ed.) Political Ethnography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 1-22.
Wedeen. L. 2009. “Ethnography as Interpretive Enterprise”. In: Schatz, E. (ed.) Political Ethnography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 75-93.
Yanow, D. 2021. “Ethnography on Trial: Introduction to the Dialogue” Politics, Groups and Identities 9(4): 826-834 [and the other articles in the dialogue]