2 ethnography giampietro Gobo

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Giampietro Gobo

Ethnography is a methodology based on direct observation. Of course, when doing ethnography, it is also essential to listen to the conversations of the actors ‘on stage’, read the documents produced by the organization under study, and ask people questions. Yet what most distinguishes ethnography from other methodologies is a more active role assigned to the cognitive modes of observing, watching, seeing, looking at, gazing at and scrutinizing.

Ethnography, like any other methodology, is not simply an instrument of data collection. It is born at particular moment in the history of society and embodies certain of its cultural features. This chapter, embracing a theory of method, focuses upon why (right now, notwithstanding more than one century of history) ethnography has come into fashion.

Keywords: observation, ethnography, methodology, theory of method, applied methods.
Ethnography is a methodology with more than one hundred years of history. It arose in the Western world as a particular form of knowledge about distant cultures (typically non-Western ones) which were impenetrable to analysis since we had only fleeting contact or brief conversations. Despite its good intentions (to gain deeper understanding), ethnography is still a colonial method that must be de-colonialized.

  1. Competing definitions of ethnography

Defining a term is always difficult because there as many definitions as there are different points of view. Atkinson and Hammersley (1994) observe that the definition of the term ethnography has been subject to controversy. For some scholars it refers to a philosophical paradigm to which one makes a total commitment, for others it designates an instrument that one uses as and when appropriate.

But the controversy extends further. Since the 1980s the meaning of ethnography has been expanded to such an extent that it encompasses forms of research extremely diverse from a methodological point of view. Everything is now ethnography: from life stories to analysis of letters and questionnaires, from autobiography to narrative analysis, from action research to performance, to field research lasting from a few days to several years.

Leading scholars such as James Lull and David Morley have pointed out that what passes as ethnography in cultural studies fails to fulfil the fundamental requirements for data collection and reporting typical of most anthropological and sociological ethnographic research. Ethnography has become an abused buzz-word and has been diluted into a multitude of sometimes contrasting and contradictory meanings, sometimes becoming synonymous with qualitative studies.

Amid this multiple meanings, there are at least three terms that merge with ‘ethnography’: ‘participant observation’, ‘fieldwork’ and ‘case study’. However, they should not be mixed up:

  • ‘case study’ denotes research on a system bounded in space and time and embedded in a particular physical and socio-cultural context. Research is conducted using diverse methodologies, methods and data sources, like participant observation, interviews, audiovisual materials, documents, and so on.

  • ‘fieldwork’ stresses the continuous presence of the researcher in the field, as opposed to ‘grab-it-and-run’ methodologies like the survey, in-depth interview, or analysis of documents and recordings. In this case, too, diverse methodologies and methods may be used.

  • ‘participant observation’ is a distinctive research strategy. Probably, participant observation and fieldwork treat observation as a mere technique, while the term ‘ethnography’ stresses the theoretical basis of such work stemming from a particular history and tradition.

An updated definition
The stretching of the term ‘ethnography’ has emptied it of its original meaning. Ethnography was born as a technique based upon direct observation. By contrast, interviews and surveys are mainly based upon listening and asking questions. Of course, it is also essential in ethnography to listen to the conversations of the actors ‘on stage’, read the documents produced by the organization under study (diaries, letters, class essays, administrative documents, newspapers, photographs, and audiovisual aids), ask people questions, and so on. However they are ancillary sources of information because what most distinguishes ethnography from other methodologies is a more active role assigned to observation.
Ethnographic methodology comprises two research strategies: non-participant observation and participant observation. In the former case the researcher observes the subjects ‘from a distance’ without interacting with them. Those who use this strategy are uninterested in investigating the symbolic sphere, and they make sure not to interfere with the subjects’ actions so as not to influence their behaviour. Of course there are several intermediate situations between the two extremes of participant and non-participant observation.
Participant observation has the following characteristics:

  1. the researcher establishes a direct relationship with the social actors

  2. staying in their natural environment

  3. with the purpose of observing and describing their social actions

  4. by interacting with them and participating in their everyday ceremonials and rituals, and

  5. learning their code (or at least parts of it) in order to understand the meaning of their actions.

  1. An historical sketch

The birth of ethnographic methodology is commonly dated to the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Ethnography developed internally to ethnology, a discipline which in the first half of the 1800s split away from traditional anthropology, which was then dominated by physical and biological assumptions. Ethnology was more concerned to study peoples (through comparison of their material artefacts) and their cultures, and to classify their salient features. Before the advent of ethnographic methodology, ethnologists did not collect information by means of direct observation; instead, they examined statistics, the archives of government offices and missions, documentation centres, accounts of journeys, archaeological finds, native manufactures or objects furnished by collectors of exotic art, or they conversed with travellers, missionaries and explorers. These anthropologists considered the members of native peoples to be ‘primitives’: they were savages to be educated, and they could not be used as direct informants because they could not be trusted to furnish objective information.
Ethnographic methodology did not suddenly erupt in anthropology; rather it arose gradually through the work of various authors, among them the English anthropologist of Polish origin, Bronislaw K. Malinowski (1884-1942), and the English anthropologist Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955). British social anthropology of an ethnographic stamp assimilated the positivist intellectual climate of its time and put itself forward, according to Radcliffe-Brown (1948), as a “natural science of society” which was better able to furnish an objective description of a culture than the other methods used by anthropologists at the time. Radcliffe-Brown’s polemic was directed against the then dominant speculative or ‘desk’ anthropology, which preferred to rely on secondary sources rather than undertake direct observation of social facts (customs, rituals, ceremonies) in order to uncover the ‘laws’ that govern a society.

Malinowski is commonly regarded as being the first to systematize ethnographic methodology. In his famous Introduction to Argonauts of the Western Pacific – the book which sets out his research conducted in the Trobriand Islands of the Melanesian archipelago off eastern New Guinea – Malinowski described the methodological principles underpinning the main goal of ethnography, which is to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world. To this end, Malinowski lived for two years (between 1914 and 1918) among the Kula of the Trobriand Islands. He learned their language (Kiriwinian), used natives as informants, and directly observed the social life of a village, participating in its everyday activities. Malinowski inaugurated a view ‘from within’ that American anthropologists of the 1950s would call the ‘emic’ perspective – as opposed to the ‘etic’ or comparative perspective, which instead sought to establish categories useful for the analyst but not necessarily important for the members of the culture studied.

From the 1920s onwards, ethnographic methodology was incorporated into sociology – where it was adopted by researchers who mostly belonged to the Chicago School – and then into psychology and (recently) political science. Although it was imported from anthropology, however, fully seventy years previously the French mining engineer and later sociologist Pierre Le Play (1806-1892) had used primitive forms of participant observation, when he had stayed with the working-class families that he was studying. The English philanthropist Seebohm B. Rowntree (1871-1954) also used primordial forms of participant observation (after 1886) for his inquiries into poverty and living conditions in the London slums.

  1. Sociological approaches to ethnography

Ethnography has a long tradition in sociology so much so there not exist a unique mode but several approaches, sometimes in opposition.

The period of ‘nosing around’ and the ex-post facto construction of a myth: the ‘first’ Chicago School

In the conventional view the ethnographic methodology was first introduced in sociology at the end of the 1910s by teachers and researchers at the Department of Sociology of the University of Chicago.

Its director, Robert Ezra Park (1864-1944), urged his students in the following way:

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and a liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find musty stacks of routine records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats and filled out by reluctant applicants for aid or fussy do-gooders or indifferent clerks. This is called “getting your hands dirty in real research”. Those who counsel you are wise and honorable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needful: first-hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesque. In short, gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research (personal note by one of Park’s students reported in Bulmer 1984: 97)

However, except for some particularly scrupulous and systematic researchers like Frederic M. Thrasher and Clifford Shaw, the research methods used by most of the Chicago School’s members were rather primitive. As Madge recalls, ‘a concern with method was left very much to the initiative of each investigator’ (1962, 117) because ‘the abiding fact […] is that it is unified by its field of interest rather than by its methods (p. 125), which were always of secondary concern. Participant observation was given no particular importance, being just one of the many methods that the Chicago School used. Indeed, strictly speaking, the Chicago’s School’s methods cannot be termed ‘ethnography’; and its members themselves only expressly used the terms ethnography and participant observation after the 1940s. What authors since the 1960s have retrospectively called ‘ethnography’ (thus creating a myth – see Platt 1983; Hammersley 1989) was nothing but a general form of qualitative research. If anything, the Chicago researchers produced case studies (Platt 1983, 1992; Hammersley 1989), monographs produced using a mélange of methodologies and methods. But the marked methodological pluralism of the Chicago School was not the result of a deliberate choice. Observation was one of the methods that the criminologist Sheldon Messinger (1925-2002) called ‘nosing around’ (see Lofland, 1980: 4) and which were unconcerned with the methodological problems – access to the field, the ethics of research, the relativity of informants’ points of view – which only much later became important.
The institutionalization of ethnography: the ‘second’ Chicago School
During the 1930s the Chicago Faculty of Sociology was joined by new members of staff, among them Louis Wirth (1897-1952), Herbert Blumer, Lloyd W. Warner (1898-1970) and Everett Cherrington Hughes. These scholars were distinguished, amongst other things, by a greater methodological awareness which had a strong impact on their pupils and followers (most notably William Foot Whyte, Howard Becker, Blanche Geer, Anselm Strauss, Melville Dalton, Erving Goffman, Fred Davis, and Rosalie Wax), who after World War II produced a series of studies which revolutionized the current theories of deviance, education and work. And it was in this period, too, that ethnographic research became institutionalized by being taught, described in articles, subjected to methodological reflection, and eventually (in the 1960s) codified in textbooks. Ethnographic methodology as we know it today came into being largely through the work of Hughes (1897-1983), who took up an appointment specifically to teach fieldwork at the university. As Herbert Gans, a doctoral student at the time, recalls,

‘just after World War II, no one talked much about participant-observation; we just did it. Like many of my fellow sociology students, I enrolled in Everett Hughes’s course “Introduction to Field Work” and like them, I found it a traumatic introduction; we were sent to a census tract in nearby Hide Park and asked to do a small participant-observation study. Everett Hughes gave us some words of introduction and of instruction, but good father that he was, he quickly pushed us out of the nest and told us to fly on our own’ (1968: 301).

Hughes was convinced that participant observation was a method to collect data which enabled objectivation of the activities and experiences of certain actors. Participation was in this sense ancillary to observation, although it was its complement for the correct production of theoretical material.
The participant observation method was given a privileged role and specific theoretical importance by Interactionism, an approach developed between the 1930s and 1950s by Herbert Blumer (1900-1987). He believed that social research must adopt a ‘naturalistic’ approach and rely on fieldwork in order to grasp the perspective of social actors and see reality from their point of view. Blumer thus furnished the theoretical-methodological bases for a research practice which the first Chicago School had commendably introduced but had confusedly used. The methodological principles of interactionism have been well summarized by Denzin (1970, 7-19) and Silverman (1993: 48, table 3.2). Stated extremely briefly, they are:

  1. relating symbols and interaction, showing how meanings arise in the context of behaviour;

  2. taking the actors’ point of view;

  3. studying the ‘situated’ character of interaction;

  4. analyzing processes instead of structures, avoiding the determinism of predicting behaviour from class, gender, race, and so on;

  5. generalizing from descriptions to theories.

Grounded Theory’

The task of introducing methodological rules and procedural rigor into interactionism fell to two sociologists of medicine: Barney G. Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1916-1996). Their book The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967) rapidly became the standard methodological reference work. It was the first study to organize ethnographic methodology into its various phases: the gathering of information, its classification, and then its analysis. This was also by virtue of Strauss’s wide experience as an ethnographer (see Charmaz and Bryant, this volume).
Structuralist Ethnography
Another fruitful approach that has contributed to the prestige of ethnography is ‘structural’ analysis. The term denotes an approach less interested in the subjective aspects of action (contrary to interactionism) than in its social context. To use a celebrated phrase from Goffman (a representative of this approach), it is an approach concerned with: “Not, then, men and their moments. Rather moments and their men” (1967: 3).

A protagonist of structuralist ethnography was William Foote Whyte (1914-2000). Between 1936 and 1940, he conducted ethnography in North End, a poor district of Boston (which he renamed Cornerville) inhabited by a large number of Italian immigrants. His aim was to study the relationship between everyday life in Boston’s juvenile gangs, the formation of their leaderships, and politics in the slums. His monograph, published with the striking title Street Corner Society (1943), was the first urban ethnography ever produced. Focusing on the bottom-up growth of political activities and their relations with the politics of the city in general, Whyte observed Cornerville in light of its dependent relation with the broader urban context. In this respect his approach differed from that of the urban studies conducted by the Chicago School, which described the slums as an autonomous and isolated spaces.

Whyte’s ethnography is not only important on the substantive and structural level; it also has methodological implications. After its publication, Street Corner Society had very little impact. But, in 1955, when the publisher was considering whether to bring out a second edition of the book, the idea came to Whyte of giving it greater interest by adding a methodological appendix. For the first time in research, this appendix recounted how ethnographic research had been conducted. Whyte thus introduced what today is termed reflexivity: the self-aware analysis of the dynamics between researcher and participants, the critical capacity to make explicit the position assumed by the observer in the field, and the way in which the researcher’s positioning impacts on the research process.

Another leading representative of structural ethnography was the Canadian Erving Goffman (1922-1982). His method of empirical research was almost exclusively ethnographic observation. However, he was not a systematic researcher, and his works (with some exceptions) do not refer to specific settings. His research strategy reflected Hughes’ approach, with its unusual comparisons among apparently antithetical categories, behaviors and professions: all mixed together by an unsystematic procedure and a impressionistic style, which on Goffman’s own admission, deliberately emulated Simmel’s. To conclude, therefore, methodology was not Goffman’s principal concern: as evidenced by the following passage:

Obviously, many of these data are of doubtful worth, and my interpretations ― especially of some of them ― may certainly be questionable, but I assume that a loose speculative approach to a fundamental area of conduct is better than a rigorous blindness of it […] my own experience has been mainly with middle-class conduct in a few regions of America, and it is to this that most of my comments apply (Goffman 1963, 4-5).

During the 1950s, alongside Interactionism and the works of Goffman there arose a new approach developed by Harold Garfinkel (1917-), which he subsequently termed ethnomethodology. By this term he meant the study of the means (methods) that people (ethno) use in their everyday lives to recognize, interpret and classify their own and others’ actions. The theoretical core of ethnomethodology drew on the work of various authors: it continued the study of the conditions (trust, normative expectations, etc.) which sustain the social order (Talcott Parsons); it examined the properties of the natural attitude (Alfred Schutz) represented by commonsense reasoning in the everyday world or Lebenswelt (Edmund Husserl); and it criticised the concept of rule as a cognitive resource able to determine human actions (Ludwig Wittgenstein). Ethnomethodology mixed these and other ingredients together in an original synthesis whose strength consisted in the radicalism with which theories were applied for the analysis of concrete, everyday activities. In particular, besides his emphasis on ‘tacit knowledge’, Garfinkel empirically demonstrated the presence of two essential and (in his opinion) intrinsic characteristics of social practices: indexicality and reflexivity.

In the second half of the 1950s, Garfinkel also conducted a series of ethnographic observations in institutional settings: he studied, for example, a courtroom jury (with Saul Mendlovitz) and the psychiatric staff of the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine (with Egon Bittner). These ethnographies were not conducted methodically and systematically probably because they were intended as demonstrations of the inescapability of indexicality and reflexivity rather than as empirical findings. But they nevertheless opened the way for a new type of process-based ethnography which sought to grasp phenomena as they unfolded. This approach inspired a series of ethnographic studies conducted by Garfinkel’s colleagues, assistants and pupils during the 1960s and 1970s in a variety of institutional settings: police departments, newspaper editorial offices, law courts, therapy sessions, hospitals, halfway house and so on.

Cultural studies and reception ethnography
The approaches described in the previous chapter were current, with alternating fortunes, until the end of the 1970s. Thereafter new approaches arose (reception ethnography, postmodernist ethnography, feminist ethnography, and so on) which critically distanced themselves from the previous ethnographic traditions, although the latter obviously did not disappear and continued to operate in parallel with the new approaches. The ethnographic panorama, consequently, grew highly diversified.

Prior to the ‘ethnographic turn’, media analysts had attributed enormous power to television in conditioning people’s tastes and opinions. This theoretical view derived from a Marxist doctrine (developed in France by the philosopher Louis Althusser, and in Germany by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School) which asserted that communication media were instruments used by the state to propagate the dominant ideology. The scholars working in the area of cultural studies were not entirely opposed to this view, in so far as they acknowledged that television was a powerful means of persuasion, but they criticized the doctrine’s ‘textual determinism’ and its claim that a television program was able per se (automatically and immediately, as if indeed by simple transfusion) to influence or predetermine its audience’s opinions. Instead, according to Stuart Hall, another leading representative of cultural studies, consumers were not at all the passive recipients of meanings: they actively produced their own meanings, and they could even reject those proposed by the televisual text. Watching television was not the isolated activity performed in perfect silence, alone in a darkened room, that the academics imagined it to be (Hobson 1982, 110). Rather, it was an activity undertaken in a broader domestic context which conditioned the reception: television programs are, for example, watched during dinner while those at the table discuss, intervene in, and thus interrupt the media flow. There is consequently a space between the producer (of the program) and the final consumer (the viewer) where domestic activities condition the program’s reception, with outcomes not easy to predict.

Ethnography could describe consumption practices ‘from the virtual standpoint of actual audiences’ (Ang 1991; 165) by delineating the meanings that media consumers attribute to the texts and technologies that they encounter in their everyday lives.

In the last decades many other approaches emerged: feminist ethnography, interpretative ethnography (Denzin, 1997), postmodern ethnography, constitutive ethnography (Mehan 1979), institutional ethnography (Smith 1986), performance ethnography (McCall 2000), global ethnography (Burawoy et al. 2000). Each of them introduced new important features which empowered this methodology (see Gobo 2008).

  1. The ‘observation society’: towards a theory of method

As said in section 1, in the last fifteen years there has been a trend (or a fashion) which has made ethnographic methodology so diffuse and well-known. Why has this happened? Why does a methodology with more than one hundred years of history blow up only recently? Why now and not before?

Explaining the particular success and diffusion of some research methods in a certain historical period leads to an epistemological issue. As a matter of fact if we accept that there exists a circular and reflexive relationship between science and society (on how social beliefs have influenced knowledge and scientific theories, and vice versa) or between technology and society (on how the birth of certain artifacts, like the bicycle or the personal computer, must be related the type of society that has produced them), then even the relationship between society and social research, the interdependence among conventions, social beliefs and research methods, can be analyzed with this perspective.

Previously Silverman (1997: 248) pointed out that interview and society were mutually constitutive: on the one hand, survey and in-depth interviewing required a particular type of society for them to come into being and develop; on the other, these research methods strengthen the society which has produced them. In accordance with this position, Gubrium and Holstein (2001: xii) argue that the interview is not a simple technique, a neutral instrument of information-gathering, but has become an integral part of contemporary society, which has created the social and cultural conditions for its emergence. Atkinson and Silverman (1997) have stated that we live in an ‘interview society’, a society in which interviewing has become a fundamental activity, and interviews seem to have become crucial for people to make sense of their lives.

Ethnography is becoming as fashionable as the interview became from the 1920s. If the ‘interview society’ is still the dominant societal model,the recent sudden increase of ethnography can be explained with the hypothesis that we are entering a ‘observation society’, a society in which observing (as interviewing) has become a fundamental activity, and watching and scrutinizing are becoming important cognitive modes alongside the others, like listening, feeling, hearing and eavesdropping, typical of the ‘interview society’.

The clues that we are living in a ‘observation society’ are many: wherever we go there is always a television camera ready to film our actions (unbeknownst to us). Camera phones and the current fashion for making video recordings of even the most personal and intimate situations and posting them on the Internet; or logging on to webcams pointed at city streets, monument, landscapes, plants, birds nests, coffee pots, etc. to observe movements, developments and changes. Then there is the trend of webcams worn by people so that they can lead us virtually through their everyday lives. These are not minor eccentricities but websites visited by millions of people around the world.

Observing and being observed are two important features of contemporary Western societies. Consequently there is an increasing demand in various sectors of society – from marketing to security, television to the fashion industry1 – for observation and ethnography. All of which suggests that ours is becoming an observation society.

  1. The added value of ethnography

As already noted, ethnographic methodology gives priority to observation as its primary source of information. The overriding concern is always to observe actions as they are performed in concrete settings. From this point of view, community studies are not usually ethnographies since, although the researchers may stay for a relatively long period of time in the environment of the group studied, their analyses are often based mainly on interviews and documents gathered on the spot. As Heritage stresses, if one is interested in action, the statements made by social actors during interviews cannot be treated “as an appropriate substitute for the observation of actual behavior” (1984: 236). In fact, there is an oft-documented gap between attitudes and social actions (La Piere, 1934), between what people say and what they do (Gilbert and Mulkay, 1983, Buscatto, this volume).

The presence of the researchers in the field enables them to gain better understanding of the conceptual categories of social actors, their points of view (emic), the meanings of their actions and behavior, and social and political processes. This is the main added value of this methodology compared to other methodologies: observing actions and behaviours instead of opinions and attitudes only (see Buscatto, this volume). The consequences are not only theoretical (finding new or different results) but also practical, because a closer view of the routines and practices of social actors facilitates the crafting of remedies and solutions to social problems. In other words it is easier to outline proposed social, political or organizational changes after having directly observed participants’ actual social actions.

This is one of the reasons why market research is changing (from in-depth interview and focus group to ethnography). It also accounts for the new demand for observation in social science (mainly sociology and psychology) and for applied ethnography in various professional sectors of society. A recent case comes from political science, a field still dominated by quantitative methods.

Ethnography in political science: a case study
The entry of ethnography into political science has been favored by two cultural and theoretical changes in the discipline: an interest in the “micro” dimensions of political phenomena, and an openness to the insights of qualitative research.

As in other disciplines, in political science the term ‘ethnography’ has assumed a variety of meanings and it has become synonymous with ‘fieldwork’. Locatable within this frame of meaning is the work of Weinstein (2007) on political violence and civil wars, and Wood (2000) on democratic transitions in South Africa and El Salvador. Drawing mainly upon narrative interviews (with the addition of some observations, official statistics and governmental documents) these authors have sought to reach the experiences, the subjective perspectives, the points of view of people involved in violent actions (Weinstein) and democratic transitions (Wood).

Weinstein (2007) tries to uncover specific causal mechanisms (why some rebel groups decide to use indiscriminate violence against civilians) by going beyond traditional quantitative studies, which explain this phenomenon of violence through macro-variables such as income and so on. He analyzes the inner dynamics (the recruitment of members and the inner hierarchical structure) of rebel groups in Peru, Mozambique and Uganda. He finds that indiscriminate violence against civilians is committed mainly by rebel groups with external financial resources, such as those deriving from drug trafficking, foreign monetary aid, and so on. Consequently, these groups do not need or seek civilians’ involvement in and consensus on their political actions.

Wood’s (2000) analysis of the democratic transitions in South Africa and El Salvador suggests that these two countries are very different when structural variables (economic development, race composition, and so on) are considered, but quite similar when the link between the political élite and the economic élite is examined. She also focuses on the bottom-up violent mobilization of workers, pointing out that this produces an increase in costs affecting the whole production system (and consequently the economic élite): strikes, damage, economic uncertainty, a decrease of foreign capital inflows and so on. In order to resolve the situation, the economic élites push for reform of the authoritarian regime and the economic and productive system which support this form of government. Wood pinpoints everyday political processes, the impact of social actors’ local actions on national politics, and the effects of micro-events on macro-phenomena.

A more extensive ethnography has been carried out by Ashforth (2005) focused on violence and democracy in South Africa. Ashforth, a white American, spent three years as a guest in a family of Soweto, the well-known black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. During his residence, Ashforth realized that it would be extremely difficult to understand local politics (macro) without considering witchcraft (micro) and its role in interactional relations (micro). Through participation in the everyday life of the community, he acquired the conceptual categories, the constellation of meanings and the culture of the Soweto’s residents. He learned that witchcraft beliefs were remedies for the uncertainty and insecurity of everyday life, that envy and jealousy produced the social conditions for the success of witchcraft, and that the latter shaped relations among individuals, social groups and political institutions on issues such as the spread of AIDS, its social consequences, and health policies. He also discovered the effects of the building of democracy on community members, their acceptance of violence, the shape of the concept of social justice, and the affirmation of a modern democratic and liberal state.

As Auyero (2006) and Aronoff (2006) maintain, political ethnography highlights aspects neglected by quantitative analysis, such as the impact of micro-politics on macro-phenomena, the complexity of everyday life, the network of participants’ meanings, their motivations, the making of political action, the practices of politics (see also Silverman 2010). Ethnographic methods are useful for analysis of political phenomena consisting not in macro-structures and fixed roles, but in interactions among participants, families and small groups (Tilly 2006), emancipating inquiry from the ethnocentrism (deriving from a purely etic approach) which still characterizes scientific explanations of political science.

  1. Ethnography and its enemies

Notwithstanding the acknowledged usefulness of ethnography, however, it is still subject to the following well-known stereotypes and prejudices.

Is ethnography a highly subjective method?
It is often argued that ethnography is a highly subjective method, in the sense that it is very sensitive to the researcher’s attitudes and perceptions. In other words, if different researchers visit the same setting, they will see different things, and their ethnographic notes will record different aspects. Instead, a questionnaire or a in-depth interview, if conducted correctly, are more likely to obtain similar replies (reliability) regardless of who the interviewer is. And yet experience shows that this idea has scant empirical grounding (Gobo 2008).

A while ago, some students of mine conducted an ethnography in a bar. Two groups (formed of three students each) visited the same bar at a distance of a few days from each other. The fact that they had chosen the same bar was absolutely coincidental, in the sense that they had not agreed on it beforehand. Nevertheless, the two groups had a specific research design: to study the rituals, ceremonials and social actions of consumption in bars. They then produced a report. And, reading their reports, I discovered, to my great surprise, that they had observed and discovered practically the same things.

Hence the research design makes a greater contribution to discovery (or construction of data) than do the researchers themseves. Ethnography, therefore, is anything but a highly subjective methodology (even if subjectivity is ever-present, as in all methodologies).
Behaviours are more consistent than attitudes and opinions
What does the experience just described tell us theoretically? In other words, why did six different observers in the same bar notice practically the same things? Because what an ethnography mainly observes are behaviours (rituals, routines, ceremonials), and these are much more stable over time than are attitudes and opinions (the privileged fields of inquiry for discursive interviews and surveys), as proven by Richard La Piere’s well-known experiments in the early 1930s2. Those who deal with organizations know very well that altering a behaviour requires more time than altering an attitude, not to mention opinions, which are sometimes so volatile that they change from one day to the next.
Can ethnographic research be replicated or reproduced?
From this it follows that, because behaviours are temporally rather stable, the results of ethnographic research can be repeated and reproduced. This depends upon two factors:

  • the presence of a precise research design which has guided the research;

  • that no significant changes have taken place between one research and the next.

Ethnography and generalization
A recurrent criticism made of ethnographic methods is that their results are impossible to generalize because they are based on few cases, sometimes on only one. However, there are numerous disciplines which work on a limited number of cases: for instance palaeontology, archaeology, geology, ethology, biology, astrophysics, history, genetics, anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science, psychology (whose theories are largely based on experiments, and therefore on research conducted on non-probabilistic samples and on few cases). According to Becker (1998), these disciplines are unconcerned about their use of only a handful of cases to draw inferences and generalizations about thousands of people, animals, plants and other objects. Moreover, science studies the individual object/phenomenon not in itself but as a member of a broader class of objects/phenomena with particular characteristics/properties (Williams 2000; Payne and Williams 2005).

For these reasons it is anything but odd to think that the results of ethnographic research can be generalized. As Collins (1988) stated, much of the best work in sociology has been carried out using qualitative methods without statistical tests. This has been true of research areas ranging from organizational and community studies to micro studies of face-to-face interaction and macro studies of the world system.

In addition, if the focus of ethnography is on behaviour, and given that these are stable in time, then it is likely that generalizations are possible. Obviously, precise criteria must be followed in the choice of samples (Gobo 2008). Nevertheless ethnography is not precluded from making generalizations.
Sampling cases or instances?
It will be by now clear that the term ‘case’ is used ambiguously in ethnographic research. In surveys and discursive interviews, the cases correspond to the number of persons to interview (the sample), and who are usually interviewed only once. Indeed, it is rather rare for several interviews to be conducted with the same person (during a single piece of research). Hence statistic calculations and analyses of the interview texts are performed on cases.

Ethnographic research is very different. What is usually referred to as the ‘case’ (the organization or the group studied) is in fact the setting. The cases are instead the hundreds of occurrences or instances (pertaining to rituals, ceremonials and routines) that the researchers observe, or the dozens of individuals that they meet dozens of times during their presence in the field. The researcher is not interested in the organization (or the group) per se but rather in the behaviours which take place within it. Consequently, in order not to create confusion with the other methodologies, it would be better in ethnographic research to abandon the term ‘case’ and replace it with that of ‘occurrence’ or ‘instance’ or “sequence” (Silverman 2007).

  1. The future of ethnography

Until recently, ethnography was a method largely confined to academic research. Moreover, although it has been used for at least a hundred years (since its invention by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown), it has always been a marginal method in the social sciences (with the exception of anthropology).

Nevertheless, it has recently acquired new popularity as an interpretive method, sponsored by epistemological approaches such as constructivism, postmodernism, feminism and relativism.

This happened not only in academe but also in the world of marketing, civil society, and work. New professions based on some type of observational technique have arisen, and some of those born in the ‘interview society’ are changing to an observational perspective.

The reason why ethnography is now becoming so fashionable probably concerns not its inner features (that is because it better captures the social actors’ points of view, perspectives, meanings, motivations and emotions) but the socio-historical period in which we live. Ethnography and society are mutually constitutive and we are probably entering the ‘observation society’ (Gobo 2008), a social formation in which watching and scrutinizing are becoming the dominant cognitive modes alongside the others, like listening, feeling, hearing and eavesdropping, typical of the ‘interview society’ whence survey methodology comes.

This phenomenon accounts for the increasing demand in various sectors of society for observation and ethnography. The future seems likely to increase the importance of ethnography.

The case of advertising is a good example of how pervasiveness observation has become. For example, in February 2009 highly distinctive advertising panels were installed in the corridors of the Etoile metro station of Paris (as an experiment). Sensors in the panels observed the behaviour of passers-by who stopped in front of the advertisements. They recorded how many people paused to look at an advertisement and for how long. Besides measuring the audience of the commercials, thus constituting a formidable tool for advertising agencies and their clients, they are also able to send text messages to the onlookers boasting the merits of a detergent, a film, or any other product. At present there are four of these panels, but by June their number should increase to 400, while it is planned to install a further 800 at railway stations in the autumn.

The world of literature has also rediscovered ethnographic observation. I use the prefix ‘re’ because writers like Émile Zola, considered the creator of the naturalist genre, had since 1870 used a narrative style which described the problems of French society in vivid, analytical and participative ways. Indeed, Robert Park, one of the founders of the Chicago School, urged his students and colleagues to do in sociology what Zola had done in literature.

Today we are witnessing the return of a realist narrative which supersedes the postmodern genre represented by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. It uses participant observation to investigate phenomena of which we have only indistinct impressions. Writers and journalists convey powerful social images which arouse our indignation much than so many political pamphlets and sociological analyses are able to do, reviving the tradition of urban studies which began with the Chicago School.

For example, the journalist and writer Robert Neuwirth, in Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (2005), describes his experiences when living in four squatter communities in large cities (Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Istanbul), for several months in each. Another journalist and writer, Marc Cooper, in The Last Honest Place in America (2005) conducts to fascinating analysis of the city of Las Vegas (where he lived for six months), considered to be the best place to understand the true soul of the contemporary United States. Or, to conclude this brief survey, a book by the journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, 2004) recounts her ten-year residence in that notorious New York ghetto.

All these are signals, some very recent, that strong demand for observation and ethnography is emerging from different social worlds. And I have tried to explain this phenomenon on the hypothesis that we are entering the observation society. Nevertheless, this is no more than a hypothesis: only the future will tell how well-founded it is.

End of Chapter Summary

  • Ethnography is a methodology based on direct observation. Other sources of information (such as interviews with participants or documents) are ancillary.

  • We are entering into an ‘observation society’, a society in which observing has become a fundamental activity, and watching and scrutinizing are becoming important cognitive modes.

Future Prospects

Due to the added value of ethnography (the presence of the researchers in the field, which enables them to gain better understanding of the meanings of the social actions of social actors) this methodology has the potential to become a prominent approach in applied research.

Relevant internet links


Ethnographic Database Project

Visualising Ethnography

INCITE – Incubator for Critical Inquiry into Technology and Ethnography — Goldsmiths College, University of London (UK)

Interaction Design Center, — Middlesex University, London (UK)

Work, Interaction and Technology Research Group ― King's College, London (UK)


Study questions for students

  • In term of research practices, what is the difference in doing a research based on observation and on interviews?

  • What are the five main characteristics of participant observation?

  • Why is ethnography becoming so fashionable?

Recommended Reading

Emerson, R.M., Fretz, R.I. and Shaw, L.L. (1995), Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gobo, Giampietro (2008). Doing Ethnography. London: Sage.

Silverman, David (2007), Instances or sequences?, in D. Silverman, A Very short, Fairly Interesting, Quite Cheap Book about Qualitative Research, London: Sage: 61-84.


Ang, I. (1991), Desperately Seeking the Audience, London: Routledge.

Aronoff, Myron J. (2006). Forty years as a political ethnographer. Ab Imperio, 4, pp. 1-15.

Ashforth, Adam (2005). Witchcraft, violence and democracy in South Africa. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Atkinson, P. and Hammersley, M. (1994), ‘Ethnography and participant observation’. In N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (eds.), op. cit.: 248-261.

Atkinson, P. and Silverman, D. (1997), Kundera's Immortality: The Interview Society and the Invention of Self’, in «Qualitative Inquiry», 3, 3, pp. 324-45.

Auyero, Javier (2006). Introductory note on politics under the microscope. Special issue on political ethnography I. Qualitative Sociology, 29, 257-9.

Becker, H.S. (1998), Trick of the Trade, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Bulmer, Martin 1984, The Chicago School of Sociology. Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Burawoy, M., Blum, J.A., George S., Gille, Z., Gowan, T., Haney, L., Klawiter, M., Lopez, S.H., Riain, S.O. and Thayer, M. (2000), Global Ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Collins, R. (1988) Theoretical Sociology, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Denzin, N.K. (1970), The Research Act, New York: McGraw Hill.

Gans, H.J. (1968), ‘The Participant-Observer as a Human Being: observations on the Personal Aspects of Fieldwork’. In H.S. Becker, B. Geer, D. Riesman and R.S. Weiss (eds.), Institutions and the Person. Chicago: Aldine, 300-317.

Gilbert, N. and Mulkay, M. (1983), ‘In Search of the Action’. In N Gilbert, N. and Abell, P. (eds.) Accounts and Action, Aldershot: Gower.

Goffman, E. (1963), Behavior in Public Places. Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, The Free Press, Glencoe

Goffman, E. (1967), Interaction Ritual, New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Gubrium, J.F. and Holstein, J. (2001) (eds.), Handbook of Interview Research, Thousand Oaks, Ca., Sage.

Hammersley, M. (1989), The Dilemma of Qualitative Method, London: Routledge.

Heritage J. (1984), Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology, Polity, Cambridge.

Hobson, D. (1982), ‘Crossroads’: the Drama of Soap Opera, London: Methuen.

La Piere, R. T. (1934), ‘Attitudes vs. Action’, Social Force, 12: 230-7.

Lofland, L.H. (1980), ‘Reminescences of Classic Chicago: “The Blumer-Hughes Talk’, Urban Life, 9(3): 251-281.

Madge, J. (1962), The Origins of Scientific Sociology, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.

Mehan, H. (1979) Learning Lessons, Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press.

Payne, Geoff and Williams, Malcolm (2005). Generalization in Qualitative Research. Sociology, 39, 2, 295-314.

Platt, J. (1983) ‘The Development of the “Participant Observation” Method in Sociology: Origin, Myth and History’, Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, 19(4): 379-393.

Silverman, D. (1993), Interpreting Qualitative Data, London: Sage.

Silverman, D. (1997), Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice, London, Sage.

Silverman, D. (2010) ‘Putting Society Together: What qualitative research can and cannot say about identities’. In Conflict, Citizenship and Civil Society edited by

Patrick Baert, Giovanna Procacci and Sokratis Koniordos, (ESA book series) London: Routledge.

Smith, D.E. (1986), ‘Institutional Ethnography: A Feminist Method’, Resource for Feminist Research, 15: 6-13.

Tilly, Charles (2006). Political Ethnography as art and science. Qualitative Sociology, 29, 409-412.

Weinstein, Jeremy (2007). Inside rebellion: the politics of insurgent violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, Malcolm (2000). Interpretativism and generalization. Sociology, 34(2): 209-24.

Wood, Elisabeth Jean (2000). Forging democracy from below: insurgent transitions in South Africa and El Salvador. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Whyte, W.F. (1943), Street Corner Society, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

1 The new demand for ethnography and the increase of professions based on observation are visible in marketing with commercial ethnography (the mystery shopper and related techniques), the fashion industry (the cool-hunter), management studies, IT, ergonomics and action-research, industrial design (shadowing, flanking, focused ethnography), journalism (investigative and gossip journalism), the natural sciences (birdwatching), surveillance of leisure activities (lifeguards), police investigation and the politics of security, the politics of destabilization (crime and terrorism), art (photography, films and documentaries), tax investigations, paediatrics and so on.

2 The pioneering study by La Piere (1934) focused on the consistency between people’s attitudes and their behavior (a topic subsequently much debated in the 1940s and 1950s). La Piere concluded that there was no relation between them: social actors are often inconsistent, unconscious, and irrational. A Chinese couple used by La Piere for his experiment travelled around the United States for two years, and on no occasion were they refused service by the proprietors of restaurants and hotels. La Piere then sent a postal questionnaire to the same proprietors that had served or accommodated the Chinese couple and obtained a surprising result: 92% of the proprietors of the cafes and restaurants and 91% of the hoteliers replied that they would refuse to accept Chinese clientele, thus contradicting their previous behavior.

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