Adam Williams

Adam Williams
Notes on Ethnography
1. Creswell (2009, 13) defines ethnography as ‘a strategy of inquiry in which the
researcher studies an intact cultural group in a natural setting over a prolonged
period of time by collecting, primarily, observational and interview data. The
research process is flexible and typically evolves contextually in response to the
lived realities encountered in the field setting.’ (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999)
Ethnography is often treated as both a noun and verb. It is often used as a way of
retelling participants’ stories. Structural devices can be employed, such as plot,
setting, activities, climax, denouement, etc. Exploring a literature background and
history can be helpful tools for building the research questions that promote critical
Ethnography is also a narrative of self. One way to address this is by the inclusion of
statements detailing the researcher’s past experiences. Exploring connections
between the researcher and the participants and research sites can be another way
to enrich the narrative-of-self component of ethnography. One seminal example of
this is Clifford Geertz’s ‘Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.’
2. Ethnography’s strengths lie in its specificity of detail. Typically employed in
situations in which shorter term qualitative research methods (focus groups,
structured interviews, etc) may elide participant responses of significant depth,
ethnography’s significant commitment of time and richness of detail make it an ideal
methodology for geographic ‘thick description’ of relations between people and
3. Ethnography is frequently criticized for failing to encompass the multi-sited,
interconnected-ness of transnational spaces and time. Because of its significant
requirements of time, ethnography is not always ideal for comparative research of
multiple locations. Because ethnography requires significant interaction with
localized people, the geographer using it as a research methodology will need to
commit time to learning languages and other social customs in order to interact
with people in a mutually beneficial way.
4. Many other research methods similar to ethnography require less time, allowing
for more multi-sited overviews. These include focus groups, semi-structured
interviews and discourse analysis.
5. Some recent examples of ethnography published by geographers include:
A. Dunn, Elizabeth. 2004. Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the
Remaking of Labor. Ithaca NY: Cornell Press. Dunn’s book studies how globalized
trade influences labor organization in a Polish baby food factory, relying on
ethnography to discover how workers challenge existing power relations within
international business models.
B. Ley, David. 1974. The Black Inner City as Frontier Outpost: Images and Behavior of
a Philadelphia Neighborhood. Washington, DC: AAG Monograph Series. A seminal
work on inner city geographies of social constructions of reality, Ley’s book uses
ethnography to get at how people relate to place constructions.
C. Yeh, Emily. 2007. ‘Tropes of Indolence and the Cultural Politics of Development in
Lhasa, Tibet.’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97:3. Yeh’s
ethnographic component of her article includes many direct quotes from
interviewed local and diaspora Tibetans to include a variety of responses that elicit
an ambiguous sense of place and identity.
D. Writers, Sangtin and Nagar, Richa. 2006. Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and
Activism through Seven Lives in India. Minneapolis, MN: UMN Press. Written using
diaries, narrative observation and interviews of local workers employed by a single
NGO, Nagar’s book uses critical ethnography and feminist geography to study how
NGOs tend to reinforce existing repressive power structures in local societies.
E. Price, Patricia. 2004. Dry Place: Landscapes of Belonging and Exclusion.
Minneapolis, MN: UMN Press. According to Tim Oakes, this is as close to
ethnography as cultural geography has gotten recently. Price’s book studies Chicano
cultural conceptions of the US and Mexican border, focusing on mythologies of place
and identity.
6. Current debate on ethnography as a research method in geography almost
inevitably highlights the relative lack of published ethnographic work performed by
geographers. While some ethnographies contain geographical elements, recent ones
have been written primarily by anthropologists. Thornton’s Being and Place Among
the Tlingit is one example of this. By training, human geographers tend to focus
more broadly on social relations, instead of the site-specific practices which
ethnography excels at identifying and studying. This has tended to marginalize
ethnography as, at best, a secondary research methodology for most geographers.