Skip to main content Skip to navigation

IM929 Ethnography, Knowledge and Practice


20/30 CATS - (10/15 ECTS)


Module Convenor

Matt Spencer

How do designs emerge in architectural practice? How is a disease encountered in different diagnostic and therapeutic medical settings? How are the documents of international agreements made? How are facts created in a laboratory? Participant observation provides ethnographers the means to ask these kinds of questions in the rich complexity and particularity of their sites.

Students will learn to think critically and ethnographically with a focus on contexts of knowledge production and application, including design, medicine, law and science. Examining key ethnographic studies in this areas, the student-led seminars will consider ethnography as an empirical method, as a method of study, as a practice of writing, and as an analytical practice, unpacking as we go concepts such as knowledge, perspectives, practices, inscriptions, agency and interpretation.

The course will run in Term 2 (academic year 2018-19) and will be taught in weekly seminars. Students must be prepared to participate actively in discussions and to engage with the group and with the readings. No specific prior knowledge is required, and students from all disciplinary backgrounds are welcome.

Students will produce a short personal ethnographic vignette midway through the term (this will be required but will not form part of the overall grade).

For their assessment, students will produce a 4000 word coursework essay at the end of the module.

As standard the course will be 20 CATS, but may alternatively be taken for 30 CATS. Students who take the course for 30 CATS will develop their ethnographic vignette through independent research into a longer 2000 word vignette, which is submitted in addition to the coursework essay, at the end of the module.

Indicative Module Outline

Week 1: Thick Description

In the first session we will survey the general principles of participant observation at the heart of the ethnographic method. We will also review in outline the content and goals of the module as a whole. The seminar will focus on analysing Clifford Geertz’s classic essay 'Thick Description'. This text will serve us as a reference point throughout the module, and gives us a number of windows onto issues of method, of interpretation, and of writing. What does an ethnographer do? Is there such a thing as ethnographic data? What is the role of interpretation in ethnographic practice?

Week 2: Models
The ethnographic method was developed by anthropologists studing small-scale non-Western fieldwork sites. This tradition continues today, but ethnographic methods are also now applied in a much wider range of settings. This week we will examine an ethnographic study of an architecture firm. In Made by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Albena Yaneva vividly shows that the material culture of the firm is central to the designs that the OMA produces. What is the role of material things in thinking and knowing? How does an ethnographer unpack the practices of a profession from the inside? As Yaneva takes us through the rhythms and routines of design work, what is description and explanation in ethnography?

Week 3: Facts
One of the most influential ethnographic studies of the last few decades was Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life. This study of endocrinologists at the Salk Institute challenged established paradigms of explanation and initiated a wave of ethnographic studies of Western sites of knowledge production, a tradition to which several of our core readings belong. How did Latour’s ethnographic stance afford him a perspective on scientific facts that challenged conventional notions of justification? How is the figure of the “stranger”, familiar in traditional ethnography, put to work here? We will discuss objectivity in scientific and ethnographic knowledge, and the legacy of constructivism in the social sciences.

Week 4: Representations
This week we reflect on the role of theoretical perspectives within ethnographic research. What an ethnographer “collects” and “brings home” from the field is profoundly conditioned by their conceptual paradigm: what kind of thing is culture? What sorts of questions need answering? How is a good explanation to be created or recognised? We return to consider Geertz’s classic text Thick Description and compare with Latour’s Visualisation and Cognition to unpick the ways that the theoretical commitments for these key authors influenced their work, and in turn influenced the direction of ethnographic study today.

Week 5: Control
Ethnographic research is not always in the service of purely academic questions. These techniques can also be found in a number of practical settings, in user research for example, and in research and development for computer interfaces. This week we will look at the use of participant observation in human computer interaction design. Classic ethnographic studies of air traffic control, mostly from the 1990s, demonstrate how ethnography can be part of a design methodology. In the context of plans to replace the traditional paper-based air traffic systems with a digital system, a series of ethnographic studies brought to light details of how the paper was used in collaborative practices that were not otherwise apparent to system designers, and put a new spin on the risks and requirements involved in this safety-critical area.

Week 6: Reading Week
This week is reading week and there will be no class. Students will complete and submit their formative assignments.

Week 7: Documents
Ethnographic methods tend to favour objects of study that are relatively enclosed (confined to a locality, for example), and that provide opportunities for interpretive unpacking. However, some forms of knowledge and practice are globally distributed and don't easily afford interpretation. How can ethnographers study artefacts of knowledge whose importance may not be in what they mean, but in their form, or in what they do? Annelise Riles’ The Network Inside Out is an innovative ethnographic study of a transnational network, and unpacks documentary practices in terms of their aesthetic form. We will discuss the role and power of the mundane in contemporary knowledge, and the methodological challenges that it presents.

Week 8: Diagnosis
This week we turn to a classic ethnographic study of medical practice. Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple shows us how ethnography can be an exercise in "empirical philosophy". We have seen in previous weeks the ways that knowledge can be studied in terms of situated practices. Mol's account challenges us to take the particularity of practices seriously, and to ask what happens when different (and even irreconcilably different) ways of knowing come into combination or interaction. She examines the different “enactments” of a disease (atherosclerosis) from the consultation room, to various means of diagnosis, to the operating theatre and the biopsy table.

Week 9: Bodies of Knowledge
We have focussed on the material forms of knowledge, as well as their enactment in practice. This week how ethnographic research may get to grips with embodied knowledge. The reader for this week explores scientific practice in protein crystallography through an analysis of the use of digital models, challenging the assumption that digital technologies tend to "disembody" knowledge. We will discuss the concept of tacit knowledge, and the methodological stakes of studying the body and the digital ethnographically. How do we know others' knowledge, and what does a "turn" to a more phenomenological style of ethnography mean for material semiotics and hermeneutic approaches?

Week 10: The Politics of Knowledge
The final week will focus on the politics and ethics of ethnographic knowledge. The history of the ethnographic method is inseparable from the history of Western colonialism, a legacy that became a major issue for anthropology in the 1970s and 1980s. The global differentials in power that result in certain kinds of people being in a position to represent others as objects of study lie behind many social science disciplines, and periodically resurface, such as in the recent use of ethnographers by the US military during the war in Afganistan. We will discuss the importance of reflexivity in ethnography in the wake of critiques of its knowledge practices, on the portrayal of ethnographic writing as fiction, stories, as interventions and poetics. Should ethnography aspire to be objective? Does the distinction between "subjective" and "objective" knowledge make sense for a method such as this?

Indicative Reading List

Anderson, Robert J. "Representations and requirements: the value of ethnography in system design." Human-computer interaction 9.3 (1994): 151-182.
Asad, Talal. "Anthropology and the colonial encounter.” Ithaca Press (1975).
Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. "Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography.” University of California Press (1986).
Geertz, Clifford. "The interpretation of cultures.” Basic Books (1973).
Hammersley, Martyn, and Paul Atkinson. "Ethnography: Principles in practice.” Routledge (2007).
Ingold, Tim. "Beyond art and technology: the anthropology of skill." Anthropological perspectives on technology (2001): 17-31.
Latour, Bruno. "We have never been modern.” Harvard University Press (1993).
Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. "Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts.” Princeton University Press (1986 [1979]).
Marcus, George E. "Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography." Annual review of anthropology 24.1 (1995): 95-117
Mol, Annemarie. "The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice.” Duke University Press(2002).
Mol, Annemarie, and John Law. "Embodied action, enacted bodies: The example of hypoglycaemia." Body & society 10.2-3 (2004): 43-62.
Randall, D., J. A. Hughes, and D. Shapiro. "Using Ethnography to Inform Systems Design." Journal of Intelligent Systems 4.1-2 (1994): 9-28.
Riles, Annelise. (Ed.) “Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge.” University of Michigan Press (2006).
Riles, Annelise. "The network inside out.” University of Michigan Press (2001).
Said, Edward. "Orientalism. 1978." New York: Vintage 199 (1979).
Strathern, Marilyn, ed. "Audit cultures: Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy.” European Association of Social Anthropologists (2000).
Strathern, Marilyn. "Partial connections.” AltaMira (1991).
Suchman, Lucy. "Making work visible." Communications of the ACM 38.9 (1995): 56-64.
Wagner, Roy. "The Invention of Culture, rev. ed." Chicago: University of Chicago (1981).
Yaneva, Albena. "Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An ethnography of design.” 010 Publishers (2009).

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, students should be able to:

  • Understand the theory and practice of ethnographic research techniques;
  • Critically appraise ethnographic studies;
  • Relate theories of knowledge to ethnographic knowledge practices;
  • Identify innovation in ethnographic methods, and its significance for understanding new kinds of sites and objects.

Important Information

Please be advised that you may be expected to have access to a laptop for some of these courses due to software requirements; the Centre is unable to provide a laptop for external students.

Gaining the permission of a member of CIM teaching staff to take a module does not guarantee a place on that module. Nor does gaining the permission of a member of staff from your home department or filling in the eVision Module Registration (eMR) system with the desired module. You must contact the Centre Administrator (cim at warwick dot ac dot uk) to request a module place.

Please be advised that some modules may have restricted numbers. Places are not allocated on a first-come first-served basis, but instead all external students requesting a CIM module as optional, who submit their request by the relevant deadline are given equal consideration.

We are normally unable to allow students (registered or auditing) to join the module after the third week of it commencing. If you have any queries please contact the Centre Administrator.