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Ethnography and the Anthropological Tradition

Ethnography, or ‘participant observation’ as it is sometimes glossed, has proven a valuable approach for sociologists seeking to apprehend a world in flux. However, it is often mischaracterised as a method rather than a theoretical tradition in its own right. This module addresses the key ethical, practical and theoretical debates in which ethnography is grounded, for sociology and other cognate disciplines like social anthropology.

The module explores the historical development of ethnography, particularly in terms of its deployment by early twentieth century anthropologists like Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, as well as innovations pioneered by the early ‘Chicago school’ sociologists, the Mass Observation movement in Britain and then, after the Second World War, the development of the Manchester School of Anthropology by Max Gluckman, and the emergence of 'community studies' in Britain.

The module also engages with contemporary scholarly debates, beginning with the so-called ‘crisis’ in ethnographic writing, provoked by the ‘reflexive turn’ of the 1980s. It will consider arguments for collaborative ethnography and multi-sited fieldwork, as well problems of ethnographic authority and representation. We will conclude the module with a reassessment of ethnography as theory, (rather than method, or mere 'description'), in order to consider the potential and promise of ethnography for a globally-orientated sociology of twenty-first century life.

Module Director:

Alexander Smith