Ethnography in Sociology

James Rhodes, School of Social Sciences

The essence of the method

Ethnography is essentially about embedding ourselves as researchers within specific social settings for a prolonged period of time, in order to develop a richer understanding of the dynamics and complexities of social life, social relations, and the workings of society. Within these settings we observe, we listen, and we try to experience and understand ideas and practices from the perspective of those we are studying.

Key aims

Ethnography aims to understand social phenomena from the ‘inside’, by observing and participating in social activities, by talking to people in their ‘natural’ settings and in collecting materials (photographs, texts, literature, statistics) that helps us to develop an understanding of the social context in which social meanings and activities are embedded.

The material ethnographers collect is then used to construct a detailed description and analysis of the phenomena under investigation. Through this material, knowledge is produced, theories developed, and research practices are reflected upon that help us to shed light on aspects of society that can only be accessed through intimate and extended forms of investigation.

Experts/users at Manchester

Projects using ethnography

  • Wacquant, L. (2004) Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This text resulted from ethnographic fieldwork conducted by Wacquant at the Woodlawn Boys Club Boxing Gym in Chicago during the kate-1980s and early-1990s. Wacquant was interested in the boxing gym, both as a lens into the contemporary ‘ghetto’, but also in the embodied craft of boxing itself. 

  • McDermott, M. (2006) Working-Class White: The Making and Unmaking of Race Relations, Berkeley, University of California Press.

In the late-1990s, McDermott worked covertly as a cashier in grocery stores in traditionally ‘white working-class’, but increasingly multi-ethnic urban neighbourhoods in Atlanta and Boston. She was interested in developing an ‘insider’ account of the shifting nature of race relations in the US.

Key references

  • Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., Delamont, S., Lofland, J. and Lofland, L. (eds.) (2001) Handbook of Ethnography, London: Sage
  • Brewer, J.D. (2000) Ethnography, Maidenhead: Open University Press
  • Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (2007) Ethnography: Principles in Practice (Third Edition), London and New York: Routledge
  • O’Reilly, K. (2005) Ethnographic Methods, London and New York: Routledge

Links to online resources



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