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Field Research II: Issues in Political, Policy, and Organizational Ethnography and Participant Observation

Dvora Yanow

Wageningen University and Research Center

Dvora Yanow is a political/policy/organisational ethnographer and interpretive methodologist. Her research and teaching are shaped by an overall interest in the generation and communication of knowing and meaning in organisational and policy settings.

Current research engages state-created categories for immigrant groups, citizen-making, and race-ethnic identity; research regulation (ethics board) policies; practice studies; science/technology museums and the idea of science; and built space/place analysis. 

Her most recent book, Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes (Routledge 2012), written with Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, is the first volume in their co-edited Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods. A second edition of their co-edited Interpretation and Method was published by ME Sharpe/Routledge in 2014.

As part of a new podcast series, New Books in Interpretive Social Science, hosted by Nick Cheesman (Australian National University), Dvora and Peri talk about their book and discuss what interpretive methods are and why they matter. Listen to the podcast here

Course Dates and Times

Monday 8 to Friday 12 August 2016
Generally classes are either 09:00-12:30 or 14:00-17:30
15 hours over 5 days

Prerequisite Knowledge

This course is designed as an ‘advanced’ course in interpretive-qualitative research methods. It is intended for students who have completed their field research.  That prerequisite can be waived for students who have taken and successfully passed Field Research I: Introduction to Ethnography and Participant Observation or its equivalent. In addition, participants should have already taken at least one course that introduced them to the methodological underpinnings of interpretive and qualitative research, ideally including some readings in the philosophy of social science. (Examples of such courses in the ECPR Methods School include “Introduction to Interpretive Research Designs” and “Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences.” Those who wish to brush up on the methodological background will find suggested readings at #10, below.)

Short Outline

This course will explore several of the concepts and issues central to current debates about field research in political, policy, and organizational settings—also known as participant-observer ethnography—among them the relational turn, reflexivity and positionality, and writing and reading as method, looking at researcher knowledge claims from the perspective of a reader.  We will also engage questions connected with research ethics, touching as well on the growing formal attention to this topic at the hands of institutionalized ethics review committees and ensuing requirements presented by journal publishers. The course, which aims to encompass both qualitative-positivist and qualitative-interpretive approaches to ethnography and participant observation, is designed for those who have completed the fieldwork component of their research or who are in the midst of field research.

Long Course Outline

Participant-observer ethnographic field research– central among the many methods that fall under the umbrella of interpretive and qualitative research methods – have, in one view, been ‘borrowed’ from sociology and anthropology into many subfields of political science, including comparative governmental studies, international relations, area studies, public policy (domestic/state, regional, local; international, EU, etc.), public administration/local government studies, public law/legal studies, and organizational studies.  They are not new, however, either to organizational studies or to political studies generally, having been employed at least since the 1950s, and some would say even earlier, pointing to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s early 20th century observations of workers and the 1930s Hawthorne studies.  Indeed, one might argue, as Salemink (2003[1]) does, that ethnography originated as a colonial administrative practices, its anthropological version being a subset of those.  Whatever its origins, ethnography is useful in a wide range of settings for research questions that seek to explore the meanings of particular practices, concepts or processes to situational actors, often in order to illuminate a wider-ranging, at times more theoretical issue of concern.  The latter might include studying how street-level bureaucrats implement national policies; how policy-makers or legislators actually think about the decisions they make and how they go about them; how workers shape their work practices and their relationships to managers; and so on.


The course, which aims to encompass both qualitative-positivist and qualitative-interpretive approaches to ethnography and participant observation, is designed for those who are in the midst of conducting field research or who have already completed the fieldwork component of their research project and who are thinking about, starting to or already working on writing up their field notes and drafts of chapters or papers/articles.  (Those who are planning on conducting such a study but have not yet gone into the field should first take Field Research I or an equivalent course.)  The project might be a traditional ethnographic or participant-observer study (based in a community or an organization, for instance); it may have involved ‘shadowing’ a political leader or policy-maker; and/or it might have entailed formal (expert, elite or other) interviews (i.e., in conversational style – engaging people in talk). Researchers may also have used ethnographic methods (observing, with whatever degree of participation; talking to situational members) along with a close reading of topic-relevant documents or visual materials in some form (e.g., in archives, newspaper morgues, and the like, or webpages) to generate data which they are intending to analyze using other methods (e.g., discourse analysis; metaphor, category or other language-focused analysis; space analysis; narrative analysis; and so on). 


The course will focus on several of the concepts and issues central to current debates about political, policy, and organizational participant-observer ethnography.  These include: 


  • the relational turn in understanding ethnographic research, including power and politics issues in the conduct of field research;
  • questions of reflexivity and positionality, especially as these bear on the generation of data and the trustworthiness of one’s knowledge claims;
  • issues in research ethics, in light of growing formal attention to this topic on the part of institutionalized ethics review committees and ensuing requirements presented by journal publishers;
  • writing as method – looking at knowledge claims and their evidentiary base, and the ways in which these are presented in a research ‘report’.


Classes will combine lecture with discussion.  Students will be expected to come to class with their own questions in hand, prepared to discuss the readings and to draw links between them and their own research designs and field experiences.  Additional class exercises may be added later.


[1] Salemink, Oscar. 2003. Ethnography, anthropology and colonial discourse. In The ethnography of Vietnam's Central Highlanders: A historical contextualization, 1850-1990, 1-39. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Day Topic Details
Other topics in p/p/o ethnography and participant observation field research

Content to be determined based on discussions during the week.


What follows is an overview intended to suggest the overall orientation of the course, rather than to be taken as the official, final syllabus for the 2016 course.  The details of daily readings will be made available to students who register for the course. The final syllabus may also include daily homework assignments, possibly involving working in small groups.


To the extent possible, the course will accommodate student presentations of and questions about their own work during class time.  If the class is large, however, it will be very difficult to arrange dedicated presentation time for each student.  Students are always invited to ask questions specific to their own research projects as these are sparked by in-class discussions. These aspects of course design will be determined once the size of the class is known.

Monday Logics of inquiry in interpretive research: Abduction and surprises; Flexibility and exposure ; Theorizing from field data

What are the ‘knowledge [a.k.a. truth] conditions’ of ethnographic research?


Readings will include chapters from Schwartz-Shea and Yanow, Interpretive Research Design, and articles by Michael Agar; Karen Locke, Karen Golden-Biddle, and Martha S. Feldman; John Van Maanen et al.; Lee Ann Fujii; Jorg Friedrichs and Friedrich Kratochwil; and Jörg Strübing.

Research writing as ways of ‘worldmaking’: Issues of evidence and ‘proof’

Establishing the trustworthiness of research findings.


Readings: Alice Goffman‘s 2014 On the Run along with critical reviews will constitute the case study for the discussion. Other readings will be taken from the work of Joseph R. Gusfield, Donald E. Polkinghorne, Donald N. McCloskey, Karen M. Fierke, and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea

Tuesday Power issues in the field: Researcher identities

Managing researcher identity, in all its aspects, in the field: being a researcher and an observer (with whatever degree of participation) at the same time. 


Readings will include chapters and articles by Herbert Gans, Juliette Koning, and Teun Zuiderent.


Researcher relations with research participants

Involving situational members: issues in ‘member-checking’, collaborative authorship, consulting/advice-giving.


Readings will be taken from Sierk Ybema et al., Organizational ethnography, Davydd J. Greenwood, and Edgar H. Schein.

Wednesday ‘Native,’ ‘at-home’ ethnography: Insider-outsider standing and knowledge claims

Bridging the epistemological differences between researcher and researched:  ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’, ‘native’ ethnographers, (participatory) action research.  


Readings will include the work of Michael Agar, Kirin Narayan, Mats Alvesson, Frances B. Henderson, and others.

Positionality and power: Reflexivity in the field and on the page

Think:  ‘Objectivity’ and field immersion, physically and emotionally: accounting for interaction effects through 3 types of positional reflexivity.


Read: articles or chapters by Carol Cohn, Timothy Pachirat, Samer Shehata, Claire Wilkinson, C. E. Zirakzadeh, Michel Anteby, Mitchell Duneier, Adriana Petryna, and others.

Thursday Ethnography and research ethics I: Protecting research participants—beyond ethics review committees

Historical background for concerns with research ethics and the protection of human subjects/participants in research. Facing ethical issues in one’s field research:  protecting participants, informed consent, deception or covert research, and other issues.


Read: articles by Lee Ann Fujii, Kai Erikson, Richard A. Leo, Howard S. Becker, and others.

Ethnography and research ethics II: Protecting the researcher

Protecting field researchers from danger.

Readings: selected chapters from Lee-Treweek and Linkogle, Danger in the field: Risk and ethics in social research and articles by Elisabeth Jean Wood, Mark de Rond, and others.

Friday Issues in evaluation and writing

Evaluative ‘standards’ for field research : research trustworthiness and the language of ‘rigor’ and objectivity, ‘reliability’ and ‘validity.’


Read: articles and chapters by, among others, Mitchell Duneier, Laurel Richardson, and Tony J. Watson.

Day Readings
Journal articles, conference papers, and book chapters to be drawn from, among others:

1.  Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Yanow, Dvora. 2012. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes.  New York:  Routledge.


2.  Goffman, Alice. 2014 On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


3.  Lee-Treweek, Geraldine and Linkogle, Stephanie, eds. 2000. Danger in the field: Risk and ethics in social research. London: Routledge.


3. Schatz, Edward, ed., 2009. Political ethnography: What immersion contributes to the study of power.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.


4. Ybema, Sierk et al., eds. 2009. Organizational ethnography.  London:  Sage.

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements



General methodological background:

Agar, Michael. 2013. The lively science: Remodeling human social research. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press. [see his webpage; the book page is]


Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus.  2010.  The conduct of inquiry in international relations: Philosophy of science and its implications for the study of world politics.  NY:  Routledge.


Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds. 2014. Interpretation and Method:  Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn, 2nd edition. Armonk, NY:  M E Sharpe.


Additional suggestions for further reading will be provided in the syllabus for course participants.


Recommended Courses to Cover Before this One

<p>Introduction to Interpretive Research Designs</p> <p>Introduction to Qualitative Interpretive Methods</p> <p>Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences</p> <p>Expert Interviews for Qualitative Data Generation</p> <p>Interpretative Interviewing</p>

Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

<p>Introduction to Interpretive Research Designs</p> <p>Introduction to Qualitative Interpretive Methods</p> <p>Interpretative Interviewing</p> <p>Analysing Discourse I and II&ndash; Analysing Politics: Theories, Methods and Applications</p> <p>Writing ethnographic and other qualitative-interpretive research: Learning inductively</p>

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.