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Writing Ethnographic and Other Qualitative-interpretive Research: Learning by Reading

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 25 February – Friday 1 March, 09:00–12:30
15 hours over 5 days

Prerequisite Knowledge

This is an advanced course in interpretive and qualitative methodologies and methods, designed for doctoral students, postdocs or Assistant Professors writing scientific papers, articles, chapters or books presenting their empirical research using these sorts of methods.

Those who have field data in hand and are engaged in writing up their research are likely to gain the most from this course and to have the most to contribute to the discussion. If you are not yet at that stage, I suggest you consider waiting for another time to take the course.

I will assume that you are familiar with field research methods and why it is that a field researcher does what s/he does. This includes having a basic knowledge of interpretive and qualitative methodological presuppositions. For those who want to refresh their memories, see my suggested list of background readings, below.

The course is not appropriate for those writing up other forms of research, and quantitative research in particular, for the simple reason that writing has very specific characteristics that vary from genre to genre. This course focuses on interpretive-qualitative field research; we will not have time to engage with other genres or the differences between them.

Short Outline

This seminar explores issues in one of the ‘genres’ of academic writing: ethnographic and other forms of interpretive-qualitative empirical research. You will learn how to write by reading empirical research that has already been published.

The course will proceed inductively, studying the structure and components of those articles and working from the ‘data’ we observe there to examine how texts make research trustworthy – or fail to do so!

We will focus on journal articles rather than monographs due to time constraints governing preparing for the course and discussing issues in class sessions; but what we can learn from reading research articles in this way translates to book-length manuscripts.

With occasional exceptions, used for teaching purposes, the articles selected for reading appear in leading journals, demonstrating that interpretive-qualitative research, when ‘appropriately’ written – i.e., in keeping with the evaluative standards of that epistemic methodological community, in a transparent fashion – can be accepted for publication in top-tier outlets.

Tasks for ECTS Credits

2 credits (pass/fail grade) Attend 90% of course hours, and carry out the necessary reading and/or other work prior to, and after, classes, prepare the readings for the course ahead of time; attend all class meetings; participate in discussions of the readings and the other daily assignments, including ’lab’ workgroups.

3 credits (to be graded) As above, plus active participation in class.

4 credits (to be graded) As above, plus take an active part in the laboratory assignments.

Because of the character of the course material, there are no exams, take-home papers or class projects in this course.

Long Course Outline

Have you ever wondered how, out of all the manuscripts presenting empirical, fieldwork-based research submitted to peer-reviewed journals, some get selected for publication, and why? Have you pondered the things that authors might do to enhance their chances of getting their work published? Or even more basically, have you found yourself, emerging from immersion in your field research, facing mounds and mounds of field notes, transcripts, and other forms of data and wondering where to start – how you might possibly organise them into a research paper, article or book?

This course explores issues in one ‘genre’ of academic writing: ethnographic and other forms of interpretive-qualitative empirical research. It will proceed inductively, studying the structure and components of empirical research that have already been published and working from those observed ‘data’ to examine how texts convince.

We will focus on journal articles rather than monographs due to the time constraints that govern preparing for the course and discussion in class sessions; but what we can learn from close reading of research articles translates to book-length manuscripts.

A key question we will explore is how writing presents data in ways that are more (or less) likely to convince readers of the trustworthiness of research insights or findings, as well as of the researcher her- or himself. Central to this is the role of transparency in describing interpretive-qualitative methods.

With occasional exceptions, chosen for teaching purposes, the articles selected for reading appear in leading journals, demonstrating that interpretive-qualitative research, when ‘appropriately’ written – i.e., in keeping with the evaluative standards of that epistemic methodological community, in a transparent, persuasive fashion – can be accepted for publication in top-tier outlets.

Finally, we look at the journal submission process, including how to think about choosing a journal and how to work with reviews and editors.

Readings, which should be done before the course, are of two sorts:

One set lays out the methodological issues entailed in (re)presenting the subjects of our studies in written form. These are listed in section 10 of this outline.

The other, the daily readings we will use in the first few days of class to generate our ‘data’ inductively for talking about writing (section 8), focuses on presenting empirical research, which typically follows a different writing logic from writing that develops theoretical arguments: the writing strategy changes, specifically with regard to the logic of the relationship between the theorising and the empirical material. (Similarly, the logics of writing quantitative research are commonly different from the logics of interpretive-qualitative research, but we will not have time during this course to delve into this topic.)

Depending on how many people enrol in the course, we may be able to workshop participants’ own writing during class sessions. If you want to have your work discussed in class, contact the instructor by 24 January.

Small working groups will be formed for daily ‘labs’, enabling the application of course concepts to your work outside of class.

This course will help you:

  • understand what is central in presenting ethnographic and other forms of interpretive-qualitative research in writing;
  • learn how to read an article for its writing logic and style, as well as for its content;
  • assess your own writing, and that of others.

Day Topic Details
This schedule is subject to change, especially with regard to workshopping participants’ manuscripts-in-progress. It will be refined as we get closer to course time. A more precise schedule will be made available to those who register for the course. After class in the afternoon or evening we will work in small groups (times to be determined by group members
Monday On writing for Aunt Molly and others: One form of close reading, from overall structure down to word choice.
Tuesday Comparative writing analysis I.
Wednesday Comparative writing analysis II.
Thursday Anticipating readers, publishing outlets, and journal, ‘disciplinary’, and ‘national’ styles. Researching a prospective journal outlet: Working with your own field and its journals.
Friday Working with editors, responding to reviewers. Should I tell them I’m doing ethnographic research? Am I...??? Interpretive-qualitative approaches to transparency and research-writing ethics. Developing a ‘writing career’: Positioning one’s work; moving from substance to method; review articles? new field settings?
Day Readings

A basic field research presentation, which we will read together, line by line, to illustrate one form of close reading and the main arguments of the course.


Two field research articles for comparative analysis:

One from sociology, the other in political science, both engaging organizational practices.

The theoretical and methodological reading for this course, which should be done prior to arrival in Bamberg, is listed below at 10, the section headed Writing as ‘world-making’: The rhetorics of science.

Readings for in-class sessions are the articles we will examine together, paying close attention to the details of their composition. Specific reading assignments will be provided to registered participants.


Course participants’ papers to be workshopped OR articles from participants’ own fields; TBD based on interest and class size.


Examples of engagements with editors and reviewers.


Two more works for comparative analysis, focusing on responding to methodological challenges from reviewers.

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements



Writing as ‘world-making’:  The rhetorics of science

(Science = persuasion = rhetoric)

The following readings reflect the general approach to social science writing on which this course rests and the theoretical background that informs it. You should be familiar with the arguments advanced in these works prior to arrival in Bamberg:

Brown, Richard H.  1976.  Social theory as metaphor.  Theory and Society 3, 169-97.

Clifford, James and Marcus, George E., eds. 1986. Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Golden-Biddle, Karen and Locke, Karen.  1993. Appealing work: An investigation of how ethnographic texts convince. Organization Science 4/4, 595-616.

Gusfield, Joseph. 1976. The literary rhetoric of science: Comedy and pathos in drinking driver research. American Sociological Review 41, 16-34.

McCloskey, Donald N. 1994.  How to do a rhetorical analysis of economics, and why.  In Roger Backhouse, ed., Economic methodology, 319-42.  London: Routledge.

Richardson, Laurel. 1994. Writing: A method of inquiry. In Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., Handbook of qualitative research, 516–29. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [or see version in the 2nd edition, 2000]

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Yanow, Dvora. 2002. ‘Reading’ ‘methods’ ‘texts’:  How research methods texts construct political science.  Political Research Quarterly 55, 457-86.

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Yanow, Dvora.  2009. Reading and writing as method:  In search of trustworthy texts. In Sierk Ybema, Dvora Yanow, Harry Wels, Frans Kamsteeg, eds., Organizational ethnography: Studying the complexities of everyday life, 56-82.  London:  Sage.

Watson, Tony J. 1995. Shaping the story: Rhetoric, persuasion and creative writing in organisational ethnography.  Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies 1/2, 301-11.

Yanow, Dvora.  2009. Dear author, dear reader:  The third hermeneutic in writing and reviewing ethnography.  In Edward Schatz, ed., Political ethnography:  What immersion brings to the study of power, 275-302.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

And here are some additional readings you might peruse:

Atkinson, Paul.  1992.  Understanding ethnographic texts.  Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Brower, Ralph, Abolafia, Mitchell Y., and Carr, Jered B. 2000. On improving qualitative methods in public administration research.  Administration & Society 32/4, 363-97.

Cummings, L. L. and Frost, Peter J., eds. 1995.  Publishing in the organizational sciences, 2nd ed.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage.  [The first edition (Homewood, IL: R.D. Irwin, 1985) has an excellent example of a manuscript going through the journal review and revision process.]

Fineman, Stephen and Gabriel, Yiannis. 1994. Paradigms of organizations: An exploration in textbook rhetorics.  Organization ½, 375-99.

Gay y Blasco, Paloma and Wardle, Huon.  2007. How to read ethnography. London:  Routledge.

[but see review by Paul Atkinson in Qualitative Research 8, 260-1 (2008)]

Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and lives: The anthropologist as author.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Golden-Biddle, Karen and Locke, Karen. 1997. Composing qualitative research.  Beverly Hills, CA:  Sage.

Hammersley, Martyn.  1990.  Reading ethnographic research.  London:  Longman.

[but see review by Gideon Kunda, “Writing about reading,” Contemporary Sociology 22/1 (1993), 13-15.

Marcus, George E. and Fischer, Michael M. J.  1999.  Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

McCloskey, Donald N.  1986. The rhetoric of economics.  Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press.

Van Maanen, John. 1988. Tales of the field:  On writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  [oft-cited taxonomy of genres:  realist, confessional, impressionist]

Van Maanen, John. 1995. Style as theory. Organization Science 6: 133-143.

Van Maanen, John, ed. 1995. Representation in ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Additional background readings

I. On interpretive methodologies and methods

Knowledge of interpretive methodological presuppositions is central background for this course.

As there will not be time to cover this background in depth in this course, here are some useful readings on the topic, which is enormous:

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures. NY: Basic Books, esp. ch. 1.

Hawkesworth, M.E. 1988. Theoretical issues in policy analysis. Albany: SUNY Press, chs. 1-4.

Hiley, David R., Bohman, James F., and Shusterman, Richard, eds. 1991. The interpretive turn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Polkinghorne, Donald. 1983. Methodology for the human sciences. Albany: SUNY Press.

Rabinow, Paul and Sullivan, William M., eds. 1979, 1985. Interpretive social science, 1st and 2nd eds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1979.  Philosophy and the mirror of nature.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Yanow, Dvora. 2012.  Interpretive research design:  Concepts and processes.  New York:  Routledge.

Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds. 2014.  Interpretation and method:  Empirical research methods and the interpretive turn, 2nd ed.  Armonk, NY:  M E Sharpe, esp. introduction, chs. 1-5, 21, 22.  [see the reference list for additional readings]

IIA.  On writing, general

Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G., and Williams, Joseph M.. 2008. The craft of research, 3rd ed. Chicago.

Writing on writing in the social sciences Many leading sociologists and anthropologists are included there; some of the essays are enlightening, a couple are amusing, and some contain what in my view is bad advice [e.g., to not split infinitives (as I’ve just done here, albeit yielding awkward phrasing that I would not myself use other than to provide an example!):  this is an old-wives’ tale]

William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style is often recommended for containing good advice for English (or American!) writing. If you have received that advice, you might also see Geoffrey K. Pullum, 50 years of stupid grammar adviceChronicle of Higher Education 55 (32), B15 (April 17, 2009); and the defense in the 1st comment here

IIB.  Critiques of present evaluation systems

Mingers, John and Willmott, Hugh. 2012. Taylorizing business school research:  On the ‘one best way’ performative effects of journal ranking lists. Human Relations [online November 29, 2012, doi: 10.1177/0018726712467048].

Willmott, Hugh. 2011. Journal list fetishism and the perversion of scholarship: Reactivity and the ABS list. Organization 18/4: 429-42.

Recommended Courses to Cover Before this One

<p><strong>Winter School </strong></p> <p>Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences: A Pluralistic Framework</p> <p>Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences</p> <p>Historical Methods for Social Scientists</p> <p>Analyzing Political Language</p> <p><strong>Summer School </strong></p> <p>Policy, Political, and Organizational Ethnography<br /> &nbsp;</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 in due time.

Note from the Academic Conveners

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, contact the instructor before registering.