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Ethnographic and Other Field Research Methods: Introduction

Course Dates and Times

Monday 29 July – Friday 2 August

14:00–15:30 / 16:00–17:30 (ending slightly earlier on the last Friday)

Cai Wilkinson

Deakin University

This course is a hand-on introduction to undertaking fieldwork using interpretive/ethnographic methods, with a focus on gaining familiarity with key methods of field-based data generation and awareness of related practical and conceptual issues.

Following an initial introduction to fieldwork and 'the field', the course will focus on three methods of data generation commonly used in fieldwork: observation, participation, and interviewing.

Each method will be explored using a combination of readings, practical exercises and discussion, giving you the chance to apply principles and concepts and then reflect on the issues raised. In doing so, the course seeks to promote understanding of fieldwork as a reflexive practice that generates 'thick description' of socio-political events and phenomena in order to gain insights into their meanings and significance.

The course is designed for those who are intending to undertake fieldwork, but who as yet have very limited or no formal experience.

ECTS credits for this course and below, tasks for additional credits:

1 extra credit As above, plus submit field notes from daily practical exercises (4 x no formal word limit).

2 extra credits As above, plus submit a 1,000-word write-up of field notes into a thick description of the field site.

Instructor Bio

Cai Wilkinson is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Deakin University in Australia, with teaching interests in the areas of Critical Security Studies, genders and sexualities in international relations, and intercultural communication.

Her research focuses on how identity shapes people’s individual and collective experiences of in/security, which she investigates using critical interpretive ethnographic methods.

Cai has conducted fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan on societal security and on LGBTQ activism, coached on humanitarian leadership courses and led experiential learning programmes in Japan, the US and Sri Lanka.

She is the author of a number of papers and book chapters that explore how field-based methods can be used to research security, and from 2012–2018 convened the Critical Security Studies Methods Café at the International Studies Association annual convention.


Traditionally considered the domain of anthropologists and ethnographers, conducting fieldwork has become increasingly common in a wide range of social science disciplines as researchers have sought to gain new insights into socio-political phenomena in an increasingly complex world with multiple – and often conflicting – knowledge claims.

Yet despite the increased prevalence of field-based methods, discussions of fieldwork frequently ignore the gap between theory and formal methods (how fieldwork is supposed to happen) and practice (how fieldwork really happens), with fieldwork presented as an objective and mechanical data collection exercise rather than as a complex, iterative and intersubjective process of data generation and interpretation. As a result, novice fieldworkers are left unprepared to negotiate the methodological, emotional, logistical and ethical challenges of working in the field.

The course is designed to begin addressing the gap between fieldwork theory and practice by providing people who are intending to conduct ethnographic/interpretive fieldwork but who as yet have little or no formal experience of fieldwork with a hands-on introduction to three key methods of data generation (observation, participant observation, and interviews) and issues related to their use.

Day 1
We begin with an overview of the course and the underpinning notion of an ‘ethnographic sensibility’, before moving to explore what fieldwork is and related questions, including what and where ‘the field’ is, what is distinctive about ethnographic fieldwork, and why fieldwork is used. I will set the first of five practical exercises at the end of day one, and we will draw on your experiences in subsequent discussions.

Day 2
Focus on observation. Discussion will explore what it means to see ethnographically and observation as a way to generate ‘thick description’. We’ll pay particular attention to what and how one observes, and how to record one’s observations in field notes. In the second practical exercise, you will practice observing ethnographically.

Day 3
The topic is participant observation. In addition to discussing the spectrum of ways in which the researcher can participate in the field and the implications of different forms of participation, we will consider issues of positionality, including the researcher’s role in data generation and her research more widely, as well as relationship management, power dynamics, ethics and consent, and safety and wellbeing. In the third practical exercise, you will try participating in ‘the field’ and experience (albeit in a limited way) the implications of positionality first-hand.

Day 4
Following an overview of how interviews can be used in interpretive fieldwork, discussion will focus firstly on the practicalities and potential complexities of interviewing, and secondly on processes of interpreting interviews in terms of maintaining reflexivity and an ethnographic sensibility. You will then put discussion into practice during the day’s practical exercise.

Day 5
The final day is devoted to the end phase of fieldwork and making the transition from ‘the field’ to ‘home’ and from fieldwork to deskwork. The primary aim of the session is to explore fieldwork as an embodied and situated experience of knowledge production and how field researchers can effectively manage the ‘dirt’ and ‘baggage’ that often accompanies field data – personally and professionally. In the final practical exercise, you will conduct a fieldworker debrief in pairs, reflecting on your experiences over the course.

The course combines presentations by the instructor, group discussions of key readings, and practical exercises (all of which you are expected to undertake).

Do try to relate the discussion of each day’s topics and questions to your own research projects and perspectives; as far as possible, I will try to accommodate requests to discuss particular issues.

This course is a hands-on introduction to ethnographic (interpretive-qualitative) fieldwork. 

It is for scholars with little or no formal experience of fieldwork, but who intend to conduct fieldwork as part of their research.

There are no prerequisites, but you should be open to engaging with materials drawn from a range of social science disciplines including anthropology, human geography, political science, and sociology.

Each course includes pre-course assignments, including readings and pre-recorded videos, as well as daily live lectures totalling at least three hours. The instructor will conduct live Q&A sessions and offer designated office hours for one-to-one consultations.

Please check your course format before registering.

Online courses

Live classes will be held daily for three hours on a video meeting platform, allowing you to interact with both the instructor and other participants in real-time. To avoid online fatigue, the course employs a pedagogy that includes small-group work, short and focused tasks, as well as troubleshooting exercises that utilise a variety of online applications to facilitate collaboration and engagement with the course content.

In-person courses

In-person courses will consist of daily three-hour classroom sessions, featuring a range of interactive in-class activities including short lectures, peer feedback, group exercises, and presentations.


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.

Day Topic Details
1 Course overview and participant introductions

Overview of course structure, readings, and an ethnographic sensibility.


Chapters and articles by Edward Schatz; Peter Loizos; Carole McGranahan; Erving Goffman; Susan Thomson, An Ansom and Jude Murison.


The schedule below outlines the basic structure and content of the course, but it is not the official, final syllabus.

Full details of required and additional readings will be made available to all who register. 

The final syllabus will include details of the daily practical exercises, which generally take around 30–45 minutes plus writing-up time, and which inform class discussion each day.

2 Fieldwork: Where, What, Who and Why?


What is fieldwork? Where is 'the field' and how does one access it? Who does fieldwork? Why do fieldwork?

Readings to include

Chapters by Vered Ami; Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson; João de Pina-Cabral; Giampetro Gobo, and articles by Cindy Katz; Floriang Kern and Janis Vossiek; Iva Pleše; Soledad Loaeza, Randy Stevenson and Devra C. Moehler.

Practical Exercise 1

Finding 'the field' and first impressions.

3 The Ethnographic Eye: Observing and Thick Description


What does it mean to see ethnographically? What are we observing and how? What are the characteristics of 'thick description'? How 'thick' should description be?

Readings to include

Chapters and articles from Clifford Geertz; Wolff-Michael Roth; Michael Agar; Robert L. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw; Lisa Wedeen.

Practical Exercise 2

Observation in the field

4 Not Just an Observer: Participation and Positionality


How can the researcher participate in the field? What are the consequences for the research? What are the consequences for the researcher and her relationships in the field? What is positionality and how is it affected by participation?

Readings to include

Chapters and articles by: Danny L. Jorgensen; Vincent Crapanzano; Kim England; Gillian Rose; Paul Routledge; Ferhana Sultana; Lorraine Bayard de Volo; Stephen O. Murray; James P. Spradley; Louise Ryan; Barbara B. Kawulich.

Practical Exercise 3

Participating in the field

5 Leaving the Field: Bringing Back Data, Dirt and Baggage


When is it time to leave the field and how does one leave? How does field data travel? What tensions are there between the 'thick description' and experience of the field and the demands of academic writing? How do we handle the 'baggage' that comes back from the field with us?


Articles by  and chapters by Stephen J. Taylor; Ulrike Schultze, Michael D. Myers and Eileen M. Trauth; Larissa Begley; Roxanne Lynn Doty; Martyn Hammersley; Cai Wilkinson; Franziska Fay; Amy Pollard.

Final exercise

Researcher debrief

Day Readings

See below for core literature. The full reading list will be provided to registered participants and will be drawn from books, journal articles, blogs and other relevant sources.

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements



Coleman, Simon and Collins, Peter. 2010. Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology. London: Berg Publishers

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

Emerson, Robert L., Fretz, Rachel I. and Shaw, Linda L. 2011. Writing Ethographic Fieldnotes, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schatz, Edward (ed). 2009. Political Ethnography: What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shaffir, William B. and Stebbins, Robert A. (eds). 1991.  Experiencing Fieldwork: An Inside View of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications

Wolcott, Harry F. 1999. Ethnography: A Way of Seeing. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press,

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.

Recommended Courses to Cover Before this One

Summer School

Introduction to Interpretive Research Designs

Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences


Winter School

Introduction to Qualitative Interpretive Methods

Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences


Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

Summer School

Ethnographic and Other Field Research Methods: Advanced

Introduction to Interpretive Research Designs

Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences

Expert Interviews for Qualitative Data Generation

Interpretive Interviewing

Winter School

Writing Ethnographic and Other Qualitative/Interpretive Research: An Inductive Approach

Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences

Interpretive Interviewing