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SA115 - Introduction to Ethnography and Field Research

Instructor Details

Instructor Photo

Xymena Kurowska

Central European University

Instructor Bio

Xymena Kurowska is an IR theorist interested in interpretive policy analysis. She earned her doctoral degree from the European University Institute in Florence.

Her research and writing concentrate on interdisciplinary approaches to security and international state-building. More specifically, she is interested in international political sociology, social / IR / security theory, external / internal security policy, international intervention and state-building, EU-Eastern Europe relations, norms in international politics, and interpretive methodologies.


Course Dates and Times

Thursday 28 to Saturday 30 July

10:00-12:00 and 14:00-17:00

15 hours over 3 days

Prerequisite Knowledge


Short Outline

This course is designed as an introduction to ethnography and field research for those who are interested in these research strategies either to apply them in their own projects, or in order to gain a greater methodological literacy in light of the growing role of ethnographic methods in political science and international relations. It discusses at length the objectives of ethnography in both the positivist and interpretivist tradition, the types of research questions that involve conducting fieldwork, and the core elements of field research. It also touches upon the critical issues of theorising in ethnography, the ethics of fieldwork and the responsibility towards research subjects, as well as the place of the self in research. There are no pre-requisites for this course. However, as ethnography is an interdisciplinary research strategy, the readings are drawn from across the social sciences so the participants should not mind engaging in debates from across the disciplines.

Long Course Outline

Political science has recently re-discovered political ethnography and international relations have experienced the “ethnographic turn”. Still, the methodological training in a variety of research designs and the corresponding methods that can implement them has not followed. The increasing relevance of research questions about situated meaning-making and thus the need to reconstruct local practices has not been matched by the widening of methodological offerings allowing to study such questions. This course aims to narrow the gap. It is designed as an introduction to ethnography and field research for those who are interested in these research strategies either to apply them in their own projects, or in order to gain a greater methodological literacy in light of the growing role of ethnographic methods. It does so having specifically in mind the type of research projects that have been burgeoning recently and given the orthodoxy of methodological training so far. The course thus has two major aims: (1) to be a primer for those who have already decided to do field research and need the basics to continue with more advanced coursework, and for those that would like to make a more-informed judgment whether their projects will benefit from ethnography at all; (2) to provide a survey overview for those that do not plan to engage in ethnography but need some general competence to read ethnographic texts and serve on committees that may review ethnographic work.


The course starts by mapping out the definition and the objectives of ethnography in the positivist and interpretivist traditions as viewed from the perspective of political science. In Day 1, we will discuss what ‘immersion’ brings to the study of politics, and how political ethnography contributes to examining politics “from below” by generating detailed evidence and by the normative grounding of abstract thinking (Schatz, 2009). This will serve as an entry point for considering what research questions are productively dealt with in such approach. Given the close engagement of the researcher in collecting and generating data in ethnography, we will also debate the understanding of objectivity in positivist and interpretive ethnography. Day 2 will follow with an introductory close-up on the building blocks of field research, with its classic focus on access to the field and forging field relationships. The notion of the spectrum of participation in and observation of activities in the field, including interviewing, will allow to discuss a variety of data and evidence from different settings, comprising institutional and ‘violent’ settings, in which public policy and security scholars, respectively, are interested.  This session will also explain the importance of in situ concept development in ethnographic research, i.e. the reconstruction of the vocabulary pertinent to the setting rather than operationalising a priori concepts to be tested in the field. Building arguments based on concepts emerging from the field in the process of on-the-site research is a hallmark of this approach. In Day 3, we will touch upon the most challenging issues of ethnography and field research. This will provide an opportunity to describe both their limitations and their analytical purchase. While this short course cannot do justice to these issues, it will signal the importance of three of them: theorisation, ethics, and subjectivity. Although ethnography is not usually associated with theory, the extended case study method and the grounded theory supply concrete guidelines for systematic theorisation. Many practicing fieldworkers also see theory as a scaffolding for systematising findings and for thematising participation in the field. Fieldwork ethics remains crucial throughout the research and encompasses questions related but not exclusive to negotiating access, planning for sufficient exposure so as to avoid marginalisation of certain field participants, and the responsibility not to put interlocutors at risk of any kind. The complex theme of subjectivity will be sketched mainly by reference to the notion of researcher being the tool of data generation in field research, or, better put, as the premise that it is engagement rather than detachment that is a source of knowledge and we discover the properties of the social order by mutual reactions in the relationships with field interlocutors (Burawoy, 1998).

The course will be a mixture of presentations by the instructor, combined with moderated discussion on the topics and themes of the session, and group analysis of the readings from the perspective of what concrete methodological value specific propositions can bring to the participants’ work. There are no pre-requisites for this course. However, as ethnography is an interdisciplinary research strategy the readings are drawn from across the social sciences so the participants should not mind such diversity.

Day-to-Day Schedule

Day-to-Day Reading List

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements

Participants to bring their own laptop.


These are also recommended reading on which I will draw on the sessions:


Day 1:

  • Fenno, R (1986) ‘Observation, context, and sequence in the study of politics’, American Political Science Review 80/1: 3-15;
  • Leander, A (2015) ‘Ethnographic Contributions to Method Development: “Strong Objectivity” in Security Studies’, International Studies Perspectives, Early View;
  • Wadeen, L (2010) ‘Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science’, Annual Review of Political Science 13: 255–72
  • Vrasti W (2008) ‘The strange case of ethnography and international relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 37(2): 279–301;
  • Aunger, R (1995) ‘On ethnography: Storytelling or science?’, Current Anthropology 36(1):97-130;
  • Gusterson, H (2008) ‘Ethnographic Research’, in: A Klotz and D Prakash (eds) A Pluralist Guide to Qualitative Methods in International Relations, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 115-142.

Day 2:

  • Emerson, R et al (1995) ‘Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes’, Chicago: University of Chicago Press;
  • Van Maanen, J (2011) ‘Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography’, Chicago: University of Chicago Press;
  • Hannerz, U (2003) ‘Being there… and there… and there! Reflections on multi-Site ethnography’, Ethnography 4(2): 201-216;
  • Collings, P (2009) ‘Participant observation and phased assertion as research strategies in the Canadian Arctic’, Field Methods 21: 133-153;
  • Emerson, R (1987) ‘Four ways to improve the craft of fieldwork’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 16(1):69-89;  
  • Gallagher, J (2015) ‘Interviews as Catastrophic Encounters: An Object Relations Methodology for IR Research’, International Studies Perspectives: 1-17;
  • Becker, H (1998), ‘Concepts’, in: Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While Doing It, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 109-45;
  • Alvesson, M (2009) ‘At-home Ethnography: Struggling with Closeness and Closure’


Day 3:

  • Kondo, D (1990) Crafting Selves. Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace, Chicago: Chicago University Press;
  • Faubion, J (2009) ‘Ethics of fieldwork as an ethics of connectivity, or the good anthropologist (isn’t what she used to be), in: G Marcus and J Faubion (eds) Fieldwork Is Not What It Used To Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 145–163;
  • Fine, G (1993) ‘Ten lies of ethnography: Moral dilemmas of field research’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22: 267;
  • A Cerwonka and L Malkki (2007) Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press;
  • Tavory, I and S Tinnersmans (2009) ‘Two cases of ethnography. Grounded theory and the extended case method’, Ethnography 10(3): 243–263;
  • Bourgois, P (1990) ‘Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America’, Journal of Peace Research 27: 43-54;
  • Jacoby, T (2006) ‘From the trenches: Dilemmas of feminist IR fieldwork, in: Ackerly B, Stern M and True J (eds) Feminist Methodologies for International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 153–173.

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 Convenors

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.

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