Good Field Methods Syllabi

In Fall 2009 I’ll be teaching a graduate level course on field methods. I’m very excited because it is, in many ways, the class that I’ve always wished I’d taken. At the same time, putting together a syllabus is daunting because I don’t have many examples. As a result I’ve been trying to figure out what worked for me in the course of my won self-education, and to look for some good syllabi on the topic. So far two have really stood out for me, so I thought I’d share them here:

Michèle Lamont’s Qualitative Research Methods syllabus
This is a more ‘sciencey’ take from ethnographic sociology

Loïc Wacquant and Nancy Shepher-Hughes Ethnography Inside Out syllabus
More ‘touchy-feely’ and reflexive take.

Does anyone have any additional syllabi they like or want to share?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

12 thoughts on “Good Field Methods Syllabi

  1. Although this is a little bit outside what you’re requesting, it is worth highlighting that Mauss’ manuel d’ethnographie is available free online:

    I’ve often thought that something like that would be well worth revisiting, as it provides a starting point to guide enquiry… reading through it now, I think “yes, I should have been attentive to that when I was in the field”. There’s a danger of having a checklist/ questionnaire mentality, of course… And yet I think a tool to remind you of what it might be important to record (as long as it didn’t become prescriptive) would be a great help. I would also like to get hold of some of the copies of your namesake, the “notes and queries”…

    (P.S. at the risk of giving him a big head, Chris Kelty’s fieldwork courses are very nice examples of what can be done)

    My interest in ethnography as a craft, and in how to hone those practical skills is growing. I wouldn’t suggest that reading lists full of books about ethnography are without use. They are excellent in making us more reflective. But more and more I’m thinking about what should be learned through observation and practice, and how we might do that effectively.

  2. To what extent will you incorporate an understanding of ‘the fieldworker’ as a political agent? In this regard I can only suggest Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a must resource for arming… er….. training a battalion of new fieldworkers before they work for development agencies, assimilation policies and other liberal minded machinations of anthropolological designs.

  3. James, please elaborate. If Rex were teaching a course on applied anthropology, then I’d say, “Right on.” But a course on how to do ethnography?

    Training ethnographers to see themselves as pedagogues, even nice, left-leaning, work-with-you not on-you pedagogues seems inconsistent with the objective of learning about people’s lives with as little intrusive modification as possible.

  4. Sure: it just does not seem possible to approach doing any fieldwork/ethnography without understanding that what you do is never objective: science can never be objective; as Freire notes: to deny subjectivity is to do deny that people exist. Moreover, it seems ethnography is never of any use to the communities; especially when their world views or politics are explained away as being mere symbols or magic within a foreign world view or labratory (anthropology) and then compared to anothers, for example. I think it is outside the leftist/rightist frame work of political orientation to address issues of political concers (power relationships) in a fieldwork course to students who are ususally taught that is possible to distant yourself and produce objectified generalizations through methods of participant observation or otherwise.

  5. James, my first impulse is to ask if you know the old proverb about teaching your granny to suck eggs. If you are a teacher you know that a semester is too short a time to teach anything and cluttering up a course on methods with political navel-gazing, of which there is plenty to be had in other courses, is not a good way to prepare students for fieldwork. Also, I am mightily annoyed that you assume a kind of either-or, with-em or treat-em-like-lab-rats, assumption to me. For a better indication of where I’m coming from, I offer the following, from the Acknowledgements in my book on Japanese consumer behavior.

    bq. This book is dedicated to the memories of three men: Victor Turner, Tio Se-lian, and Kimoto Kazuhiko.

    bq. The first was an anthropologist whose teaching is inscribed in the shape of this book. He taught me that an anthropologist works with three kinds of data, things observed (here the Lifestyle Times, the internal newsletter produced by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living that provides much of this book’s content), the native exegesis (represented here by the conversations with HILL researchers interleaved between the chapters), and the economic and demographic background that cultural analysis neglects at its peril.

    bq. The second was a Grand Master of Daoist Magic who allowed a fledgling fieldworker to become his disciple and, by trotting him the length and breadth of Taiwan, made it perfectly clear how much goes on in modern, urban Asian societies that escapes the boundaries of the villages and neighbourhoods in which anthropologists usually work.

    bq. The third was a Senior Creative Director who hired a hapless scholar and turned him, with much labour, into a copywriter unable to tolerate stereotypes of the kind this book attacks.

    bq. Looking back what I see in all three is a willingness to listen, a passion for detail, a flair for the dramatic, and a breadth of humanity that transcends the places and moments in which we met. I am proud to call them my mentors and to try, however poorly, to follow their example.

  6. Thank you; I am familiar with Turner’s work; the other examples are new to me. I did not assume the either/or. As per my original inquiry, I am curious how fieldwork is taught and to what extent the issue of it as a political practice is addressed, approached, dealt-with(?) as it seems that is often taken as an apolitical practice. Of course there are exceptions to the mainstream, but it seems fieldworkers everywhere are working for western progress or democracy. True, a living has to be made, but I am sincerely concerned about the practice itself. If the question of the politics of fieldwork is, too, marginal to include in the course due to time constraints, what does that say about the methods themselves?

  7. James, we share much of the same page, I believe. Fieldwork is, of course, both personal and political, and I, too, am curious about how it is taught these days. At Cornell in the late ’60s I took a course from Frank Cancian, from which I took away one important observation: That most human beings are flattered to have another human being take an interest in them and that, if we are honest and open in our dealings with them, they will be more willing to share their lives with us. Then, when Ruth and I went to Taiwan to do my dissertation research in 1969, we were acutely conscious of why anthropologists doing research there focused on safe topics: kinship and ritual.

    Chiang Kai-Shek was stll alive and kicking. The local foreign-affairs policeman kept an eye on us, and overtly political conversation was dangerous; people whom the government regarded as threatening often disappeared. Mao had declared the Great Cultural Revolution over; but mainland China over, but the reverberations would still be felt until the end of the Gang of Four in 1976. Plus, the Vietnam War was still underway, and Taiwan was a major supply base and R&R center for U.S. forces. That Taiwan anthropology was studiously apolitical reflected an earnest desire on all sides to keep visiting anthropologists, local colleagues, and the people whose lives we studied out of trouble. I have wondered, in retrospect, if there might not be a dissertation to be written about the rise of symbolic anthropology as a safe choice in troubled times and places.

    Now my own research has lead me to sites and scenes that are also, in other dimensions, a world away from classical, one anthro-one community ethnography. And, no, those whose lives I share and study are not at the short end of the world’s great stick. They are talented, and some very powerful, people who work on or near the peaks of Japan’s culture industries. Before I can talk to them, I have to read what they have written and analyze published data to understand enough about the industries in which they work to ask what they will perceive as intelligent questions. No way would I ever be in a position to get away with imposing my own uninformed views. Willy-nilly I am forced to treat them as colleagues and engage them in dialogue from which both sides may come away enlightened in unexpected ways.

    So, if time constraints made reading both impossible, I’d cut Friere’s _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_ and replace it with something along the lines of Grant McCracken’s _The Art of the Long Interview_. I could be fairly confident that the teachers of other courses would be challenging epistemological assumptions and posing moral dilemmas. I’d focus on the nuts and bolts, instead.

  8. Trying to extract what might be a good take-away from John and James’ interesting discussion above, I’m seeing interaction, reflection and recursion as important themes. In particular, the reflection is important as an initial posture of humility and openness toward real understanding, while the recursion is important because it’s not likely even the most reflective of us will get our own garbage cleaned out and fully hear the other the first time.

    These issues came up also in much older posts by Fred and Deborah on this site about cargo cults. They argue that cargo was about being taken as equally worthy, fully dignified human beings.

    An ethic of egalitarian acknowledgment can of course be inflected as a political argument and attached to some kind of activism, as Freire does (see also Rex’s post on Patchen Markell’s _Bound by Recognition_). But there’s no essential link between a principled commitment to treating others as full partners in our particular interactions and trying to get everyone else to act the same. No one should know better than anthropologists (except maybe historians) how impertinent it is to universalize one’s morals.

  9. Humility and openness should, in my view, be more than just an initial posture. In my experience, the first lesson of fieldwork is that things will not work out the way you expect them to. The best laid plans will change when reality intrudes.

    In my case, settling in to our field site in Puli, in central Taiwan, immediately made it abundantly clear how different this place was going to be from the part of central Africa where Vic Turner studied the Ndembu. There people lived in villages of a couple of dozen inhabitants, and most of their life was lived outdoors, in plain view and earshot of the anthropologist. Puli was a town of 35,000. People there lived in brick buildings. Narrowing the ethnographic focus to ritual and religion was just a first step in a place with lots of temples large and small, spirit-mediums who stripped half-naked and beat themselves bloody and spirit-writing cults where the mediums were dressed in blue scholars’ robes, fortunetellers, geomancers, Catholics, Prebyterians, and pervasive ancestor worship.

    I remember, too, a talk at which Terrence Turner remarked that, inspired by Vic Turner, he had hoped to collect extended case studies among the Gé people he studied in Amazonia. The problem was that they didn’t seem interested at all in the who-did-what-to-whom stories stretching back several generations with which the Ndembu had filled V. Turner’s notebooks.

    Business anthropologists (again I think of Grant McCracken) frequently note that what ethnography offers their clients is the unexpected discovery, ruled out from the start by research designs that assume testable hypotheses. Testing is, of course, essential when it’s time to evaluate ideas and to estimate the size of markets, but it can’t replace those “Lightbulb” moments when something important but unconsidered is discovered.

    Anthropology’s clearest lesson may be, after all, that life and lives are almost never entirely what we expect them to be. Humility and openness are always in order.

  10. Couldn’t agree more, John – I thought maybe recursion would capture the always-openness you’re talking about. And the happy accident is one of my fundamental principles.

    When I was teaching fieldwork in Human Development the ‘methods’ component was practically nothing: a couple of routine exercises to get the students to notice some of their ordinary interpretation biases, some rough-and-ready phenomenology, a little relational ethics, a couple of brief exemplary readings – Goffman, because I love his black humor, and Geertz’ “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” which opens with one of the great happy accidents in the literature. Then away they went to stalk their settings, on the theory that they’d learn a lot more by doing. We kept meeting to discuss the work in progress.

    This was ethnography in the weirding-the-familiar school, so they didn’t have to go far. One notable success was the student who saw her brother and mother for the first time and wrote one of the best analyses of male eating disorders I or the grad program that gave her a full ride had ever seen. The other I remember was the student who confidently announced that she was going to analyze in detail what a useless fuckup one of her coworkers was. By the end of the project she had decided that this woman, who spent her day wandering around the office interrupting people’s work to chatter about nothing, was the single most important employee at the company, the glue that held the whole community together.

  11. I will be teaching a similar course in the Spring of 2010. Would you post a link to your syllabus and perhaps comment on what worked and didn’t?

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