Books For Methods

As some readers may know I’ve been thinking about how to teach the “Ethnographic Research Methods” course that I’ll be teaching in the fall. Our textbook orders are now in and so I thought I’d share with you what I’ve decided to use — hopefully in the fall I can let you know how it went.

My goal in this course is really to focus on methods — on what, specifically, you do during fieldwork. I want to give students some tools so that they do not feel lost at sea when they arrive in the field. I want the tools to be hands-on, and not too specialized, since they will have to work in a variety of research conditions. Finally, while I don’t want to force students into a scientistic conception of fieldwork and methods if they have a more humanistic sense of what they are about, I at least want to give them the skills to Go There if they want to.

So, here is what I’ve ordered from the bookstore.

Analyzing Social Settings (Lofland, et al): I’ve mentioned this one before. It’s a symbolic-interactiony textbook. Frankly I think it is too expensive for its slender volume, but as a one-volume overview of the research process its the least of all possible evils. First, the bibliography is extensive and full of interesting case studies — so its a good place for students to start to explore their own ideas about fieldwork. It also has an opening chapter on how your own personal life leads you on to your research topic, which is a really important (and often undiscussed) thing to bring up. Finally, a major part of research as the authors describe it is ‘focusing’ research — moving beyond being ‘in’ the field and formulating some concrete ways to ‘do’ fieldwork. So yeah, a small light piece to take into the field.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (Emerson, et al): Another ethnographic sociology book (notice the pattern here?). This is an industry-standard book that is very hands-on in describing how to write fieldnotes. It is also inexpensive, which is nice for students. Again, the focus is not critiquing the theory of fieldnotes, or discussions by people about how they feel on the inside about their fieldnotes. The issue is how to take them.

Learning From Strangers (Weiss): I think this has got to be the most common book on interviewing out there, and is used by a bintillion different disciplines and professions. Inexpensive, very hands on, includes examples of consent forms, interview guides, and even coded interviews. It has a lot of stuff that is not so central for anthropology (or the type I do anyway) or reflection on the complex dynamic of intersubejctivity when you interview but… screw it. It gives you a basic overview. And using this book means that students will be able to discuss interviewing intelligbly with people in other disciplines.

Doing Qualitative Research On Your Computer (Hahn): Ok. Coding fieldnotes is the area where anthropologists have Issues. Coding is often described as a special technique with special software, etc. This turns off anthropologists who are skeptical of the Power of Science, and even those who might be interested in gaining some coding chops get the sense that it requires special (read: expensive) software and extra training. A lot of the Anselm-Strauss inspired approaches feature textbooks that are in there 39th edition, have been over-edited, and can be vague and mystical.

I am betting on this book because 1) it teaches students that coding is a simple technical act, not a comple and intimidating methodological one 2) anything that will get people to read and parse their fieldnotes is a good thing 3) I forget that not all students can just figure out computers the way I can 4) the book come with templates for access and excel that will work for any office software, and tells you how to use them.

This is a new and pretty unusual book (there are a lot of instructions like “left click and choose’add table'”) but I am hoping it will help get students past issues of software choice, etc. etc. and get them to read their fieldnotes.

There are some usual books I’m skipping here — the ginormous Bernard volume on anthropological research methods (which now costs US$100!), Briggs’s excellent Learning How To Ask (which we will read), and some others. So it is an experiment, and I’d be interested in getting some feedback.


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

11 thoughts on “Books For Methods

  1. If you are touching the IRB issue, I found this worked well, though it’s a bit specfic to problems with doctors and a bit dated now.

    Stefan Timmermans (1995) “Cui Bono? Institutional Review Board Ethics and Ethnographic Research” Studies in Symbolic Interaction 19:153-173.

    Also, students liked this one for its introductoryness:

    Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn (2003) Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology, 2nd Edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.

    I also think the Fabian book I reviewed here is a really good exemplar to work with simply because he reflects on so many different aspects of doing fieldwork.

    oh, and the Briggs book rocks.

  2. Rex, I am not sure if you are going to focus only on the methods. Yet, from my experience students usually need to learn how to write a proposal,theoretical framework, and literature review to give them the overall tools to conducting and writing a full research paper.

  3. On the issue of coding – I’ve found a very easy to use, open source, and FREE piece of software called TAMS Analyzer which I’ve been using for my senior thesis. (website:
    It’s not as fully featured as something like Atlas.ti, but it works and it’s native Mac/Unix, unlike Atlas.ti and other big names which require Windows. I think it’s a great little tool for doing basic coding and analysis – perfect for students (especially the price), and offers a great way to get some experience with coding software.

  4. Yes, the Briggs book is definitely on so many syllabi for a book reason…

    Rex, are you framing the entire course around methods in the sense of concrete things you do in the field and how to produce ethnographic data? I’m assuming, given your post of a week ago or so, that you’re also including more essayistic “reflections on fieldwork” readings as well.

    I ask because (and I think you may have reflected on issue here in the past) anthropological courses placed under the rubric of “methods” tend to fall into one of two very distinct categories: 1) a focus on concrete research practices, OR 2) a focus on reflections on fieldwork–often linked to more conceptual discussions about the nature of the “field” and so on. While I think that its way too simplistic to map this onto a positivist social science vs. humanistic interpretive anthropology distinction — unfortunately that’s how it often turns out, in terms of which kinds of anthro departments teach which kind of methods course. What is unfortunately much rarer is a real attempt to integrate the two in a single class — so kudos to you for trying to do that.

  5. The course will include some theoretical framing at the beginning, and separate weeks on issues of ethics. So it is not going to be _just_ where on the island to buy a USB foot pedal (although we will be covering that). I’m planning to start class with a brief discussion of a case study of someone else’s fieldwork (for example, read sections of Street by Mitch Duneier on the week we cover collaborative ethnography). But the goal is not to reflect on fieldwork but to give students a sense of the range of possibilities of what fieldwork is and how it can happen — to get some ethnography of fieldwork into them.

    I don’t know where I would come down on the ‘science/humanities’ divide on debates about methods. I guess I know too many epigraphers to think that the humanities aren’t rigorous and lack methods. But yes, the goal is to give students something to hang on to in the field. If they jettison that and do deeply auto/reflexive/post-something fieldwork then that is ok — at least they will have a choice.

    Our department has separate class on research design, so I am not worrying too much about that here. The idea is that students come with a research question and we show them how to ‘operationalize’ it.

    And thanks for the TAMS link — I’d seen it around but didn’t know if people had had good experiences with it or not.

  6. Curio (Mac-only) for brainstorming and sorting things out
    Evernote, my midden, where everything I catch on the fly goes — now, I have just learned, accessible directly from Curio.
    Zotero, for notes from published sources. Keeps notes synchronized across desktop and laptop, can generate references/bibliographies as needed.
    Filemaker Pro for data, makes finding, sorting and recoding on the fly a snap
    DataDesk, for exploratory quantitative work
    Pajek, for social network analysis

    That’s my current toolkit. I note how heavily dependent I am on broadband or fast WiFi access. Don’t know how this would work in places without these modern conveniences.

  7. I like Allaine Cerwonka and Liisa Malkki’s Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork (Chicago 2007). I taught it last year in our grad theory course for the week on critical ethnographic methods and thought it worked well. It gives a great sense of what fieldwork actually looks like, how one moves from the conceptualizing of a project to the actual carrying out of it, and thinks out loud in productive ways. It might also be a good foil to some of the more manual-style books you’ve listed.

    Here’s the link:

  8. @John: I’m quite intrigued by Evernote too, especially because everything is being stored centrally and accessible from anywhere you want. And nothing gets lost, in case your notebook gets stolen. But I’m less happy about the lack of SSL encryption in the free version and the insecure storage on the servers. Fieldwork data is a lot about places & persons and imho as such confidential.

  9. Does any one here teach “theory and method” to not-very-advanced or sophisticated undergrads? We require only a one-semester course for our majors. Always torn between a historical approach and one more methods-focused. Most of our students get nothing out of reading classical theorists, much as I like teaching them. And even if they do, then they are lost when it comes to dealing with our ever-more exacting IRB. Would love to hear more about what others do.

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