Chapter 14. Deep Ethnography

Ethnography is the eye of the needle through which the threads of the imagination must pass.

-Paul Willis, The Ethnographic Imagination


Philippe Bourgois was a young scholar when he set out to uncover the cultural dynamics of a poor neighborhood in New York City at the height of the crack epidemic of the early 1990s. To get near his subjects, he chose to live in the neighborhood (along with his wife and young child). His plan was to study poverty and ethnic segregation, which is why he chose East Harlem, a well-known barrio populated by Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants. But living in the neighborhood allowed him to “hang out” daily with men on his block who were engaged in the drug trade, and his observations of the trade and his conversations with the men pushed his research toward an understanding of the complicated and structured reasons for selling crack. His book, five years in the making, is called In Search of Respect, and it is a masterpiece of what I am here calling deep ethnography, a particular immersive approach to observational research that comes out of a long tradition in the discipline of anthropology. Bourgois was himself trained as an anthropologist and had conducted studies in Latin America as a student. He adopted the anthropological approach of studying “other” cultures to a culture in, literally, his own backyard.


[Untitled image] by Cam on Unsplash

This chapter takes a closer look at deep ethnography—immersion in the field of a particularly long duration for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of a particular culture or social world. Clifford Geertz called this “deep hanging out.” Whereas participant observation is often combined with semistructured interview techniques, deep ethnography’s commitment to “living the life” or experiencing the situation as it really is demands more conversational and natural interactions with people. These interactions and conversations may take place over months or even years. As can be expected, there are some costs to this technique as well as some very large rewards when done competently. It is a huge commitment on the part of the researcher and is not to be undertaken lightly. It almost always upends the researcher’s life and possibly that of their family as well.

Rubin (2021) describes three aspects of ethnographic fieldwork as (1) travel to an unfamiliar place, (2) the negotiation of access (i.e., permission to work/observe in the field), and (3) a fair amount of discomfort, either because of the unfamiliar setting (which might be dangerous) or simply because you are away from home and loved ones for extended periods of time (167–168). While all fieldwork (see chapter 13) includes negotiations of access, it is really only this deep form of ethnography that foregrounds the unfamiliarity of the place/culture and the discomfort involved in immersion into the unfamiliarity. This is why I have divided fieldwork into two separate chapters: to mark the qualitative break between the deeply immersive kind and its less exhaustive cousins previously discussed.

Anthropological Roots: “He Observes, He Records, He Analyzes”

There are some pieces of research that are so important to the ways that others conduct research that they are considered foundational to the field. One such piece is an essay by Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist who had spent many years of his (and his wife’s) life deeply immersed in Java, Bali, Indonesia, and Sumatra. The essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” was published in 1972, although the cockfighting culture described was observed several years prior: “Early in April of 1958, my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident, in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study. A small place, about five hundred people, and relatively remote, it was its own world. We were intruders, professional ones, and the villagers dealt with us as Balinese seem always to deal with people not part of their life who yet press themselves upon them: as though we were not there. For them, and to a degree for ourselves, we were nonpersons, specters, invisible men.”[1] After living in the village for an extended period of time, Geertz was struck by the seeming importance of the mostly illegal activity of forcing roosters to fight one another to the death. There seemed an obscenity to it linked to masculine status: “To anyone who has been in Bali any length of time, the deep psychological identification of Balinese men with their cocks is unmistakable. The double entendre here is deliberate. It works in exactly the same way in Balinese as it does in English, even to producing the same tired jokes, strained puns, and uninventive obscenities.” An example of “thick description,” Geertz uses his detailed fieldnotes to evoke the atmosphere of the cockfight in such a way that the reader can share the experience. In the following passage, note the many specific details, including even the absence of expected events as well as the emotional valence reported:

Cockfights (tetadjen; sabungan) are held in a ring about fifty feet square. Usually they begin toward late afternoon and run three or four hours until sunset. About nine or ten separate matches (sehet) comprise a program. Each match is precisely like the others in general pattern: there is no main match, no connection between individual matches, no variation in their format, and each is arranged on a completely ad hoc basis. After a fight has ended and the emotional debris is cleaned away—the bets paid, the curses cursed, the carcasses possessed—seven, eight, perhaps even a dozen men slip negligently into the ring with a cock and seek to find there a logical opponent for it. This process, which rarely takes less than ten minutes, and often a good deal longer, is conducted in a very subdued, oblique, even dissembling manner. Those not immediately involved give it at best but disguised, sidelong attention; those who, embarrassedly, are, attempt to pretend somehow that the whole thing is not really happening (Geertz 1972).

Geertz’s analysis of the cockfight flows from this thick description of atmosphere, events, relationships, and meanings held by the participants. In other words, the meaning of the event (the subject of the research here) is found in this description itself. Geertz was able to make a theoretical argument about the importance of the cockfight by attending to the details of what it was like and what it was doing for the participants:

What sets the cockfight apart from the ordinary course of life, lifts it from the realm of everyday practical affairs, and surrounds it with an aura of enlarged importance is…that it provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then organizing the major part of collective existence around that assortment. Its function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive: it is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience; a story they tell themselves about themselves.…Every people, the proverb has it, loves its own form of violence. The cockfight is the Balinese reflection on theirs: on its look, its uses, its force, its fascination. Drawing on almost every level of Balinese experience, it brings together themes—animal savagery, male narcissism, opponent gambling, status rivalry, mass excitement, blood sacrifice—whose main connection is their involvement with rage and the fear of rage, and, binding them into a set of rules which at once contains them and allows them play, builds a symbolic structure in which, over and over again, the reality of their inner affiliation can be intelligibly felt.

Geertz did not travel to Bali to watch cockfights. He traveled to Bali to understand Balinese society. And he did so by being open to whatever was of seeming importance to the Balinese. This is the essence of how deep ethnography gets done. By definition, there can be no preconceived research question, as the very unfamiliarity of the culture precludes the researcher from knowing what is important in advance of immersing themselves in the culture.

In the 1970s and 1980s, qualitative researchers began adopting Geertz’s anthropological technique of observation/description/analysis of cultures and subcultures closer to home. Sociologists in particular were eager adopters.[2] If handled in this way, even what at first seems familiar can be experienced as strange. Think about organizations you belong to, for example. How might adopting a Geertzian eye deepen your understanding of, say, your soccer team’s practice of high-fiving or your classroom’s expectation that people face the front of the classroom? What if you observed the dynamics within the cultural center to which you belong? Might you be surprised at who speaks the most or how certain people are deferred to over others? Sarah Thornton (1996) spent four years immersed in 1990s rave culture, observing how new forms of hierarchy were being built in this youthful subculture, even as other traditional forms were subverted. Loïc Wacquant (2004) spent months in training as an apprentice boxer so he could understand boxing’s appeal in poor neighborhoods (he found that it operated as a “skilled trade,” attracting particularly ambitious working-class persons). Kris Paap (2006) worked in construction as one of the only female workers on site, developing the concept of “performing pigness” to help explain how masculinity was socially constructed and employed against outsiders.

At the core of all of these studies is the production of detailed fieldnotes, thick descriptions of both what is observed and the interpretive analyses of what is being observed as in Geertz’s notes above.

Fieldnotes as Data Source

Although many (most?) ethnographic research involves talking to people both informally and formally through interviews that can be recorded and transcribed, the bulk of the “data” in ethnographic research comes from what you observe when in the field. Writing down those observations in the form of fieldnotes becomes the primary data source for this kind of research (see chapter 13). There are some well-established rules for writing ethnographic fieldnotes as well as a plethora of helpful idiosyncratic advice. In other words, there are great guidelines, but writing fieldnotes is also deeply personal, and every person is going to do it a little bit differently. Further, most ethnographers develop their ability to take great fieldnotes over time. Practice definitely helps.

The suggestions made here fall into the mostly agreed-upon conventions for writing fieldnotes. First, what should you write down? Obviously, you should be writing down what you observe. But…everything? Is that even possible? The more “open” and unfocused your study is (which is most qualitative research in the beginning), the more difficult it will be to determine what is interesting and relevant, so you will probably be writing a lot of fieldnotes. These fieldnotes should strive to capture not only what you are observing but what is missing that you might otherwise expect. For that, you will need to be constantly reflective and attentive.

As you go deeper into the study, you might begin to focus on a particular aspect, as discussed in chapter 13 (such as gender interactions), and so begin to write fuller notes when making those observations. But even so, you will want to record everything you can about those “gender interactions”—who, what, when, how, what tone of voice, what consequences, and so on. To ensure these are thick descriptions, you will also want to be very clear in recording the social context—the meanings and interpretations that appear to be occurring alongside whatever actions you are recording. For example, if you record third-grade teacher Mrs. Hamish calling on Johnny more often than Lula, you will also want to record any emotional reactions of other students to this phenomenon (maybe all the students look to Johnny too, which will tell you something interesting about the overall societal expectations around gender, even in this elementary school classroom).

In addition to writing down what you observe, you will also want to make notes on your data collection techniques. This will help you be reflective, but it is also an important aspect of accurate recording. Remember that you yourself are an instrument of data collection, so your presence has an effect, whether you like it or not. If you are particularly grumpy this day because you read a report on gender pay inequality, perhaps that is coloring your observations. Other times, you yourself may be signaling particular gender expectations in terms of how you are dressed and how you are presenting yourself. What were you wearing when you observed this interaction? (How might that affect the gender interactions you observed?)[3]

Always include reflective memoing. Record your own reactions to what you heard and observed. What was striking about this event or exchange, and why is this striking to you? Not only can these fieldnotes be very helpful when it comes time to make sense of what you are observing and to write down some possible “findings” or generate concepts (such as Paap’s [2006] “performing pigness”), but they are also psychologically helpful reminders. It may be months or years between the time you make your observations and the time you write about them. Having notes of your own reactions can put you back into yourself as the observer. Otherwise, your notes will read as if they were written by a foreign correspondent, and you will have forgotten the key that pulls them together.

Geertz instructed ethnographers to “observe; describe; analyze.” All three of these components need to make it into your fieldnotes. Most ethnographers draw a distinction between observational fieldnotes, reflective memos, and analytical memos. Conceptually, these are distinct, but in practice, you may find yourself muddling them. Using different fonts (if using the computer) or highlighting colors (if writing manually) can help you sort them out. Analytical memos are places where you attempt to capture the meaning of what you are observing. They are often rough and frequently wrong in the beginning: you simply have not made enough observations to understand what is going on. But forcing yourself to think about what you are observing will help you be a more attentive observer. For example, if you think you are noticing gender dynamics in which male students appear to be favored by teachers in the classroom, noting this should push you to look for cases where this is not true, the absence of the observation. The more complete your analytical memos, the stronger and more attentive your following observations will be.

Whatever form you use, I recommend adding a single-page cover sheet that includes basic information, which may look something like this:

Fieldnotes #132

Date: July 16, 2022 (Saturday)

Location: Farmer’s Market. Downtown Corvallis

Time: 10:02 am-1:35 pm (total time in field: 93m)

Weather: Sunny, warm (high 70s)

Time spent writing fieldnotes: 2 hours (12 pages)

General Comments: bustling activity; very little mask wearing; lots of people were is small groups and there was a lot of hugging in greetings

Number of persons observed: 47 adult visitors; 19 booth tenders; numerous pets and children

Analytic Themes: Resumption of “Normal”? Small Group Clustering (“dates”)?

Personal Reflections: I was very happy to get to the Farmer’s Market today, and everyone seemed in such a good mood (don’t know if I was reflecting myself or actually saw it; I know I smiled a lot)

Always keep in mind that you will be going back to these fieldnotes as your primary data, so you want to ensure that you have a system in place that allows you to easily sort, sift, compare, and recall as necessary.

Forming Relationships with Informants and Guides

Because of the immersive quality of deep ethnography, finding a person already embedded in the site or culture who can inform and guide you can be crucial to your success. The more “exotic” or unfamiliar the site, the more you will probably depend on this person (or persons). There are two big consequences of this reliance. First, if you choose an unreliable informant, your observations and interpretations may be skewed. For example, say that you are trying to understand how the graffiti subculture operates. Because tagging is still mostly illegal, graffiti artists are not likely to open up to just anyone. So you find a tagger who claims to know everyone and the general “code” of graffiti in your particular research location (let’s say, Cleveland, Ohio). Let’s call him Paintball. But six months in, after you have gained some credibility among the ten or twelve taggers your informant has introduced you to, you learn that no one really trusts Paintball, that he kind of desperately has tried to join the main crews, and that no one thinks he is a very good artist. Even more than that, they don’t think he understands what it is they are doing, and he even gets the lingo wrong. Because you have spent enough time with these other artists, you can take all of this into consideration in your analyses, but imagine if your only access to the codes and culture was Paintball himself. The less time you have in the field, the more likely you are to rely on one or two informants (because you haven’t had the time to develop further relationships). This is one big reason deep ethnography takes so long to complete.

The second big issue actually follows from the long completion time. The more time you spend with informants and guides and all the people whom you are observing and with whom you are interacting, the harder it will be to “extricate” yourself at the conclusion of the study. Many ethnographers find it difficult or even unethical to sever ties with people they have been studying for years. Take the example of Jay MacLeod, who first formed relationships in a particular low-income neighborhood (Clarendon Heights) when he was a college student in 1981. He worked with young people for several summers, writing an undergraduate thesis on the occupational aspirations of two separate groups of older teenagers, the “Hallway Hangers” (mostly White) and the “Brothers” (mostly Black). He completed his research in 1984, and it was published as Ain’t No Makin’ It in 1987 to critical acclaim. It’s a great book, lovingly recording the hopes and dreams and obstacles to the success of these young men. Concerned and invested, Jay MacLeod could not fully extricate himself from the lives of his informants. Even as he moved to England to continue his studies and then to rural Mississippi to work as a community organizer, he kept in touch. Eight years after his original observations, he returned to Clarendon Heights for some intensive fieldwork. What had happened to the young men? Had any of them made it to college? Did any of them have gainful employment? Had they stayed out of trouble? Eight hundred pages of interviews later, he reported answers to those questions in an expanded publication in 1995 of Ain’t No Makin’ It, pretty much confirming the original title. Still invested, Jay MacLeod continued to monitor the lives of his informants. Now a parish priest, he went back a third time in 2006 and 2007 and reinterviewed most of the original Hallway Hangers and Brothers (some had passed away by then). In middle age, the men of Clarendon Heights speak directly to the reader in the pages of the third publication of Ain’t No Makin’ It. Twenty-five years after he first made contact, MacLeod still had one foot in the “field.”

Conclusion: Immersive Storytelling

I have told more stories in this chapter than I have in previous ones on purpose. One of the criteria for doing ethnography well is the aesthetic merit of the story told. There is something about humans that respond to stories. Our theories are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves about the world that are testable and reliable (for the moment). The best ethnographies let readers experience the culture under observation, and they do this through the stories they report and create. Poetry, metaphor, emotional impact—all help advance the story’s ability to be told. All qualitative researchers know this to some extent, but those working in the ethnographic tradition are particularly attuned to the necessity of thick descriptive meaning making.

And good ethnographers also know that they are part of the story as well. There is no neutral standpoint when we inhabit the same world as those we observe. We are deep in it, whether we like it or not. In Catching Hell in the City of Angels, Joȃo Helios Costa Vargas (2006) presents a portrait of racism and economic dislocation in South Central Los Angeles. Including his own experience as an immigrant of color in the story he tells contributes to a greater understanding of the forces at work. It is also impossible to do otherwise:

The “fly on the wall” approach in anthropology, still taught as an antidote to the influences of one’s subjectivity on the research process, only obscures the fact that even those who try to be insects are, at the very least, already influencing the social environment in which they conduct their fieldwork and, more important, are already committing themselves to a very clear moral and political position—that of letting things remain as they are, or leaving the status quo untouched. Neutrality is impossible—or better still, neutrality may work for the maintenance of privileges, but it does not work for all. Many forms of oppression, exclusion, and death continue to be perpetrated in the name of objectivity and detachment. (18–19)

Supplement: Variations

There are two important variations of ethnography that are worth mentioning here


Autoethnography is the general term for observational research that uses the researcher’s own identity or personal location in the world to launch a broader investigation of that world. It is an approach that leverages the full and total access a person has to a culture through themselves as a key informant. A partial listing of the many other versions of autoethnography or names for this kind of research would include autobiographical ethnography, critical autobiography, ethnobiography, Indigenous ethnography, narrative biography/ethnography, personal narrative, and socioautobiography. Written in the first person, the product of this approach can take many forms, from research article to poem to short-story fiction. Rather than use the reflecting memoing as a guide and supplement to descriptive and analytical memoing, those reflections become the core of what is reported, albeit thickly, drawing connections between the personal and the cultural context and/or social structure. Patton (2002:87) summarizes five criteria of quality for this kind of research: (1) making a substantive contribution to our understanding of social life, (2) having aesthetic merit (being well written and not boring!), (3) being honestly reflexive with enough self-awareness and self-exposure for readers to evaluate the researcher’s point of view, (4) generating new questions or having an emotional impact that connects the reader to the issues raised, and finally, (5) expressing reality truthfully, being a credible account of the researcher’s lived experience.

Institutional Ethnography

Derived from the work of feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith, Institutional Ethnography (IE) is a critical qualitative methodology that examines how people’s everyday lives are organized by institutional forces. According to Pascale (2021), this means that “IE researchers treat local experience as a window into how broader power relations operate” (236). The approach leverages the local to understand the larger institutional/social structure, or what Smith often referred to as “translocal relations of ruling.” One might even see this as a parallel to autoethnography: whereas autoethnography uses the self to understand the larger culture in which the self finds itself, IE uses the local to understand the larger structure in which local relations are embedded. Primarily, IE researchers examine work processes and how they are coordinated, focusing on forms of social control operating in that coordination. In Living on the Edge, Pascale traveled to four specific regions of the US to find out how people were dealing with economic hardship. Using the IE approach, the book is less about the particular people whose stories anchor the book and more about the larger contexts in which they find themselves—specifically, how “business practices and government policies create, normalize, and entrench economic struggles for many in order to produce extreme wealth for a few” (xi). Local experiences provide “a window into how broader power relations work” (236). Pascale takes the stories about unemployment, bad jobs, payday loans, and slum landlords and traces these back to structures of power and policy. For example, she explains payday lending and food deserts as background to a story about being in debt and hungry. Embedded throughout the text are “budgets” that highlight the disjuncture between what people are paid and what is required for a decent living in a particular place with particular needs. These budgets are an eye-opener for those accustomed to being able to pay their bills. Ultimately, Pascale explains, this is a book “about power that has been leveraged by government and corporations at the expense of ordinary people” (xi). This is the power of the IE approach—to make legible the power structures in which we are embedded by attending to the particular stories and circumstances of a locality.

Further Readings

Bourgois, Phillipe, and Jeffrey Schonberg. 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.* An example of a multiyear, multisited deep ethnography that makes some interesting and controversial ethical choices about data collection and presentation, including the identification of participants and the inclusion of full-page photographs in heartrending black and white.

Devault, Marjorie L. 2006. “Introduction: What Is Institutional Ethnography?” Social Problems 53(3):294–298. A relatively easy overview of institutional ethnography.

Duneier, Mitchell. 2000. Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A great example of an urban ethnography, replete with careful discussions about the ethics of this kind of research. Also recommended is the accompanying documentary that can be found free on YouTube (, which includes panel discussions with several of the participants of the study.

Duneier, Mitchell. 2011. “How Not to Lie with Ethnography.” Sociological Methodology 41:1–11. Provides two examples of thought experiments that increase the reliability of ethnographic research.

Ferrell, Jeff. 1996. Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality. Boston: Northeastern University Press.* A good example of an immersive ethnography where the author “hangs out” with a team of graffiti artists for several months.

Fetterman, David M. 2019. Ethnography: Step-by-Step. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. A good textbook on ethnography that is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students.

Janesik, Valerie J. 2015. “Stretching” Exercises for Qualitative Researchers. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. This is an unusual treasure that should accompany qualitative researchers at all stages of data collection and analysis but is particularly helpful, in my opinion, for ethnographers.

Jerolmack, Colin, and Shamus Khan. 2014. “Talk Is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy.” Sociological Methods & Research 43(2):178–209. A little article that started something of a good-natured war between interviewers and observers; the authors point out that what people say is often a poor predictor of what they do and argue strongly for the use of ethnography instead of interviewing.

Pascale, Celine-Marie. 2021. Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Way of Life. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.* A recent application of institutional ethnography; readable and inspiring.

Pearson, Charles, and Philippe Bourgois. 1995. “Hope to Die a Dope Fiend.” Cultural Anthropology 10(4):587–593. A vivid example of ethnographic narration or how to turn excellent field notes into a compelling presentation. The emotionality of this text can also serve as a caution or point of discussion.*

Sanjek, Roger. 1990. Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. If you are an anthropologist, this is a must-read. A collection of anthropologists writing about field notes and the place of fieldnote in the development of the discipline.

Smith, Dorothy E. 2005. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. The classic statement of institutional ethnography written by its founder. Not an easy read, but one that is likely to provoke and inspire.

Taber, Nancy. 2010. “Institutional Ethnography, Autoethnography, and Narrative: An Argument for Incorporating Multiple Methodologies.” Qualitative Research 10:5–25. Explains institutional ethnography through an application to a particular study of the military.

Von Maanen, John. 2011. Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A somewhat personal and fascinating look at how to write fieldnote, illustrating three different forms: realist tales, confessional tales, and impressionist tales. Recommended for graduate students and seasoned practitioners alike.

Willis, Paul. 2000. The Ethnographic Imagination. London: Polity Press. Drawing on a lifetime of research into various facets of social life (unemployment, dance clubs, television viewing), Willis makes a strong argument for creativity both in the conducting of ethnographic research and in the interpretation of social behavior.


  1. All quotes here come from the full text, which is accessible at
  2. Although to be fair, there was always a strong observational tradition associated with the University of Chicago.
  3. This may seem like no one’s business what you were wearing, but people do make judgments all the time based on initial physical markers, including dress. Posselt (2016) shared a story in which “wearing pink” seemed to make older male professors more friendly and forthcoming to her. Who knows what effect this had on professors espousing feminist ideals?


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