August 13, 2015

The Ethics of Ethnography

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

When I was an undergrad, I was a political science major. I did not discover sociology until my junior year when I took a course titled Institutions and Inequalities. It was after taking this course that I knew that I was more interested in studying people than politics. What interested me most in this class were the books we were assigned. I still remember the intellectual excitement I felt when I read three classic accounts of how schools function to reproduce social-class inequality: Learning to Labor by Paul Willis, Ain’t No Makin’ It by Jay McLeod, and Learning Capitalist Culture by Douglas Foley.

Beside the similar topic, what these three books have in common is that they are all ethnographies. An ethnography is a form of research that entails studying people and their culture by directly observing and often interacting with them (participant observation) while they go about their everyday lives. Ethnographies provide rich descriptions of the lives people live because the researcher is witnessing and usually participating in exactly what is happening. Ethnography is one of the main forms of social research employed by qualitative sociologists.

Once I caught the sociology bug, I filled my last few semesters with sociology classes. Fortunately, these classes were taught by qualitative sociologists so I was able to read many more classic ethnographies, such as Number Our Days by Barbara Myerhoff,  All Our Kin by Carol Stack, Middletown by Robert Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Girls in the Gang by Anne Campbell, Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte, and The Urban Villagers, by Herbert Gans. I continued to read ethnographies after I graduated, and today as a professor, I assign them regularly in the classes I teach.

The latest ethnography to cross my desk, Alice Goffman’s On the Run, has made a huge splash in the relatively small pond of academic books. Based on six years spent in a Philadelphia neighborhood, Goffman details the myriad ways in which young black men are constantly facing police surveillance. By telling the stories of the two men she befriended, Chuck and Mike, Goffman offers rich and vivid insights into a social world that may seem foreign even to those who live in the same city.

When On the Run was first published, it was met with enthusiastic acclaim by academic and non-academic reviewers. The book was hailed as “exceptional,” “wonderful,” “clear-eyed,” and “powerful, ” and Goffman was lauded as “having a gift” and “making a lasting contribution” to our understanding of social life. It was (and may still be) destined to become a classic ethnographic account of urban life; however, Goffman and the story she tells have come under fire.

Critics of Goffman’s work have been wide-ranging and have included questions about her ethics, her methodology, and her conclusions. She also has been taken to task for painting an overly pathological picture of black lives. And not all of the criticism is for Goffman; some have questioned the entire field of ethnographic research.

The particular focus on the ethical dimensions of Goffman’s work is not altogether surprising. Anyone who has ever been involved in ethnographic research knows that ethics is a large part of the process. In my own experience as a qualitative sociologist, I have often been frustrated by the bureaucratic hoops I have had to jump through to ensure that my research protocol would not breach any ethical standards. For those of us doing scholarly work in colleges and universities, the ethical gatekeepers (usually referred to as IRBs—institutional review boards) must review your methodology to ensure that no one you are studying will be harmed in any way by your research.

The overly cautious, some may even say draconian, focus on ethics by IRBs is a direct result of past research that did put innocent people in potentially compromising or even harmful positions. Philip Zimbardo’s prison study (which has recently been depicted in a movie, The Stanford Prison Experiment), Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies, and Laud Humphreys’s Tearoom Trade are some of the more famous and problematic examples that brought attention to the need for more oversight in the research process.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not only ethnographic or qualitative research that must be approved by the IRB. Researchers doing survey research must get approval for the questions they are asking, medical scientists need to have their experimental drug protocols certified, and even professors who want to use student evaluations in scholarly writings must have their work sanctioned by their campus oversight board.

The challenging and precarious thing for ethnographers is that when you enter into people’s lives and gain their utmost trust and confidence so that they act “totally natural” around you, you cannot predict what you will see. Beside Alice Goffman’s work, there are countless examples of sociological ethnographers who have witnessed and written about illegal and questionable behavior (see, for example, Sudhir Venkatesh, Philippe Bourgois, and Mitchell Duneier—who served as Alice Goffman’s dissertation adviser).  

Alice Goffman recently issued a statement responding to some of her harshest critics and others have come to her defense with their own brand of fact-checking. Although we may never know definitively whether Goffman crossed ethical lines, embellished parts of her story, or even committed a felony, her work and the work of other ethnographers are invaluable to the field of sociology. Just as we should not negate the ethical questions that certain ethnographies may evoke, we should also not negate the unique insights that these field sociologists bring to our attention.


I appreciate the content on your web sites. Cheers!

Great experience

A very insightful and useful article Peter. You have explained ethnography in very precise & simple words. Adding more to your article, We too have published an article on ethnography in design. We recommend users to have a read & share their insights.

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