Patchwork Ethnography Syllabus

Imploding vacuum tube photographed with high speed air-gap flash. Photo by Niels Noordhoek, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

This post builds on A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography and Interview: Patchwork Ethnography posted on Fieldsights on June 2020 and June 2021, respectively.

This is a suggested set of exercises that can be incorporated into and adapted to other methodological classes in anthropology and beyond. It is a live document, and we will continue to develop it in conversation with our various participants of the Patchwork Ethnography Project. This version draws on conversations among participants at the Patchwork Ethnography workshop in December 2021, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation: Gökçe Günel, Chika Watanabe, Katie Ulrich, Jessica Barnes, Danilyn Rutherford, Mariam Taher, Jordan Kraemer, Emma Varley, Saygun Gökarıksel, Mostafa Lotfy, Zhou Zhou, Keren Reichler and Monika Jankowska. Gökçe Günel is currently implementing these exercises with students in Anthropology at Rice University.

The authors are organizing a methods summer school to tentatively begin in July 2023 at Rice University's Paris Center. This summer school will draw on the below syllabus.

If you would like to contribute to our pedagogical activities or end up incorporating these exercises in your classes, please let us know at [email protected].


These sets of exercises offer an introduction to ethnographic research methods that incorporate patchwork ethnography, a research project that started by asking how researchers’ subject positions shape the processes of anthropological knowledge production. These units can be combined with and adapted to different methodological classes, although we do recommend keeping the “packaging” and order of the exercises as below (but they can be interspersed with other units in between).

Learning Objectives

Students will be encouraged to reflect on their own subject positions as people in the world—not just researchers, but differently abled persons, children of particular parents, carers of others, classed, gendered, racialized, and other kinds of subject positions—and map how these positions impact their research projects. The activities are intended to frame the teaching and learning of participant observation, interviewing, writing field notes, and other research methods. By engaging in the exercises outlined below, students will develop an ethnographic sensibility that centers who they are in the world, and how their methodological considerations should take account of their structural positioning and conditioning.


The three “packages” pose key questions for patchwork ethnography. Even if adopting the exercises below is difficult in practice, we recommend that instructors of ethnographic methods keep asking these questions in their teaching at least:

  1. Who are you in the world? – How can we make who we are in the world central to our research decisions from the beginning?
  2. Cultivating Patchwork Ethnography Sensibilities – How do we decenter the model of uninterrupted, long-term fieldwork through patchwork ethnographic sensibilities, without completely denying the former?
  3. The You-In-Relation – How can we position the researcher as immersed in actually-existing-relations when teaching about fieldwork and ethnographic decisions, dilemmas, and solutions?

There are often constraints on doing hands-on fieldwork exercises in methodology classes, but we also recommend having students practice actual participant observation, interviews, and other methods in the “real world” because these concrete experiences will bring to life the methodological, ethical, and theoretical questions about which they will be reading and writing. Such exercises will also disclose how their imaginations of research practices might not match their experiences.

Package One: Who Are You in the World?

How can we make who we are in the world central to our research decisions from the beginning?

Note: We recommend having this “package” early in the term as a framework for the whole class. Each of these units can be broken down into smaller units, depending on how many hours you have for the class every week and the level of students. If pressed for time and content, this would be the package that we would recommend you choose out of the three suggested here.

1. Beyond the Ideal Researcher

All disciplines and methodological approaches have the figure of an “ideal researcher,” and there is certainly one behind ethnographic methods. We will begin by examining and questioning this figure of the “ideal researcher” according to scholarly publications, funding agencies, universities, and other institutions that hire researchers. For example, in anthropology, the “ideal” ethnographer is often someone who is able-bodied, racialized as White, and with enough resources and long stretches of time to conduct immersive fieldwork for a year or longer. How do these idealized assumptions appear in the texts and documents we engage with as researchers? How do they appear in the ways we teach ethnographic methods? By spelling out these impossible expectations, we can begin to bring our research closer to who we are.

Suggested readings:

D’Amico-Samuels, Deborah. 2010 [1991]. “Undoing Fieldwork: Personal, Political, Theoretical and Methodological Implications.” In Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation, edited by Faye V. Harrison, 68–87. Third Edition. Arlington, Va.: AAA.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.

Günel, Gökçe, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe. 2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9.

Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2020. “Antihero Care: On Fieldwork and Ethnography.” Anthropology and Humanism 45, no. 2: 233–44.

Gupta Akhil, and James Ferguson, eds. 1997. Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Read section “The Implications of an Archetype,” p. 111-118)

EXERCISE 1: Choose a publication, sample grant application guidelines or a successful proposal, or any other text that showcases the “ideal researcher” in your field. Who is this person assumed to be? What are the embedded assumptions in terms of ability and disability, employment conditions, gender, race, sexuality, class, and other factors? What would the “ideal researcher” look like in your particular field site and/or topic?

2. Imploding the Researcher

This unit takes the tools of anthropology and science and technology studies to understand how we might think about subjectivity in a materially and temporally situated manner. Drawing on the “implosion exercise” that Joe Dumit (drawing on Donna Haraway’s work and others) developed to attune students to how objects in the world are interconnected to each other, we ask students to implode themselves, unpacking personal histories in preparation for starting a research project. The additional course material we have selected for this section also spotlights how all interpretation is provisional, and how as Renato Rosaldo says, life experiences may result in a repositioning of the researcher, transforming the ways they see the world.

Suggested readings/viewings:

Patchwork Ethnography Wenner-Gren Webinar, June 24-25, 2021. Panel 1: Familial Entanglements and/or Panel 2: Sensory and Affective Attentions.

Dumit, Joseph. 2014. “Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2: 344–62.

Berry, Maya J., Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada. 2017. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 537–65.

Rosaldo, Renato. 2014. “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage.” In The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief, 117–38. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

EXERCISE 2: Drawing on “Writing the Implosion,” study yourself as a researcher. Answer as many of the questions in the categories outlined by Dumit as you would like, substituting the “it” with “you.” The aim is to uncover how you, just like the molecule, “can—and often should—be teased open to show the sticky economic, technical, political, organic, historical, mythic, and textual threads that make up its tissues” (Haraway 1997, 68; cited in Dumit 2014, 349).

Based on this implosion of yourself, also consider the questions that appear in either

  • The Wenner-Gren dissertation fieldwork grant application: Why are you the right person to carry out this project? How did you come to your project, and why are the issues you plan to explore so important to you? What connections do you have to the individuals and communities affected by your work? Why are you in a good position to navigate the ethical concerns raised by your research? Since this is outside the confines of the actual grant application, please try to be open and honest about the answers to these questions.


  • The SSRC Application Question: [Personal Statement] In addition to your current doctoral training, how might your personal background or non-academic experiences inform the perspectives you will bring to your proposed dissertation project? We recommend that you address how you are positioning yourself and your research in relation to the communities you study.

Package Two: Cultivating Patchwork Ethnography Sensibilities

How do we decenter the model of uninterrupted, long-term fieldwork through patchwork ethnographic sensibilities, without completely denying the former?

[In this package, we recommend having some hands-on fieldwork exercises, asking students to go out into the “real world” to conduct participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and other methods. The next exercises will be more meaningful based on these practical activities.]

1. Objects of Observation vs. Objects of Study

Mayanthi Fernando (2014), building on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work, showed that many of the problems of anthropology’s “Western gaze” derive from a common conflation between what Trouillot called “object of observation” and “object of study.” This leads to an ahistorical and apolitical understanding of a locale, fetishizing the “Savage slot” subject (the object of observation), while ignoring the intellectual, structural, and political economic forces that have determined the conditions of possibility in that location (the object of study) (Fernando 2014, 237). Danilyn Rutherford (2020) has recently drawn on Fernando’s work to help researchers rethink fieldwork in the age of COVID. If the conflation of the object of observation with the object of study informed the principle of uninterrupted, long-term fieldwork in anthropology, how would disaggregating them advance alternative approaches to research methods?

Suggested readings:

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” In: Global Transformations, 7–28. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fernando, Mayanthi. 2014. “Ethnography and the Politics of Silence.” Cultural Dynamics 26, no. 2: 235–44.

Rutherford, Danilyn. 2020. “Funding Anthropological Research in the Age of COVID-19.” In “Covid-19 and Student Focused Concerns: Threats and Possibilities,” Veena Das and Naveeda Khan, eds., American Ethnologist website, May 1.

McGranahan, Carole. 2014. “What is Ethnography? Teaching Ethnographic Sensibilities without Fieldwork.” Teaching Anthropology 4: 23–36.

Mills, David. 2011. “Have We Ever Taught Anthropology? A Hidden History of Disciplinary Pedagogy.” Teaching Anthropology 1, no. 1: 12–20.

EXERCISE 3: Find yourself a field site where you do participant observation, write field notes, and conduct interviews. This can be unrelated to your broader PhD fieldwork project or your thesis project. What is your object of study? Think about the multiple objects of observation you can investigate for pursuing a particular object of study.

2. Situated Immersion

Although patchwork ethnography challenges the assumptions of “traditional” fieldwork, it is still based on the importance of in-depth and long-term commitments to understanding one’s field sites. It is not synonymous with one-time, rapid research methods. If that is the case, how do we hold onto the strengths of “traditional” fieldwork and propose patchwork ethnography as a complement, and not an opposition to, “traditional” ethnographic methods? How do we also keep in mind that “traditional” fieldwork was almost always also patchwork ethnography in that all researchers “switch” between fieldworking-mode and non-research mode, demarcating “home” and “field” boundaries and attending to intersecting responsibilities? One answer comes from Jordan Kraemer (2021) who is an anthropologist who conducts ethnographic research on digital platforms and neighborhood organizing in Brooklyn, New York. She illustrates what patchwork ethnography could look like in practice by proposing three considerations: (1) Field switching; (2) Situated immersion; (3) Mobile and sensory methods. These frameworks open up the possibilities of who can do “legitimate” fieldwork and ethnographic research beyond the “ideal researcher.”

Suggested readings:

Candea, Matei. 2007. “Arbitrary Locations: In Defense of the Bounded Field-Site.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13, no. 1: 167–84.

Durban, Erin L. 2022. “Anthropology and Ableism.” American Anthropologist 124, no. 1: 8–20.

Horton, Sarah Bronwen. 2021. “On Pandemic Privilege: Reflections on a “Home-Bound Pandemic Ethnography.” Journal of the Anthropology of North America 24, no. 2: 98–107.

Jackson, Jr., John L. 2013. Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Chapter 2: “Introduction,” and Chapter 20: “Thin”)

Kraemer, Jordan. 2021. “Situated Immersion: Reimagining Remote Methods.” Data & Society: Points, October 27.

Mullings, Leith, and Alaka Wali. 2001. Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Doing Ethnography Remotely.” Center for Global Ethnography, Stanford University. (Choose any or all of the videos)

EXERCISE 4a: Write up a research question. Think about what methods will help you in answering your research question. How do you know that this question is best approached with ethnographic fieldwork? What specific kinds of methods and fieldwork practices will you use to answer the question? What kinds of fieldnotes would you need to write to do patchwork ethnography? Is “traditional” uninterrupted fieldwork the best way to answer the question? For this last question, consider how “traditional” fieldwork was almost always also patchwork ethnography in that all researchers “switch” between fieldworking-mode and non-research mode in the course of the day.

EXERCISE 4b: Choose two ethnographic monographs which might be related to your research questions, and closely read their methods sections. What do ethnographers include in their methods sections? What do they leave out in terms of who they are in the world? What questions does this raise for your project? Write a 500-word analysis of the methods sections you reviewed in relation to your own work.

Package Three: The You-in-Relation

How can we position the researcher as immersed in actually-existing-relations when teaching about fieldwork and ethnographic decisions, dilemmas, and solutions?

1. Visualizing Fieldwork

Ethnographers are often asked to imagine their fieldwork experiences in order to write proposals and apply for research grants. In this section, we ask students to visualize themselves doing one full day of fieldwork, writing up all the mundane, bracketed off routines that might shape their research but might not be included in grant proposals. In visualizing one day of patchwork ethnography, students will remain sensitive to relations and interactions, thinking through how interlocutors will react to their questions, while interrogating the taken-for-granted virtues and clarity of informed consent, transparency, disclosure, sharing of research findings, etc. How do we cultivate ethical decision-making sensibilities in concrete situations and relationships? Thinking contextually about these practices, students will also imagine how these principles might differ based on where and when they are doing research.

Suggested readings:

Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association (2012) [Also read the links to additional discussions/essays on Ethics and Methods]

Annavarapu, Sneha. 2021. “Difficult Encounters, Fragmented Positionalities: Gender, Caste, and Hindutva in the Field.” Engenderings from the London School of Economics and Political Science, December 1.

Bell, Kirsten. 2014. “Resisting Commensurability: Against Informed Consent as an Anthropological Virtue.American Anthropologist 116, no. 3: 511–22.

Montesi, Laura, and Miranda Sheild Johansson. 2021. “Dog Bites and Gastrointestinal Disorders: Our Everyday Bodies in Teaching Anthropology and Fieldwork Preparation.” Teaching Anthropology 10, no. 3: 59–69.

McGranahan, Carole, and Erica Weiss, eds. 2021. “Rethinking Pseudonyms in Ethnography” Series. American Ethnologist website, December 13.

EXERCISE 5: Having “imploded” yourself, now visualize yourself in your field site, imagining your first day of meeting interlocutors and research collaborators. Drawing on the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, once again, go through what kinds of ethical challenges your project might raise. Why do you want to do this research project and why does it matter? Write a 500-word visualization of what you think your day will look like.

In-class Activity: Training to Be Surprised

There is always a gap between such visualizations of fieldwork and the lived experiences that follow. In normalizing this gap, and thinking through why and how it might emerge, invite doctoral candidates who are currently doing their fieldwork to the class. Ask them to reflect on the gaps between their expectations pre-field and their lived experience of navigating ethical and other issues in fieldwork. Discuss with the visitor(s): How do you prepare for your research, while being open to the contingencies of fieldwork? In other words, how do you set yourself up to be surprised?

2. Co-working with Others

Not doing uninterrupted, long-term fieldwork can lead to new forms of relationships with research collaborators. Perhaps the most common form of such relationships is with research assistants, but literature in anthropology and adjacent disciplines shows that this is not the only kind of collaboration that exists or can be formulated. In this exercise, we ask students to think about the potential collaborative practices that are appropriate to their field sites. What are some possible ways in which you can foreground the priorities of your research collaborators, thinking with them about collaborations that might be useful to them? Who else is involved in your research and thinking process, and what is your assumed hierarchical positioning of them in relation to knowledge production? Decentering the idea of the single-author monograph, students will imagine new kinds of writing practices, alongside other innovative projects that prioritize co-theorization.

Suggested readings:

Fortun, Kim, Mike Fortun, Erik Bigras, Tahereh Saheb, Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, Jerome Crowder, Daniel Price, and Alison Kenner. 2014. “Experimental Ethnography Online: The Asthma Files.” Cultural Studies 28, no. 4: 632–642.

Hale, Charles R., and Lynn Stephen, eds. 2013 Otros Saberes: Collaborative Research on Indigenous and Afro-Descendent Cultural Politics. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of Advanced Research Press.

Hamdy, Sherine. 2017. “How Publics Shape Ethnographers: Translating across Divided Audiences.” In If Truth Be Told: The Politics of Public Ethnography, edited by Didier Fassin, pp. 287–310. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Hurn, Samantha. 2012. “Students and Fieldwork Collide: Taking a Hands-on Approach to Teaching Anthropology.” Teaching Anthropology 2, no. 2: 66–71.

Middleton, Townsend, and Jason Cons. 2014. “Coming to Terms: Reinserting Research Assistants into Ethnography’s Past and Present.” Ethnography 15, no. 3: 279–290.

Weiss, Margot. 2021. “The Interlocutor Slot: Citing, Crediting, Cotheorizing, and the Problem of Ethnographic Expertise.” American Anthropologist 123, no. 4: 948–953.

Patchwork Ethnography Wenner-Gren Webinar, June 24-25, 2021. Panel 4: Collaboration and Activism and/or Panel 5: Interrogating Authority.

EXERCISE 6: First, map who the various interested parties and participants of your fieldwork will be. These could be your interlocutors, research assistants, government officials, and other anthropologists/researchers you will meet in the field. Second, map the people to whom you have a responsibility beyond the research, whether that is family, students, friends, or colleagues. Finally, map some of the main scholars whose work you draw on to prepare your research project. How are these various people connected to (1) you and (2) your research? How could you destabilize the scholar vs. informant/interlocutor, theory vs. evidence, life vs. research, and other assumed hierarchies of knowledge production? Ideally, you will be conducting hands-on fieldwork activities, and this exercise can include writing a 1,500–2,000 word ethnographic text reflecting this destabilization.