What is ethnography, and how do we teach about ethnography/ethnographies so that students understand the complexity of analysis? There have been many scholars who have come up with different conceptions of what denotes ethnography over the term’s existence. James Clifford (1986, 2–3), in Writing Culture, describes ethnography as “telling the grounds of collective order and diversity, inclusion and exclusion. It describes processes of innovation and structuration, and is itself part of these processes.” Susan Greenhalgh (2001, 5) describes ethnography as “the working tool of anthropologists,” which “interweaves fine-grained description with close analysis to create a compelling portrait of a small but closely observed slice of social life.” If this truly is the “working tool” of anthropologists, it is imperative that students come out with an understanding of how to analyze and otherwise engage with ethnographic texts throughout their coursework in anthropology.
Because of the importance of ethnography in understanding and practicing cultural anthropology, this post is focused on engaging critical ethnographies for graduate- and undergraduate-level courses—the syllabi have been organized below to reflect the suggested level of instruction. This post will be most beneficial to those engaging students in reading, analyzing, and writing ethnographic texts. The syllabi can be downloaded below. The summary statements frame the courses to help readers and instructors skim through the posts that seem most beneficial for them.
This post is the first within a series focused on the compilation of a syllabus archive for instructors of anthropology and other related disciplines. Through these posts, we are curating a compilation of syllabi on thematic topics that are brought to life through short summaries and learning goals provided by the contributors of each syllabus. These posts are part of a larger motivation to provide instructors at every level with resources at their fingertips for class design and development. We all hope this archive will serve as a beneficial and collaborative tool for course design.
Critical Race Theory Syllabus, Carolyn M. Rouse (Princeton University)
I teach a six-week graduate course entitled Critical Race Theory. While the students learn about critical race theory, the entire point of the course is for the students to be able to make the case for ethnography or experiential knowledge production. They read some of the original legal arguments as well as the very critical articles denouncing critical race theory as anecdotal and therefore bad legal theory. Critical race theorists used ethnography, and their own experiences, to articulate what was wrong with this belief that the courts and case law would save black folks. So my course is not a methods course per se, but I offer it as one approach to getting graduate students to make the case for ethnography as a legitimate approach to knowledge production.
Ethnography and/as Theory Syllabus, Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado)
What is the ethnographic? How do we practice and write ethnography? In this seminar, we will look beyond ethnography as method to consider ethnography as theory. Ethnographic knowledge is both epistemology and ontology, a way of knowing and a way of being. It is experiential, embodied, and empathetic, and is the foundation of field efforts to arrive at—as Clifford Geertz so famously stated in 1973—how people collectively explain themselves . . . to themselves. It is through ethnography that we can get to “where true life and real lives meet.” Ethnography is excessive and it is messy, but so is life. Our goal in ethnographic research is to get to this excess and messiness, to the lived expectations, complexities, contradictions, and possibilities of any given cultural group. In this seminar, we will explore ethnographic theory through reading widely across contemporary anthropological ethnography. Welcome.
Critical Ethnography/Ethnographies Syllabus, Anne Allison (Duke University)
Critical Ethnographies is a seminar I have taught now six times, and I truly love it. I switch the readings up each time and basically divide the course into two parts. The first three weeks we do a history and theoretical overview of “the ethnographic method” (which, this time, ranged from Malinowski, Hurston, Clifford, and Ingold to Rabinow, Marcus, Pandian, Fortun, and Rees). For the rest of the time, we read an ethnography per week, which we quite literally do from beginning to end, dissecting every part of it in class. For each text we ask: what is the object, ethnographic method(s), theoretical argument, style of writing, experimental form, scholarly archive being referenced (and contribution/intervention being made), positionally of author, kind of storytelling, politics/ethics, public/media engagement? We also switch it up a bit by, for example, spending one week on journal-length ethnographies and another week looking at introductions alone. For written work, students write weekly reflection papers and two critical essays considering some issue (such as the archive in two recent articles by Angela Garcia and Sasha Newell). For the final assignment, students can experiment with their own ethnographic writing. The course feels exciting and hands-on as we plunge into the flesh of the ethnographic project together.
Ethnography Syllabus, Anand Pandian (Johns Hopkins University)
This seminar explores ethnography as a craft essential to anthropology. Ethnography is one of the most important ways in which we bring the experience of others into focus. The very notion of ethnography evokes not only the fieldwork that anthropology is known for, but also the bringing of a world to life through the making of a text. In this seminar, we will closely read a handful of contemporary ethnographic works, and pursue experiments of our own in ethnographic description. This course aims to introduce students to this fundamental mode of research and expression in anthropology, by learning together how to evaluate ethnographic texts and their intertwining of description and argumentation. We will also develop a practical understanding of ethnographic method through weekly exercises in observation and writing, trying out various ways of describing scenes, characters, problems, and situations. We approach ethnography as a creative practice, revealing unknown depths and faces of the realities we confront in the world at hand, yielding new ways of understanding contemporary social and cultural concerns. This semester, our focus falls on ethnographic explorations of America.
Teaching Ethnographic Texts Syllabus, Erin Gould (Chapman University)
This course is designed to provide discussion around the construction of, analysis of, and engagement with ethnographic texts across time and space. Starting with foundational readings on ethnography as a form of writing, the course introduces many texts and significant anthropological topics, which provide pathways for students to critically engage with ethnographic texts as they continue as learners. The course is organized around three larger texts constructed by anthropologists, texts which provide students with understandings of different elements of ethnography and what makes a text ethnographic. These ethnographic texts range from an anthropological memoir, an ethnography curated for introductory courses, and an anthropological trade book ethnography. Alongside and independent of these texts, students read article-length ethnographic works to understand how shorter ethnographic texts discuss major theoretical concepts. By the end of the course, students will be able to analyze and comment on the ways ethnographic texts engage important topics from around the world.
Thank you to all the contributors of this post for sharing their materials for the benefit of our larger anthropology community and beyond. We invite anyone interested in submitting further resources or syllabi on teaching ethnography to fill out this linked Critical Ethnography Supplemental Google Form. These suggestions for content or approaches to the topic will be considered for inclusion in an addendum to this post one month after its initial release. If you are interested in contributing content for a different theme or topic, please reach out to the Teaching Tools Section Editor(s) to begin collaborating. Thank you, in advance, to all that feel compelled to reach out with resources and suggestions.
Clifford, James. 1986. “Introduction: Partial Truths.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 1–26. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Greenhalgh, Susan. 2001. Under the Medical Gaze: Facts and Fictions of Chronic Pain. Berkeley: University of California Press.