Syllabus Archive: Teaching Ethnographic Research Methods

Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash.

How do we actually do fieldwork? This is a question that we seek to help our students of all levels discover in our courses, but even in graduate school curricula, this topic can seem glossed over and shrouded in mystery. Methodology is a topic that is addressed, usually very briefly, in a myriad of classes, but deep dives into methodologies provide a much needed framework for anyone wanting to carry out an ethnographic project. We have all heard the narratives of Bronislaw Malinowski being stranded on the Trobriand Islands, doing his work alone and totally “isolated” while being surrounded by people but positioned outside his familiar cultural context—potentially these were narratives passed on in our methodological education in anthropology. However, these narratives of the past, of isolation, are not the framing from which we need to train the next generations of anthropologists because we can structure methodological training as hands-on experiences, where students respond to different contexts with tried and true strategies (e.g., interviews, participant observation) or with more experimental methods that better fit the context of their investigation (e.g., imaginative ideas, arts-based research methods). By following the footsteps of Anand Pandian (2019, 4), the creators of these syllabi want to explore “what this field does in the world, with an eye to what it might yet be” through considerations of the virtual, applied, collaborative, and critical.

Much like other trades, learning to do research or fieldwork with other humans takes practice. H. Russell Bernard (2006, 1) writes: “Research is a craft . . . if you know what people have to go through to become skilled carpenters or makers of clothes, you have some idea of what it takes to learn the skills for doing research. It takes practice, practice, and more practice.” Even if our students are not clearly on their way to becoming anthropologists after an anthropology course, the skills of ethnographic research are those which can be translated into many different career paths and are beneficial for professional development and interpersonal communication. These skills give students insight into the process of “doing,” instead of only learning how to think theoretically about different topics—this hands-on approach to courses is invaluable to the practice needed to do this type of work.

For this Syllabus Archive post, we want to highlight different approaches to constructing a course for students that focuses specifically on bridging the theoretical and the practical, hands-on experience of conducting fieldwork. The following syllabi can be adapted for different levels of instruction, but if the contributor designed the course for a specific level, it is noted in their course descriptions below. Each accompanying summary statement from the contributors frames the course and helps readers skim through the elements of this post that seem most beneficial for them. As discussed in the introduction to the syllabus archive, these posts are part of a larger initiative to provide instructors at every level with a syllabus archive and resources at their fingertips for class design and development—feel free to check out any that seem interesting to you!

Ethnographic Research Methods Syllabus, Lauren E. Deal (Brown University)

Ethnographic research is the defining method of anthropology as a discipline. This is the case we make time and again for why our research can reveal nuanced insights into the people, places, and phenomena we study. And yet, outside of anthropology our methods are often perceived as unscientific and our analyses anecdotal. Inside anthropology, fieldwork is often described as highly personal and contextually dependent, leaving many students feeling like ethnographic research amounts to “winging it.” Emerging from my own experiences as a student and researcher, as well as conversations with graduate and undergraduate students across the country, this Ethnographic Research Methods syllabus is my attempt to create the methods training I would have liked to have as a student. The course is guided by the premise that ethnographic research is a two-fold endeavor: it is both a way of knowing and a way of representing people and their practices. The first third of the course critically considers anthropology’s origins in the colonial project in order to reckon with what it means to seek to understand and represent an “other.” Then it moves on to look at anthropological research practices, the types of data they produce, and principles of analysis. Finally, it looks at the myriad forms of ethnographic production to explore the politics of representation and the relationship between the form an ethnographic work and its audience. By the end of the course, I expect students to produce their own original, creative ethnographic work that demonstrates a cogent use of data to illustrate “how they know what they know.”

Download Lauren E. Deal’s syllabus

Virtual Ethnographic Field Research Methods, Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela (University of Chicago)

Syllabus developed collaboratively with TA Harini Kumar (University of Chicago)

The virtual is increasingly embedded into our everyday life. In-person social life is deeply inflected by what goes on online, and inversely—today’s social movements are a case in point. Today, vast domains of social life now take place online, mediated by for-profit platforms, cultural norms, and government policy. This course invites students to retool conventional ethnographic methodologies for the physical/virtual nexus by way of the senses.

This course has both practical and conceptual goals. (1) Students will develop an ethnographic methods portfolio, and in the process should begin to develop ethnographic research skills—ethics, fieldnotes, participant observation, interviewing, and multimodal ethnography. Building on a weekly ethnographic research method, students will learn to update and apply those skills to virtual/remote research and (where possible) back again to the physical world. (2) Students should also recognize and begin to develop answers to conceptual questions that have been raised with respect to ethnographic research. These questions concern the nature of knowledge produced by ethnographic research: In what way can the qualitative be “objective”? Some questions concern the relationship between “being there” physically, and engaging virtually with others: How might the virtual/in-person distinction be useful for, or hinder, ethnographic research? Other questions concern the social position of the researcher in ethnographic research: What is the power relationship between the researcher and the group being studied? (3) Students should learn to read ethnographic methods texts and distill questions of key relevance, teach their classmates about particular methods, try their hand at carrying out small-scale virtual/remote research exercises, and “write up” their findings onto a multimedia class portfolio.

Download Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela’s syllabus

Ethnographic Fieldwork, Erin Gould (Chapman University)

This course is designed to have undergraduate students get hands-on experience with different methodologies of ethnographic fieldwork, including participant observation, taking fieldnotes, taking photographs, and considering the ethical implications of fieldwork by going through institutional review board (IRB) training. Each week, a group of students are responsible for reading and providing the entire class with reading summaries for that week, as well as developing discussion questions to lead the conversation with their classmates. I was surprised to hear how much students appreciated this approach to these topics, and as an instructor, I took a seat as a member of the discussion by letting the students steer the conversation around the case studies and the important elements they discovered while doing the readings. The mix of reading and doing participatory research on a chosen research topic allowed students to do smaller exercises and get feedback from classmates and me on how to go about doing fieldwork more effectively in the future, but also marked a way to brainstorm how to diversify our thinking about how to approach fieldwork with our interlocutors. At the conclusion of the class, students gave seven- to ten-minute presentations of their conclusions: they were asked to treat this as an assignment for professional development for which they needed to put together well thought-out displays and explanations of their work to present for their colleagues.

Download Erin Gould’s syllabus

Research Methods in Applied Anthropology, Carylanna Taylor (First Encounter Productions)

While a visiting professor at my alma mater, University of South Florida, I was asked to teach a graduate research methods course. I built upon a syllabus prepared by USF professor Rebecca Zarger. The resulting syllabus is hands on, participatory, and often student-led.

My goal for this particular class was to give my students the research methods preparation that I wished I had had going into my dissertation. I wanted students to leave the course with a toolkit of methods and a research proposal that included a well-defined research problem, appropriate methodology, and supporting materials. We built these together piece by piece over the semester. Their proposals were modeled on the NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant, which I had received for my work in Honduras. Each week students also presented on and practiced with a different methodology from a list we brainstormed together. These included traditional ethnographic and structured interviews and more recent techniques like video elicitation and photo voice. We came up with a research question as a class that we carried through the semester and examined through each method.

Students initially found this spring 2013 syllabus daunting. I had to take care in helping them see the logic of the underlying structure so that they could allow themselves the freedom to build the specifics. Much of our first class session was spent getting everyone on the same page and hearing their needs and concerns. I revised the syllabus as a result of our discussion. This syllabus worked well with twelve very driven applied anthropology master's and PhD students. When I later tried versions of the syllabus at other schools with fifteen to seventeen master's or advanced undergraduate students who didn’t have individual fieldwork looming on the near horizon, the results were more uneven. This syllabus demands a lot of class time per student and a lot of grading with feedback. I would be hesitant to try it with more than twenty students. As for this spring 2013 syllabus, the applied anthropology graduate students found the course demanding and beneficial. They met and, in many cases, exceeded the challenge. Our sessions were lively and often fun. And, to my delight, students felt better prepared for their fieldwork.

Download Carylanna Taylor’s syllabus

Ethnography and Society, Jeffrey A. Tolbert (Penn State Harrisburg)

This course was created to provide graduate students in American studies (AMST) with a grounding in ethnographic history and the basics of fieldwork. AMST at Penn State combines several disciplinary approaches, one of which is folklore and ethnography. Many AMST students come from non-ethnographic disciplines; as such, the course outlines the trajectory of ethnographic research from Malinowski to the present. It offers several small assignments intended to ease students new to ethnography into the practical aspects of fieldwork. It also introduces students to the institutional review board (IRB) process, and one assignment is a mock IRB protocol. Future iterations of the course will add the text Handbook for Folklore and Ethnomusicology Fieldwork by Lisa Gilman and John Fenn.

Download Jeffrey A. Tolbert’s syllabus

Download Tolbert’s Guidelines for the Ethnography and Society Final Project


Thank you to all the contributors of this post for sharing their materials for the benefit of our larger anthropology community and beyond. 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.


Bernard, H. Russell. 2006. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. 4th ed. New York: AltaMira.

Pandian, Anand. 2019. A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.