Course Description

The jacket for the 1st edition of J. McIver Weatherford’s classic ethnography “Tribes on the Hill” reads:

The United States Congress is vastly more intriguing, amusing—and disturbing—than it has ever shown itself to be. What do Senators and Representatives have in common with the pig-and-yam farmers of New Guinea, Watutsi warriors, Byzantine eunuchs, or courtiers at Versailles? More than anyone ever dreamed. Freshman representatives, for example, undergo an initiation ceremony echoing that of a fierce and remote Amazon tribe. The Congress revealed here is a collection of rival clans struggling like any human tribe for influence and continuity.

In this course, students will experience the contemporary version of this bizarre reality for themselves as participant observers in the principal site of U.S. “democracy.” Through analysis of classic and contemporary writings on the praxis of ethnography, and fieldwork consisting of constituent visits, lobbying, deep hanging out at the Congressional cafeteria and more, students will learn the ethnographic method and gain a familiarity with the taboos, rituals, and tribes of the Hill.

Required Text

Weatherford, J. McIver. 1985. Tribes on the Hill: The U.S. Congress Rituals and Realities. Revised edition. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey.

Course Objectives

This course will:

  • Improve students' understanding of the fundamental tools of the ethnographic trade
  • Help students gain an appreciation for the craft of formulating a good research question
  • Encourage students to reflect on the roles of the ethnographer as active subject and as analytical observer in fieldwork and in writing
  • Analyze and explore ongoing debates about ethnographic ethics and praxis
  • Provide opportunities for learning ethnographic methodology through practicing it

Student Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Examine similarities & differences in methodological approaches among diverse authors
  • Demonstrate the necessary links between theory and ethnographic research design
  • Design a viable research question, including human subjects protections
  • Implement a group preliminary ethnographic research project on Capitol Hill
  • Critically engage debates about the ethics & efficacy of different approaches to ethnographic fieldwork and writing, grounding their own opinions in theories covered in the course

Course Requirements

Each participant is expected to:

  1. Attend every class and participate actively in discussion (10%).
  2. Complete a daily in-class written reflection addressing questions about the readings, based on a close reading of the assigned texts (10%).
  3. Present and lead class on the readings for one class (20%). Since this one assignment counts for a full 20% of your grade, it is crucial that you be well-prepared. If you wish, you may email extra materials in advance of the class, keeping in mind the limits on your classmates' reading/viewing time. Presentations will take place in either the Rayburn or Dirksen cafeteria, and will be largely tech-free. No PowerPoint, we’re doing this old school. Your presentation and course discussion leadership will be assessed on a number of factors, including:
  • Preparedness and command of the assigned materials: Does the presenter (or presenters) demonstrate a solid command of the material itself, including background on the authors and/or other relevant context? Are they able to field questions from other students about the material with ease?
  • Creativity of presentation: Does the presentation integrate previous insights gained from semester readings and discussions? Does it provoke the audience to consider new angles or applications of the readings?
  • Presentation structure: Are discussion questions designed to provoke meaningful intellectual engagement with the readings and with each other? Do the presentation and other activities follow a logical flow? Are the presentation and discussion well-designed to fill the allotted class time?
  • Pedagogical creativity Is the discussion and/or other activity fun? Does it help the class to think more productively about how these articles apply to our own ethnographic projects and enhance our understanding of anthropology (and each other)? Does it go beyond a simple seminar discussion? Have you taken the cafeteria space & configuration into consideration in your activity design? Some ideas: Hold a debate; design role play &/or small group activities; integrate other media (e.g., magazines, printouts/ photocopies, or something using students’ cell phones; remember, we won’t be using computers) into your presentation and/or activity; etc. Feel free to use index cards, art supplies, or any props that won’t get us kicked out of the Congressional cafeteria.

4. Post daily fieldnotes (30%), including but not limited to notes from:

  • Constituent meetings, including:
  1. (Starting Day One, including retroactive) Email exchanges and notes recording your efforts to set up a meeting with your representative
  2. Notes from at least 1 in-person meeting (see tips from and the Sunlight Foundation in preparing your one-pagers & more for the meetings)
  • At least 2 public hearings &/or briefings (see govtrack's committee calendar) Group project-specific notes (group fieldwork is fine, but fieldnotes must be recorded individually) Conduct, fully transcribe (audiotaped and typed out verbatim) and post to Blackboard one key-informant interview as part of larger group project; should be at least five pages long and should be accompanied by your fieldnotes from the interview (10%) Group Project (20%)
  • Day Five: Hand in a 3-5 page proposal (per group) for a pilot field study that includes statement of the problem, background to the problem, methods to be employed, field site rationale, significance of the problem. You should be following closely the Leedy and Silverman (especially pp.487-488) articles from week one as you complete your proposal. Ask yourself the questions posed in those articles about your problem and the other components of the assignment. You will need to convince the rest of the class (and me) with your proposal that you have chosen a problem that is potentially answerable (i.e., don’t ask anything too big or abstract); that it is a problem that is doing more than filling a gap in your own knowledge (“personal problem”); that it is a problem that is significant; that it is a problem that is potentially answerable with the fieldwork you have proposed; that the fieldwork you have proposed is feasible; and that your group is qualified to do it.
  • Day Six: Hand in revised proposal along with a 1-2 page ethics statement (per group), addressing any ethical and/or human subjects concerns that could possibly arise in the course of your research, and how you plan to address and or mitigate them.
  • Day Eleven: Submit 5-8 page preliminary research report (per group, excl. bibliography) on your group’s trial field project. The purpose of this paper is to reflect on where your ethnographic process has taken you over the course of the project. Based on your fieldwork experience and drawing from your fieldnotes and interview(s) to illustrate your argument, what answers have you found to your original question? How did your initially-proposed methodology change in order to accommodate your understanding of the problem and/or "field" once you started your fieldwork? How and why did your original question change (if indeed it did)? If you were going to propose to continue your work beyond this semester, what would your research problem be? Knowing what you know now, how would you approach your fieldwork with the aim of better addressing your (hypothetical) research problem?
  • Day Eleven: Group Presentation to class

Grade Breakdown

10% Class participation

10% Daily in-class written reflections

20% Presentation/lead discussion

30% Daily fieldnotes

10% Key informant interview

20% Final Group Project

Reading Schedule


Day One: Course Overview

  • Tribes on the Hill review
  • Group planning

Day Two: Introduction to Ethnography Part I

  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1985. “Introduction. The Subject, Method and Scope of This Enquiry.” In Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, 1–25. London: Routledge.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1989. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, 1-24 and 73-101. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Day Three: Introduction to Ethnography Part II

Class guests: Congressional staffers

  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. "Thick Description." In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3-30. New York: Basic Books.
  • Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1997. "Discipline and Practice: 'The Field' as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology." In Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, 1-46. Oakland: University of California Press.

Day Four: Proposal design

Class guests: Lobbyists with activist group

  • Leedy, Paul D. 1993. "The Problem: The Heart of the Research Project." In Practical Research: Planning and Design. 5th ed, 59-86. New York: Pearson.
  • Silverman, Sydel. 1991. "Writing Grant Proposals for Anthropological Research." Current Anthropology 32, no. 4: 485-489.
  • On-site group proposal brainstorming


Day Five: Ethics

Day Six: Entrée

  • Revised proposals and 1-2 page ethics statement due
  • Work on setting up key informant interview for Monday or Tuesday
  • Goffman, Erving. 1989. "On Fieldwork." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 18, no. 2 (July): 123-132.
  • Spradley, James P. 1976. "Trouble in the Tank." In Ethics and Anthropology: Dilemmas in Fieldwork, eds. Michael A. Rynkiewich and James P. Spradley, . New York: Wiley.
  • Pine, Adrienne. “Message Control: Field Notes on Washington’s Golpistas.” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (April 2010): 18–22.

Day Seven: Fieldnotes

  • Jackson, Jean E. 1990. "'I Am a Fieldnote:' Fieldnotes as a Symbol of Professional identity. In Fieldnotes: the Makings of Anthropology, ed. Roger Sanjek, 3-26. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Mead, Margaret. Selected letters. In Letters from the Field, 1925-1975. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Adrienne Pine’s Hospital Escuela fieldnotes


Day Eight: Archives

Field trip to Library of Congress Folklife Center

  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. "The Power in the Story." In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 1–30. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Hartman, Saidiya. 2019. "A Minor Figure." In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 13–36. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Primary vs. Secondary Sources Subject Guide, AU Library.

Day Nine: Our Embodied Selves as Fieldworkers

  • Rosaldo, Renato. 1993. "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage." In Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, 1-21. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Spiegel, Alix. “Invisibilia.”, June 1, 2017.
  • Pine, Adrienne. 2008. "Introduction." In Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras, 1-24. Oakland: University of California Press.

Day Ten: On Recognition and Writing

  • Transcribed interview posted to Blackboard before class
  • Clifford, James. 1983. "On Ethnographic Authority." In The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, 21-54. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Auyero, Javier. 2003. "Conclusions: Ethnography as Recognition" and "On Fieldwork, Theory, and Biography," in Contentious Lives: Two Argentine Women, Two Protests, and the Quest for Recognition, 191-207. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Submit 5-8 page Group Preliminary Research Report in class

Day Eleven: Final Presentations

Final Project Presentations, Evaluations