Ethnography: Soft science with hard results

Last week we began reading about the ethnographic method.  First, I wanted to share a definition of ethnography that I have always greatly admired.  Clifford Geertz argued for a “thick” ethnographic study of culture.  Thick meaning that a simple explanation in a complex culture will always be inadequate.  Thick analysis not only looks at culture from multiple perspectives, but also penetrates the psychology.  In thick analysis, the values, the logics, the reasoning are as important as the behaviors, which we should recognize as a challenge to a simple functionalist explanation.

One thing that struck me about our reading is the idea that we explicitly make ourselves an instrument of study in ethnography.  But when you think about it, many STS studies suggest that this is always the case, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Even in the hard or physical sciences, STS studies show how the social is always present.  Examples of this would include Kuhn ideas on the social organization of scientific knowledge (i.e. paradigms) and Latour’s analysis of Louis Pasture inviting the social into the lab.

This idea of embracing the social nature of analysis contrasts very strongly with some of my personal experiences in the social sciences back in the 1980’s.  In 1984, I was developing a master’s thesis proposal in sociology.  This was unique time for sociology as it seemed to be struggling to become a quantitative “science”, requiring advanced statistical analysis for most studies at the time.  This was prior to the post-modern movement and the science wars, which I think dialed sociology back to the qualitative side a bit.

During the thesis proposal process, I had two tenured sociology professors specifically call me into their offices after my proposal was first circulated.  Both of them said the exact same thing, which was, “Nobody cares what your opinion is or what you have to say.  You the ideas of someone who counts and then you add to their thinking.  The only thing that matters is what the data tells us.”   The implication was very clear to me.  I took my thesis more quantitative or they would go out of their way to block any kind of qualitative thesis.  Sociology graduates coming out of that program needed to be quantitative scientists.

So, I spent the next few months looking at a survey data that I could associate with my research question and on a daily basis I infusing that data with profound social opinions, such as grouping the data by artificial categories of age, gender, income, education, community and opinion that I made up.  For example, I could not say that individuals who were anti-abortion and pro-school prayer were linked by conservative ideology, but I could twist data just about any way I wanted and then pronounce the two linked if I had a chi square that was sufficient.  This is using the scientific method, so it has to be good.  Right?  Sociology in 1985 wanted a theory, hypothesizes, data and conclusions.  The rich ethnographic studies of the 1920’s Chicago school seemed a distant past at that time.  Thick study of culture?  Or, a thick headed attempt to science up a social phenomenon?

Ethnography proposes an alternative course to knowledge.  Ethnography is inductive in nature.  The ethnographer starts by building up the data from actual participants and then drawing conclusions.  The statistical analysis of the 1980’s took national opinion survey data and then extrapolated to everyone else in society, even those communities where no survey participant lived.  Ethnography actually connects with the individuals that are being studied.  This is why I am so looking forward to completing some ethnographic research this summer.


Latour, Bruno ,Give Me a Laboratory and I will Raise the World in Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, eds., Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, London and Beverly Hills; Sage, 1983, pp. 141-170.


Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.


Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2012.



One Reply to “Ethnography: Soft science with hard results”

  1. Interesting. I was also struck by Murchison’s statement that the ethnographer becomes the “primary research instrument” for collecting and recording information. It’s not that I disagree with the observation — I agree with it fully — I just had never thought about it this way and found it powerful and insightful. It seems to me that Murchison’s point is indeed related to the social dimensions of knowledge-making that STS emphasizes, and in fact could be viewed as one specific example (and perhaps one of the most concrete and visible examples) of how knowledge-making is socially shaped.

    Ehrenreich says that, “Between roughly 1880 and 1920 progressive Americans campaigned not only for scientific medicine, but for scientific management, scientific public administration, scientific housekeeping, scientific child raising, scientific social work. The United States was, according to The Atlantic Monthly, a ‘nation of science'” (p. 77). As you suggest, this trend enveloped the social sciences as well and, I think, is continuing to do so even today. The idea that quantitative analysis is somehow devoid of researchers’ personal opinions, interests, priorities, or judgment calls, and that qualitative analysis is burdened by values that don’t belong in the craft of knowledge-making, seems in itself to reveal deeply-held values that are often unexamined and lack evidence (as well as contradict some individual researchers’ experiences conducting quantitative research!).

    I wonder if you think that today, qualitative (and, more specifically, ethnographic) research is known and recognized by the knowledge-making establishment as valid and/or equally valuable as quantitative research.

    Very glad to know you are excited about ethnographic research. One thing I appreciate about this way of knowledge-making is that I think it offers us not only different and rich tools through which to understand the world, but also new ways to understand research and our relationship and obligation to the phenomena and people we study.

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