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Ethnographic Field Research Methods: Data Generation Methods

Course Dates and Times

Monday 15 ꟷ Friday 19 March 2021
2 hours of live teaching per day
09:30ꟷ12:00 CET

Cai Wilkinson

Deakin University

This seminar-type course provides a highly interactive online teaching and learning environment, using state of the art online pedagogical tools. It is designed for a demanding audience (researchers, professional analysts, advanced students) and capped at a maximum of 12 participants so that the Instructor can cater to the specific needs of each individual.

Purpose of the course

This course will give you a practical introduction to three key methods of data generation (observation, participant observation, and interviews) used in interpretive ethnographic field research. It will also explore issues related to their use, including field access, what to observe, researcher positionality and producing trustworthy accounts of fieldwork.

ECTS Credits

3 credits Engage fully with class activities 
4 credits Complete a post-class assignment

Instructor Bio

Cai Wilkinson is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Deakin University in Australia, with teaching interests in the areas of Critical Security Studies, genders and sexualities in international relations, and intercultural communication.

Her research focuses on how identity shapes people’s individual and collective experiences of in/security, which she investigates using critical interpretive ethnographic methods.

Cai has conducted fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan on societal security and on LGBTQ activism, coached on humanitarian leadership courses and led experiential learning programmes in Japan, the US and Sri Lanka.

She is the author of a number of papers and book chapters that explore how field-based methods can be used to research security, and from 2012–2018 convened the Critical Security Studies Methods Café at the International Studies Association annual convention.

Day 1

We begin with an overview of the course and the underpinning notion of an ‘ethnographic sensibility’, before moving to explore what fieldwork is and related questions, including what and where is ‘the field’, what is distinctive about ethnographic fieldwork, and why fieldwork is used. You will be given the first of five practical exercises at the end of this day, and will be expected to draw on your experiences in subsequent discussions.

Day 2 

We focus on the first of the three methods covered in the course: observation. Discussion will explore what it means to see ethnographically, and look at observation as a way to generate ‘thick description’. We will pay particular attention to what and how one observes and how to record one’s observations in field notes and, in the second practical exercise you will practise observing ethnographically.

Day 3

Building on day 2, our topic is participant observation. In addition to discussing the spectrum of ways in which the researcher can participate in the field, and the implications of different forms of participation, we will consider issues of positionality including the researcher’s role in data generation and her research more widely, as well as relationship management, power dynamics, ethics and consent, and safety and wellbeing. In the third practical exercise, you will try participating in ‘the field’ and experience (albeit in a limited way) the implications of positionality first-hand.

Day 4

Interviews are our topic. Following an overview of how interviews can be used in interpretive fieldwork, discussion will focus firstly on the practicalities and potential complexities of interviewing, and secondly on processes of interpreting interviews in terms of maintaining reflexivity and an ethnographic sensibility. As with preceding days, you will then put discussion into practice in the day’s practical exercise.

Day 5

Our final day is devoted to the end phase of fieldwork and making the transition from ‘the field’ to ‘home’ and from fieldwork to deskwork. The primary aim of the session is to explore fieldwork as an embodied and situated experience of knowledge production, and to consider how field researchers can effectively manage the challenges that often accompany field data as the focus shifts towards writing.

How the course will work online

While it may seem counter-intuitive to study fieldwork methods online, this course is an excellent opportunity to explore the flexibility offered by the three data generation methods, as well as to consider bigger questions of knowledge production, such as how different notions of ‘the field’ shape our thinking about research processes and outcomes. 

The course will run over five consecutive days, using a daily combination of:

  • Pre-class viewing pre-recorded lectures/video presentations (30ꟷ90 mins) and completion of assigned readings (these can be undertaken before the course starts);
  • Live seminars, plenaries, small-group discussions, debriefs on practical exercises using Zoom (120 mins each day);
  • Post-class practical exercises (60ꟷ120 mins, plus time for writing up)

Practical exercises are designed to give you experience of using each data generation method in person (within the limitations of local conditions) and remotely, enabling the different modes of access to be compared and contrasted.

You are expected to undertake all pre- and post-class activities each day, and will be required to maintain a ‘field journal’ of your experiences and reflections on the class discussion forum.

Moodle and Zoom will function as the two main platforms. We’ll use a group chat to support discussions, answer questions, and share information and supplementary resources. You can also sign up for scheduled one-to-one video consultations with the Instructor, to discuss course topics and/or your own research.

This course is a hands-on introduction to ethnographic (interpretive-qualitative) fieldwork research methods.

It is for students who have little or no formal experience of fieldwork, but who are considering / intending to conduct some form of fieldwork as part of their research. 

If you are looking to revise your research plans because you can’t access field sites physically, or if you are experiencing other disruptions, this course may also be suitable for you.

There are no formal prerequisites, but you should be open to engaging with materials drawn from a range of social science disciplines, including anthropology, human geography, political science, and sociology.