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Copyright Gonzalo Valverde

What is an ethnography?

“Ethnography is the recording and analysis of a culture or society, usually based on participant-observation and resulting in a written account of a people, place or institution”.Traditionally, ethnographies have focused in depth on a bounded and definable group of people; such as the Nuer, or a particular North Indian village. Today, they are just as likely to focus on a particular aspect of contemporary social life; such as new reproductive technologies, the meanings of the veil, virtual communication, or being a Milwall football club fan. The concept of ethnography has been developed within social anthropology; but the term is now sometimes used in a looser way in for example opinion and market research.

Why are ethnographies important?

Ethnographies as texts offer excellent insight into how social anthropologists undertake their fieldwork, what it is like to experience daily life in an environment that may be initially unfamiliar, and the political, economic and social dynamics involved in collecting ‘data’. By providing specific, in-depth case studies, they can serve as excellent means for teaching about global issues such as climate change, migration and globalisation. Even where ethnographies focus on a particular practice – such as a religious ceremony, or a culinary ritual – the anthropologist will typically place the practice in its full context to give a holistic, rich and multi-faceted account.

Reading good ethnographies is an excellent way to learn how social anthropologists go about their research; and how they reflect on their own and one other’s experiences in the field, and construct their broader theories.

There are many excellent ethnographies on countless subjects ranging from kinship to development. The following list of ethnographies have been chosen for their topics of interest that correspond to the Anthropology A-level as well as for their ease of comprehension.


By: Loïc Wacquant (Oxford University Press, 2003)

Having signed himself up to a famous gym in a black neighbourhood on in the south side of Chicago, French sociologist Loic Wacquant spends the next three years immersing himself in the world of amateur and professional boxing. As her learns about the power structures and social space of the gym, he also learns how to spar, shadow-box and fight. As a participant observer he weaves his experiences and his knowledge of the gym and of boxing culture in this engaging ethnography.




Book Reviews: – a review of the book written by Emily Eakin for the New York Times. – Reuben A. Buford May, Shadowboxing: A Review of Loïc Wacquant’s Body and Soul, Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 28., No.3, 2005, pp.429-431

Useful websites: – the author’s website


By: Pierre Clastres, Translated by Paul Auster (The MIT Press, 1998)

In the early 1960s, French anthropologist Pierre Clastres spent two years living among the Guayaki people of Paraguay, a small and now vanished community of nomadic hunters. When Clastres arrived in Paraguay there were only 100 Guayaki left, their way of life threatened by influenza and the effects of logging companies encroaching in the area. Over the two years, Clastres follows the everyday practices of the Guayakis recording their rituals, myths, culture and language. Now available in English translated by the novelist Paul Auster, this ethnography uniquely contributes to the community’s cultural history.



Book Reviews:  – a review of the book written by David Rains Wallace for the Los Angeles Times


By: Phillipe Bourgois (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

“Philippe Bourgois’s ethnographic study of social marginalization in inner-city America, won critical acclaim when it was first published in 1995. For the first time, an anthropologist had managed to gain the trust and long-term friendship of street-level drug dealers in one of the roughest ghetto neighborhoods–East Harlem. This new edition adds a prologue describing the major dynamics that have altered life on the streets of East Harlem in the seven years since the first edition. In a new epilogue Bourgois brings up to date the stories of the people–Primo, Caesat, Luis, Tony, Candy–who readers come to know in this remarkable window onto the world of the inner city drug trade.” (Cambridge University Press)


Book Reviews:
– review by  for Contemporary Society, VOl. 25, NO. 6 (Nov.1996), pp.793-794


By: Rebekah Nathan (Cornell University Press, 2005)

After more than fifteen years of teaching, Cathy Small, a professor of anthropology at a large state university, realizes that she no longer undersands the behavior and attitudes of her students. In order to bridge the gap she decides to take on ethnographic fieldwork and learn about their way of life. She takes a sabbatical and enrols as a freshman and for a full academic year spends time eating in the cafeteria, joining student clubs and taking part in courses, nights out and gossip sessions. Under the pen name of Rebekha Nathan she writes about her experience and those of her fellow students using altered names. My Freshman Year, is not only a very interesting exploration of student life in the US, it provokes interesting debates about the ethics of anthropological research and politics of disclosure.



Book Reviews: – A review of the book written by Robert Lawless for the Anthropology Review Database– A review of the book written by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed



By: Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg (University of California Press, 2009)

For over a decade Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg followed a social network of two dozen heroin injectors and crack smokers on the streets of San Francisco, accompanying them as they scrambled to generate income through burglary, panhandling, recycling, and day labor. Righteous Dopefiend interweaves black-and-white photographs with vivid dialogue, detailed field notes, and critical theoretical analysis. Its gripping narrative develops a cast of characters around the themes of violence, race relations, sexuality, family trauma, embodied suffering, social inequality, and power relations.


In the following film anthropologist Philippe Bourgois talks about his fieldwork experience for Righteous Dopefiend


Interview with Phillipe Bourgeois and Jeff Schonber on KPFA’s Against the Grain

Interview with Phillipe Bourgeoius with Marty Moss Coane for Radio Times

Related Articles:

Bourgeois, P. 2010 “Useless Suffering: The War on Homeless Drug Addicts.” In The Insecure American: How We Got Here and What We Should Do About It. Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman, eds. Pp 238-254

Bourgeois, P.1998 “The Moral Economies of Homeless Heroin Addicts: Confronting Ethnography, HIV Risk and Everyday Violence in San Francisco Shooting Encampments.” Substance Use and Misuse 33:11:2323-2351.

Useful Websites: – the author’s own website


By: Terry Tempest Williams (Da Capo Press, 1990)

From 1982-1986 sociologist Terry Williams spends four years following the activities of a teenage cocaine ring in New York City’s Spanish Harlem. Cocaine Kids tells the story of these ‘kids’ and their lives through their own narratives- the rules of etiquette, modes of exchange, and layered relationships that form part of the chain of distribution that is their reality. The ethnography offers an illuminated account of the realities faced by marginalised urban youth and the ways in which their world operates.




Book Reviews: – a review written by Arthur Kempton for the New York Review of Books



By: Lawrence Taylor and Maeve Hickey

In the drainage tunnels that connect Mexico and the US lies an extended family of kids struggling to survive in the world of immigrants, drug dealers and thieves. Lawrence Taylor and Maeve Hickey meet these kids at Mi Nueva Casa, a safe house built to draw the youths out of the tunnels and into a more normal life. Over the course of two summers the authors learn about their lives. Through vignettes we learn about each kid’s unique circumstance and are exposed to the human side of territorial boundaries.





An interview with both authors-

Useful Links:– a guide to using to classroom use


By: Emma Tarlo (Berg, 2010)

“This timely and important book cuts through media stereotypes of Muslim appearances, providing intimate insights into what clothes mean to the people who design and wear them. It examines how different ideas of fashion, politics, faith, freedom, beauty, modesty and cultural diversity are articulated by young British Muslims as they seek out clothes which best express their identities, perspectives and concerns. It also explores the wider social and political effects of their clothing choices on the development of transnational cultural formations and multicultural urban spaces.” (Berg Publishers)



Book Reviews:– a review written by Anshuman Mondal for  The Middle East in London Magazine, vol.7 no.4 October 2010 p.17.
– a review written by Michael Dalton M/C Media and Culture

Interviews: – an interview with Sara Yasin about the book for Patheos


Watching the English
By: Kate Fox (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005)








Book Reviews: – a review written by Catherine Bennett for the Guardian – a review of the book written by anthropologist Keith Hart