Ethnographic methods of data collection

Level - Target audience

PhD students in the Social Sciences and Humanities who are yet to collect the data on which their study will be based. They will ideally be mixed regarding their prior acquaintance with ethnography, some already having an informed idea of what this entails, others being keen to learn but not having yet been much exposed to it.


  • Prof. Dr. Marie-Benedicte Dembour
    Faculty: Law and Criminology
    Department: International, European and Public Law


What kinds of information can ethnographers look for and find? This course develops PhD students’ understanding of, and competence in, ethnographic research methods. Under the guidance of the tutor and through practical exercises, the students will become acquainted with the ethnographic tradition, they will collect data within/about familiar/unfamiliar social lives and worldviews, and they will learn and reflect reflect about the romantic and practical aspects of conducting ethnography.


The course stresses the importance of gaining access to ethnographic settings. Another running theme concerns the comportment of the ethnographer in the field. How to record ethnographic data through field-notes and how to interpret observations are also given continual emphasis, with the process of turning fieldwork into a narrative account reflected upon. Research ethics, research design and relations between method and epistemology are not directly covered. (These issues nonetheless inevitably emerge as the students engage with the themes of the course as well as the practical assignments which are core to the course).


- To familiarise students with the possibilities (but also the challenges and limitations) of conducting ethnography for data collection;
- To instil the importance of approaching learning as an active and reflective process of which the learner themselves is principally in charge;
- To give the students a sense of the way anthropology has developed as an academic discipline, thereby giving them basic elements on which they can choose to build further by themselves;
- To encourage an exploratory research attitude which accepts the value of testing research methods and thus the possibility that some of these may fail, requiring flexibility and adaptation on the part of the researcher;
- To foster the aptitude to work as part of a research team.


Thursday 21 January 2021 (9am-5:30pm) and Wednesday 24 March 2021 (9am-5:30 pm)

These two workshops are best conducted face to face although they can take place on-line if absolutely necessary.

Each workshop will be followed the next day with 1-2 hours of face-to-face discussion between the tutor and small groups of 3-4 students in a physical space. This will take place on Friday 22 January and on Thursday 25 and Friday 26 March 2021.

In between the two workshops, there will also be interaction between the constituted small groups of students and the tutor using digital means.

Tentative program

  • 4 January 2021: A number of readings will be set to the students
  • 22 January 2021: First workshop
    With the support of a powerpoint, the tutor will ‘talk’. This will be done in a way that invites comments and questions by the students. Reference will be made to the set readings and discussions will ensue. At some points, the tutor will make some points, which could be considered to be equivalent to a series of very short lectures. The aim is to introduce the history and practicalities of doing anthropological fieldwork. There will be some short practical exercises done in very small groups of students (e.g. pairs). (If the first workshop takes place digitally, this will be done in breaking-up groups before coming back to the whole group). The last hour of the workshop will be devoted to give time to the students to start thinking about the project they may like to pursue and to share their burgeoning ideas with their fellow students.
  • 23 January 2021: small face-to-face meetings
    The students get feedback on their initial ideas by meeting the tutor face-to-face in small groups.
  • In the following two weeks up to 5 February 2021: Project design phase
    he form groups of around 3 students (this could be 2 or 4) and design a project proposal which identifies a ‘field’ to be studied, the questions to be researched and the topics to be explored. The proposal is submitted in writing to the tutor for her comments. There is likely to be a number of ‘back and forth’ between the groups and the tutor in this period, which will happen either by email communication or digital meetings.
  • 8 February-15 March 2021: Execution of the project
    The students implement their project. This implementation needs to include at least 5 moments of actual ethnographic observation. The tutor is available for commenting on the development of the project.
  • 15 March-24 March 2021: Each group prepares a powerpoint presentation where they put the emphasis on the ‘process’ of the ethnographic research rather than the ‘results’ it produced: what research method has worked, what has not worked, what challenges have arisen. Both problems that were anticipated and those that were not, are to be given attention so as to highlight the idiosyncrasies and surprises of the research process.
  • 24 March 2021: Second workshop
    The second workshop consists in the group presentations. Each group presents for 25 minutes, and this is followed by a discussion, animated by the tutor but in which all students participate. The aim is to get students to think about the similarities and differences of their experience, and to reflect upon what they have learnt. Each group presentation must identify the ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ which was selected for investigation, the way the group formulated its research strategy and how this strategy has unfolded. Course participants are encouraged to reflect, in particular, on the practical, methodological, ethical, political and other issues and problems arising. The objective is to gain insight into ethnographic research through not only the successes but also, and perhaps even more importantly, through the ‘failures’ of the small research projects which were undertaken, in frank and active dialogue with the other members of the course.
  • 25-26 March 2021: Small face-to-face meetings
    Small groups comprising about 3-4 students meet with the tutor, offering them opportunities for further reflections to be expressed and insights to emerge on participant observation and other ethnographic methods, and on the possibilities and limitations of these methods within the wider framework of the full array of research methods. This is done in blocks of 2 hours.

Registration fee

Free of charge


Please notify Prof Dembour: with copy to Martine Dewulf of your interest to participate. Explain your motivation (no more than 250 words) and attach your CV.
Deadline for application is 15 December 2020 at 8 PM.

Teaching materials

This course employs a mixture of teaching methods. The core learning experience comes from the students grappling concretely with the challenges and excitement of conducting their (very small-scale) own fieldwork project. This is accomplished in groups of around 3 students. In addition to this core learning experience, the students encounter a variety of other teaching/learning methods. These include readings in preparation to class, mini-lectures by the tutor, group discussions, small practical exercises, and group presentations. The emphasis throughout the course is on students learning through doing concrete activities, doing this in groups, and reflecting about the learning points that arise from all these practical experiences.

Number of participants

Maximum 15 selected participants

Evaluation criteria (doctoral training programme)

- 100% attendance
- Participation in a 25-minute group presentation with powerpoint