Please note: This course will be delivered in person at the Colchester campus. Online study is not available for this course.

Karen O’Reilly is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Loughborough University and a Freelance Researcher and Training Provider. She has taught ethnographic and qualitative methods for over 25 years, including the Essex Summer School, the Swiss Summer School in Social Science Methods, in Lugano, and at universities in the UK, Germany, Norway, and Hong Kong. Karen is a highly experienced ethnographer and qualitative researcher whose many publications include two widely cited books on ethnography: Ethnographic Methods (Routledge, 2nd ed. 2012) and Key Concepts in Ethnography (Sage, 2009). Karen provides training for the Social Research Association on a regular basis, as well as bespoke training in qualitative research methods. Her research is in the field of sociological understandings of lifestyle migration and harvest migration.


Course content

Ethnography is an increasingly popular style of research, employed in both long-term and short-term studies in creative ways across the social sciences. This course provides a comprehensive introduction to the technical, practical and philosophical issues that arise when employing traditional and innovative ethnographic methods. Ethnographers typically immerse themselves in a setting for a period of time, listen, ask questions; and supplement observation with the analysis of interview data, documents, and visual and digital data. Such an intrusion into the social setting presents a challenge to the ‘received view of science’ but ethnographic methods have proven, over time, to provide valid, valuable and rich contextual data with which to understand complex social issues. This course covers the following topics: participant observation and contemporary applications; hypotheses, abduction and serendipity; accessing the field; writing fieldnotes; making sense of observational data and telling credible stories; multi-sited, virtual, visual and sensory ethnography; applied ethnography; and reflexivity, ethics, and the emotions in fieldwork.

The course is applied, encouraging participants to think intellectually about each topic area in relation to their own research interests, and to carry out and begin to analyse micro-observational studies.

Course objectives

By the end of the course participants should: Be confident to make close, theory-oriented observations through participation, observation, and conversation. Be equipped to record and analyse the data produced through diverse methods. Take a critical and creative approach to ethnographic methods and understand how they can be combined with other methods of data collection for a range of social, political and policy research areas. Take a reflexive and ethical approach to ethnographic encounters. Be in a position to present and defend the quality and value of ethnographic interpretations.

Course Prerequisites

The course is introductory but intensive, rapidly taking participants from a beginner’s to an advanced level. Some prior familiarity with qualitative methods and a background knowledge of the philosophy of social science is required. Participants should be aware that the practical decisions to be made when conducting ethnographic research are necessarily theoretically-informed and will vary with each practitioner’s disciplinary orientation. The course aims to equip participants with the knowledge required to make those decisions for themselves in practice.

Representative Background Reading

This is a list of options you can dip into if you wish. Participants are not required to do any prior reading

  • O’Reilly, K. 2009. Key Concepts in Ethnography, London: Sage
  • O’Reilly, K. 2012. Ethnographic Methods, 2nd. Ed. London: Routledge ISBN: 9780203864722. This book will be provided by ESS
  • Cubellis, L. C. Schmid and S. von Peter. (2021) Ethnography in Health Services Research: Oscillating Between Theory and Practice. Qualitative Health Research
  • Pink, S. et. al. 2022 Design Ethnography. Research, Responsibilities, and Futures, London: Routledge
  • Or browse the journals: Ethnography, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Entanglements.

The Summer School Course is practical, teaching the theory and practice of ethnographic research through lectures, practical sessions, and discussion. The ethnographic approaches we cover can be applied in all fields that depend on social research, such as education, social work, criminal justice, sociology, psychology, communications and political science. The course encourages you to intellectually relate what is taught to your own research interests. There is a demand on participants in the course to participate: these methods are learned by trial and error and through experience rather than through chalk and talk methods. Many of the themes we wish to raise and discuss will, we hope, be raised naturally as you attempt to do your own field research and interviews. The below is a guide. Actual delivery and exercises will be responsive to the needs of the participants. Readings will be made available as virtual copies.

Session 1. What is ethnography? Plan and design

Traditional and contemporary approaches to ethnography and the history of the methods. Planning and designing and the role of the literature review. Iterative-inductive research. The role of serendipity.

Session 2. Doing participant observation

What is participant observation in practice. Gaining access, selecting sites and participants. Finding a role. Making field notes. Informed consent.

Session 3. Interviews in ethnography

Individual and group interviews; conversations; opportunistic interviewing; the ethnographic interview and the art of listening. Ethnography and biography.

 Session 4. Trust, rapport, and embodiment.

Issues of field relations, insider ethnography, and autoethnography. Transcribing and translating. Entanglements.

Session 5. New directions in ethnography

Visual, virtual, mobile, and global ethnography. Friction as a metaphor for the diverse and conflicting social interactions that make up our contemporary world.

Session 6. New directions in ethnography

Applied ethnography. Short-term ethnography. Dealing with limitations and opportunities, and revising the key principles. Flexible and creative design. Multi-modal ethnography.

Session 7. Writing Up

From writing down to writing up. Beginning analysis. Practical issues including coding and memos. Grounded theory and ethnography.

A mainly practical session. Bring field notes as we will be doing coding and analysis in class

Session 8. Writing and The Reflexive Turn

The reflexive turn in anthropology and ethnography. Writing culture. Audiences and genres. How to write in reflexivity.

Session 9. Ethical ethnography

Thinking about our role and responsibility. Consent, harm, data storage, anonymity. Credibility, accountability, fame, fortune, and the law.

Session 10. The value of ethnography.

Assessing the validity of ethnography and producing insights for design or policy. Group presentations