Geography Ethnography
Eric Laurier, Rebekah Miller, Daniel I. Muñoz Zech
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0171


Ethnography is a method that involves a period of immersion in a local group, community, or place. It gathers accounts of practices while also observing and/or participating in those practices. Ethnography has its origins in anthropology and has spread to many other disciplines, including sociology, cultural studies, design, computer science, and physical geography. This entry concentrates on human geography, but it also intersects and overlaps with ethnographic works in transdisciplinary areas. Central to ethnography is participant observation, but it also draws upon interviews, photography, video recordings, archival materials, drawings, and other forms of data that help ethnographers immerse themselves in the setting that they are seeking to research. While ethnography was historically associated with field studies of “remote” and/or “exotic” cultures, it is now more often used to investigate “home” and/or “familiar” cultures. Ethnography as method has a history intertwined with shifts in theory that fall broadly and roughly into three periods: classical, structuralist, and post-structuralist. The latter two are of most relevance, because ethnography reemerged in human geography in tandem with the rise of post-structural theory. The recent rise of mobile ethnographies and ethnographies of mobility has meant that the method itself now frequently traverses the home-abroad divide by following things and/or living subjects (be they human or nonhuman). In the sections that follow, we open by firstly, discussing the Reemergence of Ethnography and recent reflections on it as a method, secondly, in Restless Reporting we turn to ethnography’s relationship to the medium of reporting, be it experimental writing, observational film, or photo-narrative. After examining these general issues we then devote the majority of this entry to exemplary studies that are thematically organised. We begin with studies of Mobility across a range of domains: multisited ethnographies within the “follow the thing” approach, mobilities within practices of commuting, and embodied dimensions of movement in activities such as cycling. We then move on to ethnographies that pay attention to processes of Embodiment and Affect, ranging from the emotional dimension of migrant experiences to reflections on the researcher as an embodied being. After this we shift focus on to More-Than-Human Studies, describing sites of human and nonhuman encounter, including herding, foraging, and pet-keeping. The next section outlines ethnographies of Play, Leisure, and Sport with a range of papers, including ethnographic work on traditional music sessions, taxidermy practices, and sailing. As the counterpart to play and leisure, we consider ethnographies of Institutions, Work, and Professions, such as care homes, the work of financial advisors, and a steel plant. Finally, we reflect on how ethnography is extending into more traditional political and economic geography, looking at how notions of the global and the local are reconsidered in cases of protest in the Tibetan freedom movement, the politics of infrastructure in a landfill in Greece, and other examples (see Politics and Economics). Finally, we provide a selection of works that provide Recent Reflections on Ethnography, including the importance of mobilizing the ethnographer, the possibilities of doing causal analysis, and the fertile relationship between ethnography and non-representational theory (NRT).

The Reemergence of Ethnography

As a method in human geography, ethnography’s return was linked to the renaissance of cultural geography, though ethnography also has a longer history of use by humanist geographers, as noted in Cook and Crang 1995. In anthropology, by comparison, while classic ethnographies such as Benedict 1934 were interrogated by subsequent generations, ethnography as a method remained central to anthropology’s data collection and disciplinary identity. Although the reemergence of ethnography was part of the cultural turn in human geography, from the outset ethnography was also tackling topics in economic, social, political, and historical geography, if only from a cultural perspective. Ethnography’s renewed vitality was part of a disciplinary appetite for methods that could help researchers understand the experiences, values, practices, and knowledges of particular peoples in particular places. A number of the works listed in this section are characterized by a desire to introduce and justify ethnography to a discipline that in the 1990s had become more familiar with questionnaires, surveys, and the idea that researchers would keep an objective distance from their communities of interest, rather than immersing themselves as part of understanding them from the inside. Both Cook and Crang 1995 and Crang and Cook 2007 provide a general introduction to ethnography in human geography. An early justification of ethnography in geography is given in Herbert 2000, which touches upon problems of representation, as do Keith 1992, Katz 1994, Katz 2001, and Katz 2002. Marcus 1995 provides a description of multisite ethnography that prefigures the rise of mobile ethnographies and “follow the thing” ethnography, which are addressed later in this entry. Two influential early ethnographies included in this section are Hinchliffe 1997 and Parr 1998.

  • Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1934.

    A classic in anthropology, and one where the ethnography provides an early focus on the routine and the everyday to help us understand an exotic culture.

  • Cook, Ian, and Mike Crang. Doing Ethnographies. IBG Catmog, 58. London: Institute of British Geographers, 1995.

    The most significant early guide to ethnography as a method for human geography. The draft copy of the manuscript for the Institute of British Geography (IBG) began circulating in the early 1990s and was highly influential ahead of its official publication a decade later.

  • Crang, Mike, and Ian Cook. Doing Ethnographies‎. London: SAGE, 2007.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781849208949

    A substantially revised and updated edition of Doing Ethnographies was published by SAGE and remains a lively and authoritative introduction to ethnography in human geography. Its coauthor Ian Cook pioneered “follow the thing” and has remained a proponent of inventive writing in ethnography.

  • Herbert, Steve. “For Ethnography.” Progress in Human Geography 24.4 (2000): 550–568.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913200100189102

    Herbert’s article provided a call to geographers to engage more widely with ethnography as a method. It challenged a common critique aimed at the method: that it does not enable generalization (for another response to this problem, see Katz 2015, cited under Recent Reflections on Ethnography). Herbert also responds to an internal critique regarding problems of representing others, encouraging geographers to be more reflexive in their writing strategies.

  • Hinchliffe, Steve. “Locating Risk: Energy Use, the ‘Ideal’ Home and the Non-Ideal World.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 22.2 (1997): 197–209.

    Hinchliffe’s work introduced both actor-network theory (ANT) and science and technology work into human geography, while also providing an early example of ethnography’s insights into understanding the role of technology in people’s everyday lives.

  • Katz, Cyndi. “Playing the Field: Questions of Fieldwork in Geography.” Professional Geographer 46.1 (1994): 67–72.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0033-0124.1994.00067.x

    Drawing upon feminist theory, the article opens up a more symmetrical exchange between field researchers and participants. From there, a politics of engagement is possible, avoiding the compartmentalization of social actors “along solitary axes.” In general, Katz argues in favor of a blurring of boundaries between the conceptual (the research, the fieldwork, the scholar) and the practiced (everyday life, doing fieldwork, being a subject).

  • Katz, Jack. “From How to Why: On Luminous Description and Causal Inference in Ethnography (Part 1).” Ethnography 2.4 (2001): 443–473.

    DOI: 10.1177/146613801002004001

    In a two-part article on ethnographic description and analysis, Katz presents three of the seven categories of evaluative terms he uses to discuss and examine ethnographic works. In Part 1, Katz discusses the value of asking “how?” instead of “why?” in an attempt to move away from tenuous causal explanations of ethnographic observations.

  • Katz, Jack. “From How to Why: On Luminous Description and Causal Inference in Ethnography (Part 2).” Ethnography 3.1 (2002): 64–90.

    DOI: 10.1177/1466138102003001003

    In the second instalment of his article, Katz presents the remaining four categories of evaluative terms he uses to discuss and examine ethnographic works. Katz discusses how ethnographic data can be assessed by their qualities of revelation, situatedness, intimacy-in-the-face-of-the-obdurate, and poignancy.

  • Keith, Michael. “Angry Writing: (Re)presenting the Unethical World of the Ethnographer.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10.5 (1992): 551–568.

    DOI: 10.1068/d100551

    Keith criticizes how the show of emotions in ethnographic writing usually disqualifies an article as a valid piece of research. Relatedly, he argues that academic accounts written in an objective tone project academic authority. However, he also critiques ethnographers that have focused on the problem of representing others as a stylistic one that might be solved by shifts in the form of ethnography. Keith uses his ethnographic experience with the police and their racist behavior to complicate and, to an extent, reject the problem of representing the experiences and lifeworlds of others.

  • Marcus, George E. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 95–117.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    In this classic contribution, Marcus argues in favor of an adaptation of the traditional, more sedentary, single-site ethnography toward a multisite one. He criticizes the weak distinction between the subject’s lifeworlds and an allegedly “macro” system. Ethnography, in this sense, is useful to find routes of connection between different practices and events in a transversal way. Through strategically “following” things, people, and metaphors, Marcus proposes a way in which ethnographers can reconsider their relation with the landscape and with ethnographic practice itself.

  • Parr, Hester. “Mental Health, Ethnography and the Body.” Area 30.1 (1998): 28–37.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.1998.tb00045.x

    Discussing her own ethnography of mental health and madness, Parr examines the intertwined processes of covert and overt ethnographic research. She considers the bodily experiences of fieldwork and how they are translated into academic writing. In her ethnography, Parr became unclean and unhealthy in order to become the “same as” while also “different from” other bodies. Her article reflects on the good of covert studies and the significance of intersubjective relationships.

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