Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In Defense of Ethnography

The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 26th, 2015

Controversy over the sociologist Alice Goffman’s On the Run, a study of young people on the margins of society, has put ethnography on trial. Lost in the accusations and rebuttals, I fear, is the reality that ethnography is one tool among many but too valuable to dismiss or ignore. Like other methodologies, it has strengths and weaknesses, but it complements other approaches in crucial ways.
Almost two decades ago, I finished a visual ethnography of a small police department in a suburb of Minneapolis. Over several years, I had examined how media-driven stereotypes of what it was to be a "cop" affected officers’ work. I spent hundreds of hours, mostly on the "dog" shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., riding along in squad cars, attending roll calls, and generally hanging out, observing, and photographing the police. I eventually "joined" the department as a reserve officer — lighter-blue uniform, no gun. My study, including some of the pictures I took, was published as a book.

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