Ethnography and the Arts

Sherry Ortner describes ethnography as "the attempt to understand another life world using the self -- as much of it as possible -- as the instrument of knowing." Ethnographic methods are associated particularly with anthropological studies, although they have also been widely adapted in other areas of social and cultural investigation.

This class will provide an introduction to participant-observation methods and the broader contemporary practice of ethnography, with a particular emphasis on its relevance in the arts and cultural production. This includes ethnographic studies of art and art practice, ethnographic engagement with the topics and objects of cultural production, and the role of artistic work within the ethnographic process itself.

Grades will be based on participation in online and in-class discussion, and on a project report due at the end of the quarter.

Although I have drafted a syllabus for the first few weeks of the class, everything is provisional at this point. I suspect that this class, more than most, will develop its own character as our conversation progresses. In particular, it is my habit in these classes to organize class meetings in the second half of the quarter as data sessions, in which we can collectively engaging with work emerging from your projects, and as discussions around themes that emerge from those sessions.

Weekly Discussions

Most of the quarter is structured around in-class discussions of readings (see schedule below). For most classes, two students will be selected to lead the discussion. Everyone else should post a response to the readings online, due 24 hours before the class starts (in order to give the discussion leaders time to use them to prepare for the discussion.) Your participation in discussions, online and in class, will be one component of your grade for the class.

Discussion responses should be posted on the class wiki. You can login using your UCINet ID.

Project Work

The second component of your evaluation is a term paper. You may write these individually or in pairs. (MORE DETAILS...)


The readings are stored on UCI's webfiles service. To gain access, you will first need an activated UCINet ID, and then to register for a Webfiles account.

3/31 Introduction and course overview
4/2 Discussion
4/7 Discussion/exercise
4/9 Virtuality

And from our discussion, Bestor's paper Supply-Side Sushi (as brought up by Julka) and Mrazak's paper on Technology and National Identity (as brought up by Brett).

4/8 End of Week 2: Project abstracts due
4/14 Observation and interviewing

And from our discussion, Donald Roy's paper Banana Time; the prologue from Sharon Traweek's book, "Beamtimes and Lifetimes".

4/16 Coding and grounded analysis

How they do their work (1)


How they do their work (2)

4/28 No class
4/30 No class

Data Session #1

Some papers that came up in discussion: Thompson, 1971, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, Past and Present; Guano, 2006, Fair Ladies: The Place of Women Antique Dealers in a Post-Industrial Italian City, Gender, Place, and Culture.


Data Session #2

Some papers that came up in discussion: Warner, 2002, Publics and Counterpublics , Public Culture; Kelty, 2005, Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics , Cultural Anthropology.

5/12 The role for theory

We'll look at the Warner paper and the Thompson paper from last week, as well as: Miller, 1995, Consumption and Commodities, Annual Reviews of Anthropology.

5/14 Theory and our projects

From the discussion: Steve Barley's paper on Careers, Identities, and Institutions.

5/19 No class
5/21 No class
5/26 Data Session

From the discussion: Leitch, 2003, Slow Food and the Politics of Pork Fat, Ethnos; Gieryn, 1983, Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science, American Sociological Review.

5/28 Data session
6/2 Data Session

From the discussion: Fine, Ten Lies of Ethnography, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

6/5 End of Week 10: Reports due

Other Readings (an evolving list)