UChicago charts future of ethnographic research

New generation of sociologists advance University’s multidisciplinary tradition

City campus aerial
Photo by
Jean Lachat
Mark Peters
News Director and Social Sciences SpecialistUniversity Communications

In the early 20th century, the University of Chicago was known as the epicenter of ethnography, a method of study in which researchers immerse themselves in a social setting to observe its inner workings. Many of sociology’s landmark works emerged from such research, positioning ethnography as an essential tool for understanding individuals and communities. 

A series of projects by faculty members in the UChicago’s Department of Sociology are bringing new attention to the method, putting a spotlight on the University as a leading proponent of ethnography. Those efforts now include the Chicago Ethnography Incubator, a two-day, annual symposium bringing together scholars and graduate students from around the country to advance ethnographic methods, provide hands-on mentoring and further build an interdisciplinary community of ethnographers.

“We really want Chicago in the center of the ethnographic conversation, but do that in a way that reflects where the discipline and the world has gone in the last 40 years or so,” said Forrest Stuart, assistant professor of sociology. 

Stuart, Asst. Prof. Kimberly Hoang and Assoc. Prof. Kristen Schilt held the incubator’s first symposium in March, which included a forum titled “Ethnographic Reflections” and a workshop that brought together the first class of faculty and graduate fellows. The event was sponsored by UChicago Urban, as part of its university-wide effort to bolster urban research.

Stuart is one of several UChicago faculty who place ethnographic methods at the core of their work. His first book, Down, Out and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row, was drawn from ethnographic research, as is his current work investigating how digital social media are transforming gang violence on Chicago’s South Side.

Hoang, another young ethnographer whose work takes an in-depth and often personal look at sex workers and their clients, is author of Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work.  She was especially gratified by the mix of student and faculty fellows at the incubator who showcased evolving issues within ethnography, such as increasingly global and technology-driven issues, and infused them with the UChicago’s rich multidisciplinary tradition.

The incubator’s inaugural class of graduate fellows came from UChicago and other universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their research tackles topics ranging from social work providers and undocumented immigrants to the ways mobile devices and social media affects how people make and respond to emergency 911 calls.

“These are cutting-edge projects that have urban sociology in conversation with medical sociology in conversation with digital innovation,” Hoang said. “And ethnographers on the ground to take it all in.”

The 2017 faculty fellows at the incubator are involved in equally diverse research areas. Ching Kwan Lee, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has used ethnography to study China’s transition from state socialism to the workshop of the world and then as a major global investor in Africa, as well as the gendered factory regimes in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

"The U.S. presidential election reminds ethnographers that we need to study communities which are ideologically and socially distant from us, and not just those we politically and personally identify with,” Lee said. “The rise of Trump amid a global advance of right-wing populism also challenges ethnographers to do comparative ethnography, to provincialize the American experience.”

As ethnography’s academic reach and direction evolves, its most important function remains:  giving a voice to those most directly impacted by the social issues studied, said Carla Shedd, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University whose research on Chicago’s neighborhoods and public high schools formed the basis of her 2015 book, Unequal City: Race, Schools and Perceptions of Injustice.

“Our policies are often implemented without any insight from those most affected by them,” Shedd said. “Ethnography can help us think about the consequences of these high-level policies as they’re experienced and felt on the ground. It’s these young people in schools who have had the greatest insight into what is working and what is not working.”