Longitudinal ethnography and the changing face of ethnographic research

by Katherine Sobering

DennisRodgersAt a well-attended talk sponsored by the Urban Ethnography Lab, Dennis Rodgers, a professor of Urban Social and Political Research at the University of Glasgow discussed his paper, “From ‘broder’ to ‘don’: Methodological reflections on longitudinal gang research in Nicaragua, 1996-2014.”

Over lunch, Professor Rodgers reflected on the academic career that began with his dissertation research in Nicaragua in the 1990s. Since this initial period of research, Professor Rodgers has returned to the specific barrio of his dissertation fieldwork seven times. And he plans to continue going back.

As his dissertation evolved into a long-term research project, Professor Rodgers conceived of it as longitudinal ethnography. By this, he refers to immersive ethnographic fieldwork conducted diachronically over an extended period of time, or through appropriately timed revisits (Burawoy 2003; Firth 1959).

But what are the implications of such on-going ethnographic research? How can we make sense of ethnographic “revisits”? And what are some of the pitfalls that may result?

Certainly one of the greatest benefits of ethnographic research is to observe dynamic social processes as they occur over time. As Professor Rodgers pointed out, he has more or less witnessed a cycle of cultural transformation through the institutional evolution of a gang in Nicaragua.

Yet the specific challenges that arise from such an endeavor are many. First, the notion of “the field” as a spatially and temporally bounded location is increasingly misleading. Professor Rodgers (and many of the event’s attendees) stay in regular contact with individuals in “the field”. Social media further complicates this artificial division.

Over the course of a lively discussion informed by many different experiences conducting ethnographic research, we critically examined the idea of a “revisit.” If “the field” is no longer a bounded place, where do you go? To the original site of study? Or do you trace the network of people you once knew? Or follow a particular trend or social phenomena?

Moreover, “the field”—may it be sites, people, or networks—changes over time. But this is not unidirectional. As ethnographers, we also change. We age. We read more. We go through life changes that may provide different perspectives on the same event. And all of this affects how we do ethnography.

Professor Rodgers clearly describes such changes in his own career. Almost ten years ago, he conducted mostly participant observation in the barrio, and was even inducted into the gang he studied (Rodgers 2007).

Today, he is treated as a respected elder (a “don”). His methodological tools increasingly rely on interviews and informal conversations with long-term informants.

The form and function of ethnographic research is changing. In his paper, Professor Rodgers understands his return visits as “serendipitous time lapse(s).” Yet it seems to me that these ethnographic revisits are institutionally structured by his academic career trajectory as well as access to funding.

Structural changes in both funding and time-to-degree requirements affect the way ethnographic research is produced. For many graduate students, multiple periods of “pre-dissertation” fieldwork pave the way for a prolonged period of dissertation-worthy immersion

Examples abound in our department alone. Marcos Pérez conducted three summers of ethnographic research with piquetero groups in Argentina before returning for a year of dissertation fieldwork. Katie Jensen has studied asylum seekers in Brazil for three summers, and is now preparing for an extended period of dissertation research. And I conducted my first period of fieldwork in Argentine worker-recovered businesses as an undergraduate in 2008, having since spent a total of nine months in the field prior to my dissertation research.

Professor Rodgers did well to remind us: “Research is by its very nature imperfect and limited, and this not only in terms of ‘’the data’, but also ‘the method’, ‘the researcher’, and ‘the context’”. Indeed, grappling with the notion of longitudinal ethnography spurred many of us to think critically about how the pattern of our fieldwork shapes what data we collect, the topics we analyze and ultimately how we interpret our findings.


Burawoy, M., (2003), “Revisits: An outline of a theory of reflexive ethnography”, American Sociological Review, 68(5): 645-79.

Firth, R., (1959), Social Change in Tikopia: Re-study of a Polynesian Community after a Generation, London: George Allen & Unwin.

Rodgers, D., (2007), “Joining the gang and becoming a broder: The violence of ethnography in contemporary Nicaragua”, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27(4): 444-61.

Rodgers, D., (Forthcoming), “From ‘broder’ to ‘don’: Methodological reflections on longitudinal gang research in Nicaragua, 1996-2014.”

PHS Panel: Michael Young, Néstor Rodríguez, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson on Transitioning Methods

by Luis Romero

One of the most important things graduate students can do while in grad school is to take as many methodology courses as possible. This advice is given to us by our mentors, faculty and older graduate students. Yet no matter how many methods classes you take, it is impossible to master every method – getting one down is difficult enough. While mastering one method lasts some researchers their entire academic lives’, others venture into different types of questions and units of analyses that warrant the use of new methods. What happens, though, when you are out of graduate school and want to change methods? How do you go about this change? Navigating the different assumptions, techniques of data collection and analysis of a new method can be overwhelming. However, it is something that can and has been done. Professors Michael Young, Néstor Rodríguez and Sheldon Ekland-Olson joined the Power, History, and Society Network (PHS) to describe how they transitioned into new methods. Each provides a piece of the puzzle to better understand how sociologists can change methods, even without prior graduate training.

Dr. Michael Young: Keeping Books on the Nightstand

MYoungOf the three panelists, Michael is the most recent to transition to a new method for a project he is currently working on. His training in graduate school was oriented toward the study of old social movements using historical sociology. Specifically, he was trained to map the trajectories of different movements to get at the causal sequence of events (e.g. how the morality and religious schemas of the evangelicals helped to mobilize them during the antebellum era). Michael has recently shifted to studying the DREAMers – a group of immigrant rights’ activists who are concerned with helping undocumented immigrants that were brought to the U.S. as children and attended school in the U.S. However, because the DREAMers and their activities are an ongoing phenomenon, Michael understood that he could not rely solely on his training in historical methods to study this group. Instead, he decided to learn about ethnographic and interviewing methods. This posed a problem for Michael, since studying an active movement followed a different logic than studying something that already had an outcome (and analyzing how and why that outcome came to be). To resolve this dilemma, Michael turned to Professors Javier Auyero and Harel Shapira and asked them both to give him a list of their favorite ethnographies. Once he obtained these lists, Michael read and studied the exemplars of ethnography, keeping these books on his nightstand for easy access so he could read them nightly. Reading these exemplary works, coupled with his interactions with the DREAMers has helped Michael transition from historical sociology to ethnography and given him new insights into the complexity of this new social movement.

Dr. Néstor Rodríguez: An Important Key Lies in Co-authorship

pix_RodriguezNéstor Rodriguez’s transition between methods took a slightly different trajectory than Michael Young’s. Michael’s was a constant transition between historical work, interviews and surveys. Nestor’s graduate work was focused on tracing the trajectory of migration in relation to capitalist growth, combining historical methods with theory building. In his post doctoral research, Néstor began studying Mayans from the Guatemalan Highlands who were migrating to Houston, Texas. It was during this project that Nestor began to incorporate fieldwork into his research. Later on, Néstor also began to use more quantitative methods – surveys and data sets- in order to study deportations. In the past year alone, he has published two articles on El Salvador using surveys, a book (coming in January 2015) that incorporates fieldwork from Guatemala and is a return to his first love of historical sociology.  When asked how he was able to incorporate so many different methods, Néstor stated that an important key could be found in co-authorship. Co-authoring with other researchers that are more adept at various methods allows for the successful incorporation of those methods.  Similar to Michael’s approach, Néstor also recommended that students considering a transition to new methods should read widely in sociology.  That will allow them to become familiar with different sociological methods and their implicit logic.

Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson: Delve into Different Projects

Sheldon Ekland-OlsonSheldon Ekland-Olson has done research using various methods throughout his career. His earliest work was heavily quantitative and was among the first to incorporate dummy variables into the research. This was largely influenced by his math background and because he came into graduate school as a student of methods. Sheldon’s first shift occurred during his time in law school, as he finished his dissertation. During his research, he became involved in learning about the rights of those who were institutionalized, which led him to spending time in prisons. It was through this experience that Sheldon began studying Texas Prison Reform, using quantitative methods along with qualitative methods to learn about the lived experiences of the prison inmates. His most recent work on life and death decisions uses historical methods to study the boundaries of social worth when people are faced with different issues such as: abortion, neonatal care, assisted dying and capital punishment. For Sheldon, switching methods was something that was necessitated because he believes that you should let your problem determine the method that you use.  Sheldon’s advice is derived from his own experience: you should delve into different projects and learn new methods by striving to answer different questions.

A Few Warnings about Transitioning Methods from the Panelists

  • While everyone on the panel transitioned after graduate school, picking up a new method is more difficult – “the brain gets old and slow.”
  • Your old training in a method can sometimes be “like a straight jacket” to your new method – it could hinder you since you may be imposing the assumptions of your old training into your new method.
  • Because learning a new method can be difficult and there is a demand on publishing, transitioning methods could undermine your rate of productivity.
  • There may be pressure to stick to the method that has made you known in a field – your colleagues in a field can get caught up in their own methods and may be resistant to your change.
  • On a related point, while multiple methods are seen as a positive, there may be a high cost if you switch methods at any point of your career.
  • However, some subfields are methodologically eclectic, which means there could be opportunities to switch. If you are thinking of switching at any point, be sure to weigh the consequences.