Fieldwork in Criminology

III. Ethnography

The anthropological creed that embodied fieldwork at the time (i.e., the traditional/classical period for ethnography as defined by Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) cast ethnography as research to be done in foreign lands by a lone ethnographer, primarily men, and whose objective was to study exotic cultures, languages, customs, beliefs, and behaviors of “natives.” It was through the systematic collection of observations, interviews, and cultural artifacts that the lone ethnographer would hope to come to understand and explain these bounded cultural systems and ascribed meanings therein while remaining detached, both physically and emotionally, from both the setting and the individuals studied. The admonishment of not “going native,” which was typical for ethnographers of this time period, was instituted to preserve anthropology’s tacit commitment to objectivism and its parochial stance concerning one’s role in the field. However, Chicago School researchers rejected the degree of formalism promoted by anthropological ethnography and sought to implement a form of fieldwork, street ethnography, that encapsulated the social–cultural milieu of Chicago neighborhoods and its residents. A careful reading of some of these earlier works reveals vestiges of interpretive ethnography (Geertz, 1973).

Through a serial combination of life history and case study approaches, from techniques characteristic of the voluminous studies published by members of the first Chicago School to the more germane ethnographies of the second Chicago School (roughly from the mid-1950s through the 1970s), urban ethnography became theoretically eclectic, contextually driven, and analytically sophisticated. Specifically, studies conducted by members of the second Chicago School, including Gary A. Fine, Howard S. Becker, Everett Hughes, Herbert Blumer, William F. Whyte, Erving Goffman, and Anselm Strauss, made significant advancements in terms of theoretical and methodological frameworks. For instance, innovative ways of thinking about qualitative research and edgier attitudes, if you will, concerning fieldwork were promulgated by inter- and transdisciplinary developments in phenonmenology, critical theory, symbolic interactionism, narrative inquiry, ethnomethodology, feminism, focus group research, standpoint epistemology, intersectional theory, interpretive ethnography, naturalism, social action theory, dramaturgical analysis, grounded theory, case study, hermeneutics, and biographical research.

As a result, the intellectual ingenuity and methodological rigor that coalesced during this transformative time for qualitative research in general and for ethnographic (field) research in particular, transfixed American street ethnography for generations of scholars. Moreover, street (urban) ethnography (i.e., fieldwork) throughout American cities was no longer about maintaining relational distance between researcher and researched; the caricature of the classical lone ethnographer was forgotten, and observing social life and interviewing its participants became more of dyadic process.