Ethnography and Participant Observation: Political Science Research in this “Late Methodological Moment”
by Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, University of Utah and Samantha Majic, John Jay College-City University of New York
This symposium celebrates the contributions of ethnography and participant observation to political science research. Together the essays illustrate the distinctive strengths of ethnography and participant observation as methods that bring researchers close to the people, events, and institutions that the discipline seeks to understand, and they show how—specifically—these methods contribute to political science knowledge across subfields. We present this symposium at a moment when field experiments and so-called big data analysis are the newest enthusiasms that may well deserve space in graduate curricula and scholarly journals. These methods, however, enact a methodological distance from human actors that contrasts strikingly with ethnography and participant observation. And so, as new generations of scholars employ these latter methods, we argue that it is vital that they continue to be part of the growing methodological pluralism in the discipline. Yet trends within higher education and developments in political science may potentially undermine the legitimacy and practice of participant observation and ethnographic research and, consequently, deter political scientists from conducting and publishing this work as well. But before turning to those challenges, we discuss first the definitions and origins of ethnography and participant observation.