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Fieldwork : Issues and Challenges


4-6 November 2021

Lang EN/FR

Elisa Volpi, CUSO


Dr Lea Sgier, UNIGE 

Dr Branwen Spector, LSE

With the participation of : Dr Izzy Gibbin (Social Life, London) and Inés Bolaños Somoano (EUI)



Despite the mostly quantitative orientation of mainstream political science, qualitative research involving some form of fieldwork has a long tradition in our discipline too. Training opportunities for political scientists doing qualitative fieldwork are few and far between though. This workshop aims to fill this gap by offering three days of training for anyone actively engaged in, or simply interested by political science research relying on qualitative data collection involving a direct contact to the "field", be it in the form of observational methods (participant or non participant observation) or of conversational methods (interviewing, focus groups etc.).

Underlying the structure of this workshop is the argument that qualitative political scientists have much to learn from ethnographic practice and reflection. Indeed, ethnographers' and anthropologists' deep and immersive field experiences routinely confront them with all the challenges that appear – less acutely generally – also in other forms of fieldwork. During this workshop, we want to bring key insights of traditional ethnography to political science and discuss how "going ethnographic" – in practice or in spirit - can enrich, inspire, facilitate or improve political science (field) research. 

Over the three days, we will cover all the central aspects of qualitative fieldwork: access; relations and roles in the field; data collection, management and analysis; ethical issues; ethical decision making; and matters of health and well-being while on fieldwork. We discuss these aspects from three angles: traditional ethnography; qualitative interviewing; and observational practices beyond "traditional" fieldwork (namely digital fieldwork, small-scale ethnography, etc.). More specifically, the structure of the workshop is the following: 

Day 1 (Thursday) will explore the practical challenges of in-person fieldwork including as they are discussed in the ethnographic literature: negotiating access to the field; establishing relationships and managing power dynamics in the field; the practical aspects of fieldwork (recording, note-taking, data management); institutional fieldwork; gendered (and other) identities in fieldwork; and the ethics (and ethical grey zones) of fieldwork. As we will show, these issues are relevant not only for people doing actual ethnographic fieldwork, but for anyone intending to do any form of qualitative data collection on the ground, in particular also researchers doing interviews. 

Day 2 (Friday) focuses mostly on qualitative interviewing as a key method of political science fieldwork. Among the topics to be covered are the following: how "thinking ethnographically" helps improve topic guides and facilitate relations with interviewees, and how it can help us foresee (and deal with) "difficult" respondents or situations; how ethnographic practices can help finding answers to practical problems (such as when respondents refuse to be recorded, grant us less time than we need, or are uncooperative). Particular attention will be paid to interviewing and fieldwork in institutional settings (with the participation of Inés Bolaños Somoano, EUI). 

Day 3 (Saturday) finally will enlarge our perspective on "traditional" fieldwork by expanding the discussion in different directions: the potential and limitations of digital fieldwork (beyond the current Corona crisis), adaptation of ethnographic practices to political science research (in particular in the form of short-term participant observation). On day 3 we will also discuss the important issue of mental health and safety during fieldwork (with the participation of Dr Izzy Gibbins (Social Life, London). Finally we will also reserve space for participants to speak about their work in greater details and discuss their specific concerns in the light of what we will have seen during the workshop.

The whole workshop will be interactive in nature: participants are welcome to bring up their own concerns and experiences throughout the three days. Various activities will structure the three days: short input lectures by the main instructors or by invited guests who will join us via Zoom; practical exercises; and opportunities for participants to discuss their own research; discussions of readings. 


Université de Genève



This workshop targets mainly two types of participants:

· Participants engaged in, or preparing for qualitative fieldwork (small- or large-scale ethnography, qualitative interviewing, shadowing, etc.) and who want to improve their fieldwork skills, raise their awareness with regards to the challenges ahead, and generally feel more confident in their endeavour. 

· Participants more generally interested in or inspired by qualitative research who are willing to engage in three days of reflection, exercises and discussions on research both from a practical and a theoretical angle.



The workshop welcomes participants from disciplines other than political science. 



The workshop will be taught mainly in English. However, participants are free to express themselves in French (or German) if they wish. Interview exercises can also be carried out in languages other than English if the participants are more comfortable. 


Preparatory work

The registered participants will be given access to a set of preparatory readings ahead of the workshop. They should please read the "required" readings and (if they have some time) pick two of the additional readings. 

Each participant should please send the instructors an e-mail with some details about 

a) their own research (topic, stage of advancement etc.), 

b) their motivation to join the workshop 

c) their main current concerns and questions that they hope to elucidate during the workshop. 


It would be great if this mail could reach us by Wed 27 October (preferably in English; but French is okay too), please send to: Lea.Sgier(at)unige(dot)ch and B.Spector(at)


Finally, we invite the participants to prepare a 10 minute (informal) oral presentation about their work (you do not need to have slides, it is just about structuring your thoughts in such a way that you can convey the essence of your work synthetically to other participants).



Preparatory readings (provisional)

Avanza, Martina (2008). « Comment faire de l'ethnographie lorsqu'on n'aime pas 'ses indigènes' ? Une enquête au sein d'un mouvement xénophobe », in Fassin, Didier et Bensa, Alban (eds). Les politiques de l'enquête. Epreuves ethnographiques. Paris : La Découverte, pp. 41-58.

Clark, Tom (2008). " 'We're over-researched here!' Exploring accounts of research fatigue within qualitative research engagements". Sociology Volume 42(5): 953–970. 

Lilleker, Darren (2003). "Interviewing the Political Elite: Navigating a Political Minefield", Politics 23(3): 207-14. 

Hermanowicz, Joseph C. (2002). "The Great Interview: 25 Strategies for Studying People in Bed", Qualitative Sociology25(4): 479-499.

Ostrander, Susan A. (1993). "' Surely You're Not in This Just To Be Helpful' : Access, Rapport, and Interviews in Three Studies of Elites." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22: 7-27 (reprinted in in R. Hertz et J.B. Imber (eds), Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods, Sage).

Pahl, J.M. and Pahl, R.E. (1971). Managers and their WivesA Study of Career and Family Relationships in the Middle Class. Harmonsworth: Penguin (Appendix).

Wilkinson, Cai (2014). "Not just finding what you (thought you) were looking for : reflections on fieldwork data and theory", in Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Sea, Peregrine (eds). Interpretation and Method. Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn, 2nd edition. London/New York: Routledge, pp.387-405. 

Whyte, William Foote (1996[1943]. Street Corner Society. The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (Appendix; also available in French).



Recommended background references (to be completed)

Fassin, Dider et Bensa, Alban (eds) (2008). Les politiques de l'enquêteEpreuves ethnographiques. Paris: La Découverte. 

Mosley, Layna (ed.), Interview Research in Political Science. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press. 


Schatz, Edward (ed) (2009). Political Ethnography. What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.




Biographic notices

Branwen Spector holds a PhD in Anthropology from LSE. She has done 36 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the Occupied West Bank among Palestinian refugee and Israeli settler communities. She is the co-founder of The New Ethnographer, an on-line project launched in 2018 that dedicated to making fieldwork safer, healthier and more ethical for researchers around the world. She has co-taught a pre-field training workshop for doctoral students over two days at LSE in 2020. 

Lea Sgier is a political scientist with a focus on qualitative-interpretive methods. She has recently completed a research project on institutionalised elderly people's relation to politics and political participants in French speaking Switzerland (Leenaards Foundation 2017-20, with Barbara Lucas), involving 80+ interviews and small-scale participant observation. From 2010-17 she was a professor of qualitative methodology at Central European University (CEU). Lea teaches qualitative methods for a number of graduate programmes across the world (UK, HK, Canada, MethodsNet etc.). She currently presided the Ethics Committee of LISER (Luxemburg Institute for Social and Economic Research). 

Dr Izzy Gibbin works for Social Life, a specialist centre of research and innovation about the social life of communities in London. Izzy holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from UCL, and a qualified mental health support worker. They did ethnographic fieldwork with the Barbican Centre in London. They are also a qualified peer support worker and DBT group facilitator. They can be reached at

Inés Bolaños Somoano a PhD researcher at the Social and Political Sciences Department of the European University Institute. She examines the development of Radicalisation Prevention policies in the wider EU Counter-terrorism Strategy. Methodologically, Inés mixes traditional qualitative techniques (interviewing, participant observations) with quantitative textual analysis and software coding.



Délai d'inscription 28.10.2021
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