Knoblauch, H. 2005. “Focused Ethnography.”

Knoblauch, Hubert. 2005. “Focused Ethnography.” Qualitative Social Research 6(3): 1-11.

Focused ethnography as often, but not exclusively, adopted in applied research. Not oppositional to conventional ethnography, but works to complement conventional ethnography in “socially and functionally differentiated contemporary society” (1) – that is, specialized and pluralized societies. Characterized by short-term field visits (part-time, versus permanent), data intensity (due to not having a lot of conventional experience in field, more data is collected and examined under a short amount of time), time intensity.  “Writing is increasingly complemented by recording, solidary data collection by collective data collection and subsequent data analysis in collective data sessions.  Instead of social groups or fields, studies focus on communicative activities, experiences by communication” (2). Not an all-encompassing approach, nor is it to be “quick and dirty” research method.  NOT a cure-all for qualitative research intensity – “[…] although data collection may be reduced to shorter visits, it demands a large amount of work in preparing and analysing data collected in the field” (2).

Kx^ as a thought lent to validity and credibility : Mentions postmodern debates about issues of ethnography – “The ‘crisis’ of representation challenges the claim of scientific observers to reproduce their observations within texts, and the ‘crisis’ of legitimation challenges the claim of scientific observers to free themselves from their ethnocentric backgrounds” (3, see note 3).

Anthropological and sociological ethnographies as different – where sociologists create ethnographies of their own societies.  “The problem of ethnocentricity presents itself in a different way if one encounters people in what is supposedly one’s own society.  Therefore, the problem of strangeness is less pertinent (or, to put it another way, “the other” is to be construed differently)” (3). Amman and Hirschauer (1997) purport that “bestrangement” is defining of ethnographic observation – primary task in this case is the bestrangement of the everyday and familiar === however, this is only one strategy of ethnography. “As opposed to ethnographers travelling to other cultures who begin with knowledge mediated by earlier studies, hearsay, etc., sociological ethnographers do have vast implicit and explicit background knowledge of any field they are studying” (3) – argues that sociologists can use this knowledge, despite lack of contextual knowledge, to navigate new situations  (kx^ is this true, though?  How does an inexperienced investor begin with an ethnography of Wall Street elite?) – supplemented by casting observed actors and situations as Othered.

Sociologists, instead, are faced with not Otherness, but alterity, as noted by Knoblauch and Schnettler (2004) – where Alter ego can share knowledge with self, but works to identify difference in action, person, situation, and fields. Alterity permits sociological ethnographer to take natives’ point of view, as labeled by Malinowski (1948).

Focused ethnography can be compounded with other contemporary ethnographic methods, such as the multi-sited ethnography (Nadai and Maeder 2005) or the go-along (Kusenbach 2003).

Table 1: Comparison between conventional and focused ethnography

Conventional ethnography vs.  Focused ethnography

long-term field visits vs. short-term field visits

experientially intensive vs. data/analysis intensity

time extensity vs. time intensity

writing vs. recording

solitary data collection and analysis vs. data session groups

open vs. focused

social fields vs. communicative activities

participant role vs. field- observer role

insider knowledge vs. background knowledge

subjective understanding vs. conservation

notes vs.  notes and transcripts

coding vs. coding and sequential analysis

“As opposed to this kind [time extensive] of experience-based ethnography, focused ethnographies are short-ranged and not continual. Fields are visited in various intervals (they may even exist only in certain intervals, such as ‘events’)” (7).

“The analysis of data may be said to be utterly time-intensive since it focuses on a massive amount of data collected in a short time in contrast to field notes which cover long durations” (7) – through use of recorder, cameras, written notes, video.  Usually based more so off of interviews and conversation analysis rather than interpretation of field notes – may integrate more than one researcher and their interpretations of data as well.  Breaks down a field of observation, and examines a few particular aspects about it. Classical ethnographies examine actors, groups, institutions and events, where focused ethnographies “are more concerned with actions, interactions, and social situations” (9) – promotes Meadian and Goffmanian theoretical understandings.

Goodwin (2000, pg 1508): “Rather than wandering onto fieldsites as disinterested observers, attempting the impossible task of trying to catalog everything in the setting, we can use the visible orientation of the participants as a spotlight to show us just those features of the context that we have come to terms with if were are to adequately describe the organisation of their action”.

Greater intersubjectivity offered by multiple reviewers, multiple devices of collection, multiple outlets of recording “does not mean that recorded data are more objective; it does, however, allow for outsiders to access the data which are less dependent on subjective perspectives than are field notes” (10) – promotes emic perspective without meddling in too unrelated contextualizations, adds focus to analysis.

However – focused ethnographies must be performed only when previous observations have been held to contextualize and direct focus.

“The more diverse and short-term the fields and activities to be observed become, the more flexible, short-term and focused should be the instruments of our research” (11) – offers a more empirical, grounded approach to data.


Amann, Klaus & Hirschauer, Stefan (1997). Die Befremdung der eigenen Kultur. Ein Programm. In Klaus Amann & Stefan Hirschauer (Eds.), Die Befremdung der eigenen Kultur (pp.7-52). Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Goodwin, Charles (2000). Action and Embodiment within Situated Human Interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, 32, 1489-1522.

Knoblauch, Hubert & Schnettler, Bernt (2004). “Postsozialität”, Alterität und Alienetät. In Michael Schetsche (Ed.), Der maximal Fremde. Begegnungen mit dem Nichtmenschlichen und die Grenzen des Verstehens (pp.23-42). Würzburg: Ergon.

Kusenbach, Margarethe (2003). Street Phenomenology. The Go-Along as Ethnographic Research Tool. Ethnography, 4, 455-485.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1948). Magic, Science and Religion. And Other Essays. New York: Free Press.

Nadai, Eva & Maeder, Christoph (2005, September). Fuzzy Fields. Multi-Sited Ethnography in

Sociological Research [24 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative

Social Research [On-line Journal], 6(3), Art. 28. Available at:


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