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Large Issues, Small Places: Theorizing Ethnographic Research


Course Description

This course introduces incoming master’s programme students of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology to the highest standards of empirical reasoning employed in the discipline, with a particular emphasis on the art of ethnographic research. It uses the Leiden programme’s typical emphasis on the cross-fertilization of anthropological and sociological perspectives, with no distinction between a ‘cultural’ and ‘developmental’ perspectives. We attempt to deconstruct ‘development’ by focusing on culture but hope to criticize the very notion of ‘culture’ by focusing on long-term and varied processes of development. However, this course is mostly meant as an introduction to the practice of ethnographic research, with its predominant focus on the writing of ethnography (and therefore the problematic nature of the term ‘culture’). There is a multimodal approach to ethnography, the philosophy of science behind the practice of research, the reading/viewing and judging of ethnography (in textual and multimodal forms), and some of the basic theoretical principles behind ethnographic methods and ethics, and the setting up of ethnographic objects and projects.

The course teaches the theory of ethnography as a process of forging and maintaining social relationships embedded in history. Those relationships are based on a triangle of researcher, researched, and audience, where each position can overlap with the others: this is in contrast to the late colonial image of a distanced dyad of expert researcher and ignorant researched. The course conceives of research relations (with changing positions between researcher and researched; researcher and audience; researched and audience) as a process of communicative exchanges mediated through multiple modalities (objects, texts, images, sounds) used by all sides of the triangle. The course’s approach therefore integrates media studies, material culture studies, and visual anthropology in its theory of ethnography. In the current situation, where face-to-face research relations have to be strongly complemented, and sometimes even replaced, by a wide variety of online communication through a variety of media, reflections on multimodal communication are even more pertinent.

The course provides a context in which each of the Master’s specialisations are in conversation with each other, and where students gain a working knowledge of the specialisations, Global Ethnography, Sociology of Policy in Practice, and Visual Ethnography.

Course objectives

Students who follow this course will develop:

  • a foundation in the philosophy of ethnography under globalisation

  • the academic skills of reasoning about large issues in relation to small-scale empirical data

  • the academic skills necessary to translate theoretical insights into concrete research data and vice versa

  • a rethinking of the basic uses of the concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘development’

  • skills in presenting the relevance and importance of an ethnographic project

  • Developing an understanding of the methodological implications (restrictions, possibilities and challenges) for sustaining rapport within the triangle of research relations in times when off-line communication may be more confined and on-line communication increases.


Please see the schedule.

Mode of instruction

Total: 10 ECTS = 280 study hours (sbu)

  • Lectures, twice a week

  • Group discussions

  • Study of literature

Assesment method

Written assignments.


Brightspace is the digital learning environment of Leiden University. The Brightspace module for this course will be available for registration by the end of August. Brightspace gives access to course announcements and electronic study material. Assignments will also be submitted in Brightspace. Brightspace informs about announcements and changes in a course. It is advised to check Brightspace on a daily base to remain informed about rooms, schedules, deadlines, and details regarding assignments. Lecturers assume that all students read information posted on Brightspace.

  • How to login
    The homepage for Brightspace is:
    Please log in with your ULCN-account and personal password. On the left you will see an overview of My Courses.
    To get access to your courses in Brightspace you need to be registered in uSis for these courses.

Reading list

Broken Ground online module:

Tsing, A.L. (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.

Chapters from:
Robben, A.C.G.M., and J.A. Sluka (eds.) (2007) Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader. Malden MA, Blackwell. (This book is also used for the three Research Design courses: ‘Research Design for Global Ethnography’, ‘Research Design for Policy in Practice’, and ‘Research Design for Visual Ethnography’).

An additional selection of relevant journal articles. These will be available for downloaded through the university library or via Brightspace (to be announced).


All participants must register in uSis for the lecture series of this course. (Registration for the exam is not required since there is no classical examination.)

Contact information

Dr. Sabine Luning Prof. dr. Marja Spierenburg Dr. Mark Westmoreland