Cite as:

Fortun, Kim 2019. experimental Ethnographic Methods. Syllabus and digital workspace. Irvine, California: Center for Ethnography. 


The course extends from long-running  effort, experimental in tenor, to integrate new technologies and media into the work of Writing Culture.   Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s stunning work with photography – as both a research tool and means of conveying their analysis -- is one point of reference.    The history of filmmaking in the conduct and expression of cultural analysis has also been important, generating methodological questioning and innovation, and a body of work that literally provides multiple angles on matters of concern.  Newly available digital research tools, work spaces and modes of presentation offer opportunities to continue work in this vein.  Our digital work space for the course will be an instance of the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography hosted by the Center for Ethnography.


Kim Fortun is a Professor and Department Chair in the University of California Irvine’s Department of Anthropology.  Her research and teaching focus on environmental risk and disaster, and on experimental ethnographic methods and research design.  Her research has examined how people in different geographic and organizational contexts understand environmental problems, uneven distributions of environmental health risks, developments in the environmental health sciences, and factors that contribute to disaster vulnerability.  Fortun’s book Advocacy After Bhopal Environmentalism, Disaster, New World Orders was awarded the 2003 Sharon Stephens Prize by the American Ethnological Society.  From 2005-2010, Fortun co-edited the Journal of Cultural Anthropology. Currently, Fortun is working on a book titled Late IndustrialismMaking Environmental Sense, on The Asthma Files, a collaborative project to understand how air pollution and environmental public health are dealt with in different contexts, and on design of the Platform for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), an open source/access digital platform for anthropological and historical research.  Fortun also runs the EcoEd Research Group, which turns ethnographic findings about environmental problems into curriculum for students (kindergarten through professional), and is helping organize both the Disaster-STS Research Network, and the Digital Practices in History and Ethnography Interest Group in the Research Data Alliance.  Fortun co-edits a book series for University of Pennsylvania Press titled Critical Studies in Risk and Disaster, designed to connect academic research to public problems and policy, reaching audiences in different regions of the world.  September 2017 through August 2019, Fortun serves as President of the Society for Social Studies of Science, the international scholarly society representing the field of Science and Technology Studies.


This course is a theoretically animated, hands-on exploration of experimental ethnography -- as an ethos, practice, and mode of expression.  Lectures will set students up to move through a series of “sketches” through which they work out different ways of setting up ethnographic projects, collecting, analyzing and interpreting data, and moving from ethnography to theory and back.  Students will also learn about technical tools that support ethnographic research, enabling collaboration among ethnographers and with researchers in other fields. The course will help students think about the tactics, promise and limits of ethnographic research, and about different ways ethnography can be designed and carried out.  

The course will tune ethnography to “late industrialism,” drawing out increasingly intense interaction across scales (local to planetary) and systems (eco-atmospheric, technoscientific, sociocultural, political, economic, discursive and educational).  These interactions produce new vulnerabilities and injustices, and call for new forms of expertise and governance. They also call for inventive, collaborative ethnography, new data practices and infrastructure, and critical engagements with the promise and politics of open science.


Students in the course are encouraged to build a sketchbook within which they can puzzle through an ethographic project, preserving documentation of the ways the project shifts and evolves.  The sketchbook can be downloaded or copied here.  Note that sketch templates are sometimes updated and new sketches are added. 

Ethnographic Research Data Management

This course provides opportunitie to learn about digital data management, exploring ways new technologies can animate ethnography.  One assignment is to build digital workspace for your research, including a public facing and accessible presentation of your research program and restricted space where you can share material with close collaborators.  The goal of this assignment is to give you a sense of the creative possibilities of digital data management and curation. Going forward with your research, you can continue to work in the digital space you build or move on to a different system, having learned more about your particular needs, work flows, aesthetics, etc. 

You’ll build your digital workspace on the Center for Ethnography’s instance of the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), leveraging PECE's functionality supporting archiving, collaborative analysis and experimental forms of scholarly communication.  PECE is at its best supporting collaborative and comparative analysis. This assignment will share how you can leverage this to work with peers and your dissertation committee.  

In doing this assignment, you’ll 1) practice digital data management 2) practice preparing for peer feedback in the midst of research (rather than only at the end of a project, as usually happens) 3) practice configuring your data for reuse by other researchers 4) practice preparing research data for sharing within your publications (linking to source data, with framing that contextualization) 5) practice working with open source software and a noncommercial repository for managing your research data.  All of these are increasingly recognized as part of good research practice.

For more details, see PECE Data Management Assignment