A Note on ethnographical methodology

The two essays by Burawoy (1991) and Lichterman (2002) shed light on a puzzle I long have: how on earth do qualitative researchers generate theory from their data? Burawoy and Lichterman both answer this methodological questions with a binding of grounded theory (coined by Glaser and Strauss) and extended case method. Researchers using the former method will engage in constant comparison to build generalizable new theory, while those using the second will examine anomaly cases to restructure existing theory.

According to Burawoy, grounded theory and extended case method are two suitable methodological responses to two criticism of participate observation. Namely, that participate observation face both the problem of generalisation and macro-micro link, because of it focus on particular cases and micro interactions. Before justify the two methods mentioned above, Burawoy first disputes another two responses to these criticisms, ethnomethodology and interpretive case method. These two both deny the criticism by nature. Ethnomethodology says macro structures do not exist beyond a hodgepodge of socially constructed understandings of micro level interactions. Thus, generalisation is unnecessary, because there is no “objective” reality shared by all members of human society. Macro-micro link is also unnecessary because of the same reason. Interpretive case method, on the contrary, says that micro world is nothing but the hermeneutic interpretation of the macro. Thus, there is no need for generalisation or build micro-macro link because the micro is by itself already part of the coherent macro. An example is Geerz’s classical study of cockfight in Baliese, in which he claims Baliese men who engage in cockfight are reading and living Baliese culture out.

So how do extended case method and grounded theory answer the two criticisms differently? According to Burawoy it is by comparison. Grounded theory constantly compare particular cases to other particular cases, code concepts and categories that emerge from field notes, and ardently pursue generalizable theories. Note here it represses the specificity of cases, and look for similarities between them. It differs from ethnomethodology in the sense that the former use discourse as resources for generalisation, while the latter grant merit to interpret the discourse itself.

Extended case method compare cases to existing generable theories. It look for abnormal cases that theory cannot explain, and reconceptualize existing theories to improve them. In other words, abnormal cases do not do any generalisation by themselves. The burden to justify such generalisation lay in existing theories.

Litcherman agrees on most of Burawoy’s point and only parts when he mentions extended case method and grounded theory both bear merits and can be used together. The ideal working routine, accoridng to Burawoy as cited in Litcherman, is to

  1. Go into the field with written expectations of what will happen in the field. If you already have theory, that’s better. Just take it with you.
  2. Take field notes industrially from the beginning on.
  3. Start compare field notes to expectations (theory) immediately after the first field session.
  4. Reconceptualize the concepts – here is extended case method working.
  5. Compare the first field notes also with later notes to see if new concepts emerges – here is grounded theory working.

Cheris also mentioned a mix of both methods during her class. Basically, I would say the most important here is comparison. Comparison solves both the problem of generalisation by seeing common variables in particular cases, and the problem of micro-macro by shifting the burden to existing theories. Considering my own research, I should first of all find an empirical puzzle, then find theories to explain it as well as see if I can construct new concepts from my field data. But honestly, the biggest problem I have for now, is that I do not have a puzzle.


  • Burawoy 1991, The extended case method, in Ethnography Unbound. University of California Press.
    (Might also be similar to Burawoy 1998 – I haven’t read this paper but here is a link for future reference – http://burawoy.berkeley.edu/Methodology/ECM.ST.pdf)
  • Litcherman 2002, Seeing structure happen, Methods of social movement research. University of Minnesota Press.
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