Ethnography in social work practice and policy

Wendy Haight, Misa Kayama, Rose Korang-Okrah

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Ethnography affords social workers a powerful and unique vehicle for obtaining an in-depth, contextualized understanding of clients' perspectives and experiences necessary for effective social work practice and advocacy. It also carries relatively unique risks. Unlike other forms of social inquiry such as surveys, interviews and analysis of administrative databases, a hallmark of ethnographic research is sustained engagement in participants' lives. Unlike ethnographic inquiry in other disciplines, for example, in developmental psychology or anthropology, social work research has a strong social justice component. Hence, participants in social work ethnographies often are from vulnerable, marginalized or stigmatized groups and may have little exposure to research. We use several studies conducted in the US and globally as illustrative cases of both the opportunities and challenges of ethnography in social work. The first case highlights the understanding gained through ethnographic inquiry necessary for designing culturally-sensitive interventions, as well as the risks these in-depth, engaged methods may pose to traumatized and marginalized participants. The second case illustrates the valuable interplay of insider and outsider perspectives in ethnography for international social work, as well as the challenges of communicating with participants, many of whom have significant unmet needs about complex and unfamiliar role boundaries. The third case illustrates the importance to social work practice of cross-cultural conversations, as well as the ethical challenges of entering into the lives of stigmatized individuals. Strategies for maximizing the opportunities and minimizing the risks of ethnography in social work research are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)127-143
Number of pages17
JournalQualitative Social Work
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • Cross-cultural conversations
  • culturally-sensitive interventions
  • ethnography in social work
  • insider/outsider perspectives
  • stigma


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