Problem-Solving Ethnography

Problem-Solving Ethnography Workshop

Problem-Solving Ethnography is a new forum for ethnographically based paper drafts that treat social problem solving or the social contexts that condition potential solutions. 

We invite ethnographic papers that explore in depth how actors construct or organize collectively around social problems, or how social contexts shape the effects of policies, projects or campaigns intended to ameliorate problems. We welcome papers employing a mix of evidence as long as the ethnographic component is substantial. We aim to support authors in generating convincing, research-based papers that move scholarly and/or practitioner or public audiences. 

As one feature of our discussions among others, we will draw out a paper’s takeaways for practical efforts to address problems for broad constituencies. 

If you are interested in presenting your work, please click the below button to sign up. Also, if you have more questions, please contact Paul Lichterman (lichterm@usc.edu) or Ji-won Lee (jlee28@albany.edu).

Why a Problem-Solving Ethnography?

Ethnographic research is distinctive for its focus on meaningful, everyday action. Suppose we understand that action from a pragmatist point of view. We assume, then, that people are more like tentative experimenters than actors backloaded with stable goals or preferences that continuously drive what they do. That does not mean action is endlessly open-ended or never predictable, but that lines of collective or individual action unfold in relation to yet other lines of action, toward “ends in view” that may evolve--often within limits--but that occasionally transform too. Action over time is a varying mix of habit, instrumental planning and critical reflection. Given these groundings, ethnographers interested in social problem solving can pursue two broad sets of questions less accessible by other modes of research:


First, ethnographic researchers can inquire deeply into the process of social problem solving itself. Rather than assume pre-existing problems, ethnographers discover how and why actors construct social problems as they do. Rather than assume that solutions or improvements will be self-evident successes, ethnographers find that problem solving actors carry different understandings of success and measure success on different, sometimes shifting timelines. Actors promote some definitions of success while dropping others, and scorning, assiduously avoiding or never considering yet others. In all, ethnographers can apprehend how collective or institutional actors pursue social problem solving, from crafting problems to assessing solutions and discovering previously unanticipated problems to solve. The “how,” the process, inevitably shapes the kinds of solutions and their effectiveness for the immediately aggrieved and wider publics too.


Second, ethnographic research opens the study of problem-solving successes or failures to sensitive comparisons that reveal how policies, programs or campaigns satisfy some constituencies, not others. Given our postulates above, we cannot predict in advance exactly how a given solution will play out. But ethnographers can discover the conditions of possibility, the contexts, for the varying success of goals and policies promoted by problem solvers--be they policymakers, professional bodies, social movements, NGOs or other civic organizations. Ethnographic research also enjoys privileged access to the sometimes perplexing meanings and unintended consequences of problem solvers’ programs--the new problems and the heretofore unrecognized opportunities.


Background reading 

Cefaï,  Daniel and Édouard Gardella. 2011. L’urgence sociale en action: Ethnologie du Samusocial de Paris. Paris: Éditions La Découverte. 

Dewey, John. 1922. Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 

                          . 1939. Theory of Valuation. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 

                          . 1958[1925]. Experience and Nature, 2nd ed. New York: Dover. 

Eliasoph, Nina. 2011. Making Volunteers. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press. 

Haney, Lynne. 2010. Offending Women. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. 

Levine, Jeremy. 2021. Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development and Inequality in Boston. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Lichterman, Paul. 2021a. “‘Qualitative Research Is a Moving Target.” Qualitative Sociology 44(4):583-590.

                                    . 2021b. How Civic Action Works: Fighting for Housing in Los Angeles. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Prasad, Monica. 2021. Problem-Solving Sociology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Upcoming Events

More to Come Soon!

Past Events

[2] Monday, December 4, 2023 at 10:00–11:30 am (Pacific) / 1:00-2:30 pm (Eastern)

Problem-Solving Ethnography Workshop with Shang Liu, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, Univ. of Southern California (Zoom Link)

"Schools of Civic Subordination: Independent, Participation-oriented NGOs training the Chinese State’s Good Students"

What kinds of state-citizen relationships can NGOs build through civic engagement projects in an authoritarian context? Using evidence from participant observations in two independent Chinese NGOs’ environmental civic projects that aim to engage a wide range of ordinary citizens, this article finds that civic engagement is practiced as training citizens’ knowledge about and subordination of the powerful authoritarian state. The two civic participation models/styles are summarized as “dedicated state adjunct,” which transforms citizens to be passionate assistants to the state’s needs; or “contradictory state critic,” which encourages citizens to be skeptical of the state while keeps them from confronting the state. These two models correlate with two different NGO professionals’ divergent ways of imagining the Chinese state and society in their everyday work. And through a self-censorship process featured by the selection of ideal citizen participants and appropriate project activities, both models of civic engagement unintentionally become defenders of the political status quo and extensions of the state’s authority. 


[1] Monday, October 23, 2023 at 10:00–11:30 am (Pacific) / 1:00-2:30 pm (Eastern)

Problem-Solving Ethnography Workshop with Arnab Chakraborty, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, Univ. of Southern California (Zoom Link)

"Constructing Dignified Selves at Work and the Implications for Worker Organizing"

Activists and scholars have often argued that workplace dignity matters a lot for worker organizing. Yet it is still unclear why dignity is so vital to worker organizing, and how it relates to workplace conditions that generate negative experiences. Ethnographic evidence from organizing efforts among rideshare workers and restaurant workers in Los Angeles suggests that workers actively construct their dignified worker selves. (In)dignity is neither inherent in workplaces, nor do workers always see negative workplace experiences as threats to dignity. Rather, during the interaction in organizing campaigns, workers use legal knowledge, notions of occupational craft, and personal ideas of justice to reflect on workplace experience, in an ongoing process of self-building at work.