Multi-Sited Ethnography


Multi-sited ethnography is a method of data collection that follows a topic or social problem through different field sites geographically and/or socially. While many methods can be used on their own, multi-sited ethnography typically requires use of additional methods, such as structured interviews or surveys.

Relevant Characteristics

George Marcus[1] proposed multi-sited ethnography as a way to examine global processes and the increasing interconnectedness of all people through the process of globalization. According to Marcus, multi-sited ethnography solves the need for a method to analytically explore transnational processes, groups of people in motion, and ideas that extend over multiple locations. Since multi-sited ethnography is concerned with movement of ideas, people, and commodities, it is heavily related to a world-systems theory. World-systems theory, influenced by Immanuel Wallerstein, views capitalism as a process without geographic boundaries, requiring a large-scale, or macro, understanding of how relationships between nations are influenced by capitalism and inequality. Marcus argues that multi-sited ethnography allows for a macro-level understanding of a topic, since it allows for a researcher to trace populations, ideas, and material objects through time and space. Commodities, for example, can be traced through macro level processes; a commodity may be produced in one place, shipped to another, used by one social group, discarded, and used again by another social group. Following the commodity and conducting multi-sited ethnography allows for various geographic locations and social networks to be examined.
Traditional ethnography typically situates a researcher in one field site for an extended period of time. The researcher does not move across many spaces but gets to know one setting extremely well. Differing from traditional ethnography, multi-sited ethnography follows a research topic across numerous spaces for shorter periods of time. The differences between traditional and multi-sited ethnography can be understood visually as following a topic across one space (vertically) or multiple spaces (horizontally).
Comparing Traditional and Multi-Sited Ethnography across Space

When conducting multi-sited ethnography, spaces can be geographic, social, or virtual, depending on what the researcher chooses to follow. Marcus writes that researchers can follow people, a “thing,” a metaphor, story, life/biography, or conflict. Following a “thing” is the most common type of multi-sited ethnography, and this involves tracing commodities, gifts, money, art, and intellectual property. When multi-sited ethnography focuses on following a metaphor, researchers trace signs, symbols, or symbolic meanings of a specific topic. Whatever a researcher chooses to follow will ultimately impact what spaces the researcher crosses. For example, if a researcher is following migrant laborers, a multi-sited ethnographic approach may involve following the migrants across geographic spaces as migrants move for work. If a researcher is interested in understanding social class dynamics of a hospital, he or she may move through different social spaces and interview people at the hospital who belong to different socioeconomic groups (e.g. maintenance workers, nurses, doctors, hospital administrators). Exploring virtual spaces may involve research that seeks to understand how technology is used cross-culturally, and may include following online chat room users. through different virtual spaces.

Multi-sited Ethnography Made Easy: Two Examples

Example 1: Tracing a Commodity

For a researcher interested in how a commodity, such as corn, for example, is involved in the global system, the researcher must explore how corn interacts with multiple people across numerous spaces. To consider this, it is often helpful for the researcher to create a set of guiding research questions that will help shape what sites the researcher chooses. For example, if corn is traded on a market, the researcher must examine policies behind the corn trade and all of the people involved in trading.

A set of guiding research questions may look like this:

Who determines corn is traded? Who produces the corn? Where does the corn go? What policies allow for the corn to be traded? How does it get to its destination? What are the interests of all the people involved in the corn trade? Who uses the corn after it is traded? What impact does corn trade have on the people importing corn? Does corn trade have any deeper meanings or symbolic significance? Does anyone benefit from the corn trade? Does anyone suffer?

In exploring answers to these questions and tracing a commodity, the researcher can build a rich description of how a commodity interacts with multiple people through multiple spaces in a global system. This process can also show how some people in positions of power impact people worldwide. In this example, policy makers deciding to trade corn ultimately impact the type of crop received in another part of the world. At some point the researcher will also have to use other methods of data collection. When interviewing policy makers, for example, the researcher may use a semi-structured interview guide or another method of collecting qualitative data.

Example 2: Comparing Answers to a Research Question

In addition to tracing a topic through multiple spaces, multi-sited ethnography is can also be useful when attempting to answer a question and understand multiple perspectives. With more than one site, a researcher can ask different groups of people a number of guiding research questions and compare/analyze the answers.

To do this type multi-sited ethnography, a researcher must first think of a problem or question to explore. The researcher then follows that problem or question across time or space. For example, if a researcher is interested in knowing how pregnant women learn about pregnancy related gingivitis, the researcher may interview OB/GYNs, oral health care providers, and pregnant women during fieldwork at various sites. In each setting, the researcher would combine other methods with the multi-sited approach to gain an understanding of how pregnant women learn about pregnancy related gingivitis. In the OB/GYN’s office, the researcher may conduct interviews with staff and ask questions pertaining to informing patients about oral health. At the dental field site, the researcher may ask oral health providers if patients are aware of pregnancy related gingivitis, its adverse health outcomes, and how providers inform women of the adverse health outcomes of pregnancy related gingivitis.


Multi-sited ethnography can allow researchers to understand a variety of perspectives involved with a specific idea/action/process. In one of the examples described above, the researcher can compare answers between OB/GYNs, dentists, and pregnant women to understand how pregnant women learn about adverse health outcomes of pregnancy related gingivitis. Moreover, tracing a topic through multiple spaces reveals more layers behind what may only be visible at first. For example, a researcher who only looks at a commodity in one place may never understand its full impact across the world, and would therefore miss a great deal of data about the commodity.

Multi-sited ethnography also allows for researchers to understand how power structures from seemingly disconnected spaces ultimately impact a specific population. On a macro level, policies from one nation impact people in another. In the example of tracing corn as a commodity above, mutli-sited ethnography allows for understanding all of the interactions a commodity has through various levels of powerful decision makers and commodity users. Having multiple research sites also allows the researcher to collect multiple data sets to compare and contrast during analysis.

For medical anthropology, multi-sited ethnography is helpful in revealing social influents of health or barriers in accessing care. For example, a multi-sited ethnographic approach to migrant health can reveal how policies that exclude undocumented migrants from accessing health services have negative health impacts. Similarly, a multi-sited ethnography can reveal how global policies may harm one nation’s economy and provide motivations for labor migration. Following the idea of migration reveals motivations and may also show how the act of migrating may expose migrants to infectious diseases or environmental hazards they would not have been exposed to if they had not migrated.


Since multi-sited ethnography has multiple sites, it prevents researchers from getting to know one site in-depth. If a researcher does not get to know a site in depth, the quality of the data may not be as good as the researcher hopes. Managing access to multiple sites can also be a challenge and limit the feasibility of the research. Since some powerful populations are not always willing to speak with researchers, gaining access into certain community may raise significant ethical and moral questions regarding identity concealment. Furthermore, if a researcher has a limited amount of time to conduct the entire research project, it may be difficult to decide what sites warrant more time than others.

Since multi-sited ethnography allows for research topics to be explored through multiple spaces, the number of potential site locations are seemingly endless. The abundant possibilities may overwhelm the researcher and limit directional clarity for the project.
Having multiple sites may also limit the development of research questions if the topic is new to the researcher. This limitation can be mitigated if the researcher has previous experience with a topic before attempting a multi-sited ethnography.

Using multi-sited ethnography to compare different group's answers to the same research questions, may create challenges when collecting data. Attempting to obtain comparable data may be problematic, and researchers may experiences difficulties related to translation and cultural appropriateness of questions asked.

Reflecting on limitations in her own multi-sited research, medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes writes: "Meanwhile, multi-sited research (even when based on many return and follow-up trips) still runs the risk of being too thinly spread, and demanding a sacrifice of the normally leisurely pace of traditional ethnographic work. I have had to travel, observe, respond, reflect and write more quickly than I am accustomed to."

Method in Context: Organ Trafficking

Nancy Scheper-Hughes's work on human organ trafficking[2] highlights some of the aforementioned limitations of multi-sited ethnography in medical anthropology, and provides an example of how organ selling had different meanings in different contexts. In her work, Scheper-Hughes followed the bodies of kidney transplant patients, which took her across North and South America, Europe, The Middle East, Africa and Asia. During her research, Scheper-Hughes visited morgues, legal institutes, intensive care units, emergency rooms, dialysis units, surgical units, operating rooms, jails and prisons, mental institutions, orphanages, courtrooms, inner cities, towns, refugee camps, farmers’ markets, bazaars, shopping malls, bars, unemployment offices and flea markets. In these settings Scheper-Hughes found that people were recruited or tricked into selling kidneys. Scheper-Hughes describes how organs have become commodities in some contexts by providing examples of patients traveling to distant places for organ procurement and donars providing organs to alleviate economic stress. This type of analysis would not have been as easily discoverable if Scheper-Hughes had not explored the topic through multi-sited ethnography.

However, her research was not without problems. Scheper-Hughes describes her work as “undercover ethnography” and she reflects on how being an undercover researcher may produce ethical tensions. She also notes knowledge production is a great irony because the knowledge itself is turned into a commodity. In critiquing the commodification of organ transplants, Schper-Hughes states: "Another irony is that the knowledge garnered from this difficult research is being transformed – from flesh into words as it were – into a book that is every bit as much a commodity as the pink, healthy kidneys snatched from the poor. In a word, as my Brazilian favela friends often reminded me, ‘Nancí, here no one is innocent’. Least of all the anthropologist herself[3] ". Ultimately Scheper-Hughes provides an example of how medical anthropologists can gain a deeper understanding of organ transplants and the way patients and body parts travel across numerous social and geographic spaces. Her work also gives great insight into the ethical dilemmas associated with multi-sited ethnography.


Analyzing data collected through multi-sited ethnography depends on the type of data collected. Data collected through interviews, surveys, or observations can be analyzed using qualitative data analysis software like Atlas.ti. Programs like Atlas.ti can help highlight themes that arise in the data, which draws out some of the answers to guiding research questions. If a researcher has a great deal of quantitative data, software such as SPSS or SAS can be helpful with analysis.

Further Reading

Coleman, Simon, and Pauline von Hellermann.

2011 Multi-Sited Ethnography: Problems and Possibilities in the Translocation of Research Methods. Routledge.

Falzon, Mark-Anthony and Clare Hall, eds.
2009 Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research. Ashgate.

This book can be found at the publisher’s website by following this link:

A commentary about the Falzon and Hall book listed above can be found here:

Another Anthro Blog: Online Collaboration and Anthropology provides more information on Marcus’s assessment of multi-sited ethnography:
  1. ^

    Marcus, George E.
    1995 Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95-117.
  2. ^
    Scheper-Hughes, Nancy
    2010 Parts Unknown Undercover ethnography of the organs-trafficking underworld. Ethnography 5(1): 29-73.
  3. ^

    Scheper-Hughes, Nancy
    2010 Parts Unknown Undercover ethnography of the organs-trafficking underworld. Ethnography 5(1): 45