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Fieldwork in Political Theory: Five Arguments for an Ethnographic Sensibility


This article makes a positive case for an ethnographic sensibility in political theory. Drawing on published ethnographies and original fieldwork, it argues that an ethnographic sensibility can contribute to normative reflection in five distinct ways. It can help uncover the nature of situated normative demands (epistemic argument); diagnose obstacles encountered when responding to these demands (diagnostic argument); evaluate practices and institutions against a given set of values (evaluative argument); probe, question and refine our understanding of values (valuational argument); and uncover underlying social ontologies (ontological argument). The contribution of ethnography to normative theory is distinguished from that of other forms of empirical research, and the dangers of perspectival absorption, bias and particularism are addressed.

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Bavarian School of Public Policy, Technical University of Munich (email:; Bernardo Zacka, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge (email: We would like to thank Andrew Walton, Anca Gheaus and Paul Sagar, as well audiences at Stanford University and four anonymous reviewers for the British Journal of Political Science for very helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.

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British Journal of Political Science
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