Ethnographic methods for research on aging: Making use of a fundamental toolkit for understanding everyday life

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Ethnography and participant observation have long made important contributions to social scientific understandingsof aging and the life course. For instance, classic and contemporary field studies have examined aging in urban enclaves; charted how culture and identity shape growing older; shown how institutions designed to serve elders are organized; and explained how aging is shaped by and reveals broader patterns of social inequality. Yet the prominence of field research lags behind other methodological approaches to studying aging. This chapter explains why a fuller integration of participant observation and ethnography is not only useful, but necessary, for advancing social scientific understandings of aging and the life course. Specifically, it: (1) explains why ethnographic approaches are fundamental to contemporary social science; (2) articulates the goals and uses of participant observation as a social scientific method; (3) illustrates how ethnography and participant observation can advance key topics in aging; (4) provides examples of classic and contemporary ethnographies of aging that do so; and (5) offers suggestions for encouraging high-quality future field studies on aging and the life course.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of Aging and the Social Sciences
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9780128159705
StatePublished - Jan 1 2021


  • Aging
  • Anthropology
  • Ethnography
  • Fieldwork
  • Gerontology
  • Methodology
  • Mixed-methods
  • Participant observation
  • Sociology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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