Theory and Society

, Volume 46, Issue 4, pp 261–284 | Cite as

On Desmond: the limits of spontaneous sociology

  • Michael Burawoy


Matthew Desmond’s “Relational ethnography,” is a manifesto for a relational turn in ethnography, liberating it from the “substantialism” of bounded places, processed people and group culture. Substantialism, however, proves to be a largely mythical category that obscures two types of relational ethnography: Desmond’s empiricist transactional ethnography and an alternative, theoretically driven structural ethnography. Drawing on Desmond’s own ethnographies, On the Fireline and Evicted, I explore the limitations of his transactional ethnography—a “spontaneous sociology” that rejects the theoretical engagement and comparative logic. I elaborate and illustrate structural ethnography, drawing out the implications for public and policy sociology.


Bourdieu – Empiricism Ethnography Eviction Extended case method Relational sociology 



This engagement with Matthew Desmond began in the ethnography collective with Ghaleb Attrache, Aya Fabros, Andrew Jaeger, Allison Logan, Santiago Molina, and Phung Su. It underwent the scalpel of my dissertation group—Zach Levenson, Shelly Steward, Ben Shestakofsky, Andrew Jaeger, and Josh Seim—as well as comments from Rachel Sherman, Ching Kwan Lee, Dylan Riley, Mike Levien, Erik Wright, Cinzia Solari, Mona Abaza, Jocelyn Viterna, and Berkeley’s Workshop on Methodology and Epistemology in the Social Sciences. It was delivered as a keynote address to the conference “Unbounding Ethnography: Theory and Method Beyond the Disciplines” at University Massachusetts, Amherst, November 4, 2016.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

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