Digital Ethnography of Dorchester


Students visited a variety of community institutions across the neighborhood and contributed pictures and observations to an online map of Dorchester.

Goals: The primary goals of the activity were three-fold. First, the digital ethnographic map provided students with an interactive platform through which they were able to explore the incredible work being done by their peers. Second, the mapping component helped students to think more critically about neighborhood geography and the relationship of one site to another. Third, by focusing on a variety of different neighborhood institutions (no more than two students were assigned to any single site), we were able to pose important questions in section that addressed the concept of community.

  • To provide students with an interactive platform through which they could explore the incredible work being done by their peers
  • To use mapping to think critically about neighborhood geography and the relationship of one site to another
  • To discuss the concept of community by focusing on a variety of different neighborhood institutions
  • To sharpen students’ ethnographic observation skills
  • To emphasize the importance of cooperation to understand “the bigger picture”

Class: United States in the World 24: Reinventing Boston: The Changing American City

Introduction/Background: This course introduces students to Boston and the study of urban life through a variety of readings, discussion, guest lectures from practitioners, and visits to four neighborhoods in Boston. Students learn to utilize quantitative and geographical information to understand the city, and to conduct their own research through careful observation and interviews. Students visit multiple neighborhoods in Boston to practice these skills.

The teaching team crafted the Dorchester Collective Ethnography as a culminating activity after students practiced observing social life in three previous assignments. Having already learned fundamental skills to observe like an ethnographer, the collective ethnographic map created a platform for students to share their work with one another and to think more critically about institutions as a means for community-building in a complex neighborhood.


Before Activity

  • Students were provided with a handout with detailed and comprehensive instructions (attached). The teaching team also dedicated a portion of discussion in section to prepare students for their visit to Dorchester, ranging from the historical context of the neighborhood to using “street smarts” to navigate a neighborhood slightly notorious for crime and blight.
  • After distributing a list of different sites from the Dorchester neighborhood, they asked each student to select three different sites that would interest them for sustained observational fieldwork. These sites included restaurants, community centers, churches and parks, coffee shops, nail salons, ice cream shops, among others. The instructors reviewed students’ choices and assigned them to more than 30 different sites across broader Dorchester, ensuring that multiple students did not visit the same site.

During Activity

  • First, students went to their selected site to make ethnographic observations. Some conducted interviews.
  • Then, they made sense of their observations by writing a six-page paper about their site, using their photos, audio, and jottings as data for social claims.
  • Students sent the teaching staff an excerpt from their paper and a photo to include on the collective ethnography.
  • The instructors pulled excerpts from each student's work and added them to markers on the map of Dorchester.


  • Then, students were asked to look through the map with some questions in mind. A full list of questions is attached.
  • After finishing the activity, students discussed the map in section. In section, they unpacked questions about neighborhood characteristics, social mobility, the importance of institutions for community building, among other topics and themes.

In the end, the students wrote an individual (approximately six-page) ethnographic paper. Many students used social theories offered by Jane Jacbos, Kevin Lynch, William Julius Wilson, and Xavier de Souza Briggs. They curated an excerpt and/or a summary of their findings from their papers, respectively. The teaching fellows mapped these various accounts into a neighborhood ethnographic portrait of Dorchester, an ethnoracially heterogeneous neighborhood with impoverished and blighted as well as middle-class micro-neighborhoods. These excerpts (one from each student) were culled into a masterful visual map of one of Boston’s most complex neighborhoods:


Students entered the field with notebooks and pens for jotting on-the-spot observations. To supplement these jottings, students were encouraged to use audio to make their field notes vivid. They were required to take a photo at their observation site.


We would recommend teachers encourage students to observe from a number of sites at the institutional level to gain an understanding of the complexity of a neighborhood. Even more, we would encourage teachers to assign readings that demonstrate the importance of neighborhood institutions (both public and private) for building community capacity and collective efficacy.

Submitted by Aaron Brennen Benavidez, Harvard Department of Sociology, and Justin Stern, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning 

assignment.pdf137 KB
reflection questions.docx14 KB