Focused Ethnography as Research Method: A Case Study of Techno Music Producers in Home-Recording Studios

Jan-Michael Kühn

Technische Universität Berlin / Berlin Mitte Institut (Germany)

Translation by Luis-Manuel Garcia


Translator’s Introduction: Jan-Michael Kühn’s essay introduces the reader to Hubert Knoblauch’s focused ethnography [fokussierte Ethnographie] as an ethnographic fieldwork method. More than a decade after Knoblauch’s first publications on this method, there are precious few guides to focused ethnography in the English language, save one (Knoblauch 2005). At any rate, there are certainly no introductions to this methodology that also use EDM scenes as a case study. Kühn’s article was originally published in German in Soziologie Magazin, a student-run journal published from Martin Luther University in Halle (Saale) but operated by an editorial network that spans Germany. As a result, Kühn orients his writing towards an audience of junior researchers, post-docs and graduate students, highlighting the ways in which focused ethnography suits the circumstances of early research careers, where one may have difficulty securing long-term research stays for fieldwork of broader scope. In particular, he notes that Knoblauch’s methods require a very narrow scope for the project (i.e., a “field sector” rather than the whole field), a reliance on the researcher’s previous knowledge of the field, and short bursts of intense ethnographic activity in order to create work that is tightly focused but still rigorous and generative of fresh knowledge and new concepts.


In this article, I would like to present the method of focused ethnography (FE) through the example of my current research on techno music producers working in home-recording studios. In my experience, FE is best suited to projects of very narrow scope, such as term papers, in which one can “pick out” small social phenomena and study them while maintaining a manageable workload for young scholars. As a fieldwork method, participant-observation combines exploratory and theoretically-productive fun with high methodological demands and scholarly interrogation. Since FE presumes a close familiarity with the field as a precondition of its primary research phase, it is especially suited to subjecting the researcher’s already-existing fields of interest and knowledge to scholarly interrogation, thus producing interesting, ambitious and instructive research. It is particularly pertinent in a social context of increasing complexity, diversification and therefore pluralization, where constantly emerging forms of social practice can thus be developed as objects of research in the context of their fields and studied with the help of scholarly approaches. FE enables the description of sociologically relevant details of everyday life that take shape and stabilize under conditions of ongoing technological development and diffusion, providing a ground for the social development that increasingly takes place outside of large academic, business and political institutions (Willis 1990). After first outlining FE as fieldwork method, I present my own research methods and experiences as an example.[1]

A Short Introduction to Hubert Knoblauch’s Focused Ethnography

Hubert Knoblauch (2001; 2002; 2005; Knoblauch and Tuma 2011) reports on a “blossoming” of ethnographic research not only in German-language sociology, but also in numerous other disciplines. According to Knoblauch, this has been accompanied by a move to adopt new forms of ethnographic practice, which he gathers under the heading of “focused ethnography” [fokussierte Ethnografie]. These forms of sociological ethnography differ from conventional ethnological ethnography in that they are practiced in one’s own culture, focusing on specific parts of it (i.e. “field sectors”).[2] Field stays tend to be shorter, since researchers are not immersing themselves in entirely foreign cultures: they are already (more or less) familiar in the ethnographic field, having prior experience in this social and cultural milieu. Instead of taking on an entire social field (e.g. the techno scene), one focuses on individual sectors of the field (e.g. music production using computers). Rather than extending over long periods, data collection occurs in short, intensive survey phases, during which field-notes, videos, audio data and numerous other emergent modes of documentation are used for generating data. The goal of such data collection is no longer to reconstruct the entire field’s typical knowledge-repertoires, but rather to grasp background knowledge within a section of the field, to understand and describe social practices and “inside perspectives” (Malinowski 1983). FE can thus be characterized as constructivist: “on the one hand, it reconstructs participants’ structures of knowledge and experience, which constructs the meaning of their actions. . . . And on the other hand, with its often minutely detailed analyses, it also attempts to trace the situated construction of reality in observed action” (Knoblauch 2001: 135). FE takes as its object the contexts of action in which observed everyday life occurs. At the same time, it is also based on what researchers define and perceive as “actually experienced”, illustrated with statements from field participants. Consequently, it does not rely exclusively on the self-reporting of research subjects, which would be the primary mode of data-collection in interviews and online surveys, for example. As method, FE does not verify already-existing theses (deduction), but rather constructs them in an interactive process of “theoretical sampling” between theorization and the analysis of field sectors / data (iteration) (Strübing 2006:15).

Although FE may appear, at first glance, to be faster or easier to implement, one would be mistaken to assume that it neglects scholarly standards. On the contrary, a deep engagement with ethnographic method and ethnographic research-norms must take place before research commences. This entails, on the one hand, bearing in mind the still partially-unclear properties of new recording devices and their focus (Oester 2007:15), and, on the other hand, understanding what a research method is and what it can accomplish—that is, how it is itself also a part of research and actively produces data on the basis of its properties and orientations, rather than simply “carving” data out of reality like a hard tool gouging yielding material.

FE also requires further preparations and precautions in order to reduce personal bias and “blind spots”, such as constant self-observation and the explicit declaration of previous knowledge and expectations (Knoblauch 2003). For these purposes, it is advisable to write down all field-related knowledge, value judgements, and personal preferences before beginning research (this can take several pages), so as to identify these during practical research and to deal with them as such. I use the expression “to deal with” [behandeln] deliberately, since researchers inevitably become part of the object of research over the course of participant-observation. They elicit statements and attitudes from observed parties—an active, participatory, and productive act; the observed parties respond to the researchers and assign certain roles to them, which they factor into their answers and actions [Handeln]. Productive norms of open-mindedness and bias-avoidance are also to be dealt with as such—not as cosmological final principles with a built-in guarantee—along with the willingness to constantly revise already-created knowledge and categories during the research process, inasmuch as they no longer apply to the field sector under study (Kleining 2001).

While involvement in the field can be an extraordinary resource for researchers, it hides the methodological risk of generalizing selected phenomena beyond their particular contexts and out over the entire field sector, as well as that of imbuing the political views of the field sector with a scientific “aura”. There exist ways to reduce these effects, such as: writing down and constantly checking everything that is deemed to be irrelevant to the research process; spreading the selection of research subjects as widely and diversely as possible; entering into the fieldwork process with fundamental openness (even against one’s own preferences!); and repeatedly accounting for oneself through self-observation. This is a matter of elucidating the field sector’s knowledge-structures, which also manifest in the conflicting attitudes of actors, outlining structural features in their disparity. Thus, this is expressly not a matter of testing—in a normative sense—“right” or “better” beliefs for their validity, comparing them with each other, and possibly crowning a “winner” at the end.

Furthermore, the formulation of one’s research question must make it abundantly clear why the study of this field sector is of both scientific and social relevance. This naturally requires knowing and discussing relevant scientific literature as well as situating one’s own findings within this scholarship. One must also explain why the exploration of one’s chosen field sector using FE is relevant beyond one’s own academic career, addressing its relevance to society as a whole.

In my case, the intellectual context of my research was the sociology of innovation [Soziologie des Neuen] (e.g. Hauser 1988; Joas 1992; Groys 2004; Jauß 2007). From this and my choice of empirical research field, I derived my research question (“How do new things arise in the production of electronic dance music in home-recording studios?”) and situated my fieldwork plan as an exploratory form of workplace study (Knoblauch/Heath 2006) and “technography” (Rammert/Schubert 2006). I argued for its broader social relevance by pointing to social-structural transformations (individualization, differentiation, technologization, etc.) and the resulting, increasingly compartmentalized life- and work-worlds of niche economies—for which techno producers can serve as a case study.

Figure 1. Music producer Niko Schwind, from the music label Stil Vor Talent, in his home recording studio in Neukölln, Berlin, Germany (2009). Photo: Jan-Michael Kühn.

The Selection of “Ethno” and “Focus”: The Techno Scene and Music Producers

At the beginning of the 2000s, I began learning how to “spin” [Auflegen; i.e. to mix tracks as a DJ]. Gigs and private engagements soon followed and, starting in 2005, so did nightclub bookings with increasing regularity. In 2006, I founded a Web-TV and Radio show, the positive response to which expanded my contact network. I also became a resident DJ for various event-series. Event-organizers outside of my social network began booking me for their events, and I, in turn, began selecting DJs and “live PA” performers (i.e. booking) for them. Since I had good “scene-knowledge” (and thus also “scene capital”; Thornton 1995; Otte 2008) of this techno scene as well as good contacts within the scene due to my high level of involvement therein, I was able to proceed on the assumption that I held enough field-related knowledge to make a sector of this field my object of study.

While reading the scholarly and journalistic literature relevant to this project, it became apparent that the actual practice of music production was only rarely and mostly superficially addressed. Scholarly literature reduced productive practice to “montage”, “bricolage” or “al-fresco” (Meueler 1997; Vogelsang 2001; Essl 2007; Friedrich 2010). Instructional literature in the form of online videos, books, websites, or posts in internet forums transmitted established knowledge as “best practices”—such as the form of “tracks” (e.g. construction, elements), music-production strategies and practices—and informed readers of new technologies (e.g. blogs, “tech” magazines, etc.); in other words, they focused on technical matters of interest to producers. In analyzing this archive of instructional literature, it became clear that it primarily concerns purpose-rational exchange: for producers, the primary concern is what they can gain in exchange for their attention, that is to say, useful knowledge that they could potentially implement in their own tracks. By contrast, I found no coverage of actually-occurring musical production—particularly of electronic dance music, in the context of home-recording studios or even of a scene—as recorded DJ-music for use at events in building communities through aesthetics (regarding scene coherence, see Maffesoli 1996; Meyer 2000; Hitzler/Niederbacher 2010). Since a comprehensive search indicated that my particular research focus had yet to be studied, I had a legitimate academic starting-point for engaging with techno music-production as well as putting the background knowledge of production, practices of creativity and the connections between music production and music scenes under the “sociological microscope”.

I chose as my field sector the site where primarily work-oriented producers make their house/techno music: the home-recording studio. I use “work-oriented” to describe those producers that actually engage intensively in music production, rather than playfully. The latter is not negligible for research results: it became clear that work-oriented producers ranked particular scene-specific production requirements as relevant, which differed from those ranked highly by those who produced music without substantial economic interests (i.e. so-called “hobby” producers). The former produce music first and foremost in order to sell their music and be booked as DJs. This can result in situations, particularly in the case of early career producers working under mostly precarious conditions, where music is manufactured along aesthetic lines that appeal to the broadest audience possible within the scene—music that sells well, or exploits a current “hype” with which producers can expedite their careers and secure their income. By contrast, those who are economically independent in their music production often criticize these modes of production and point to a lack of innovation and insufficient authenticity (“selling out”)—in turn, other actors situate themselves between these standpoints and have an entirely different set of relevant needs, goals or bases for action.

This example illustrates the aforementioned constructivist understanding of science (i.e. the sociology of knowledge) and points to the relationship between research design and results.

Method and Experience

From March to May 2009, I made appointments with producers and arranged for six sessions of participant-observation. Lasting between two and six hours, these sessions took place in the home-recording studios of these artists, which were primarily located in the Berlin districts of Mitte, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. I presented myself as a student who intended to study modes of music-production in home-recording studios for my degree thesis. I assured them that I had little knowledge of music-production and no interest in pursuing it myself. Producers often have particular musical “secret recipes” [Geheimrezepte] that serve as an essential part of their public-commercial identity. They create a sound that only they can repeatedly produce in a specific manner, such that it becomes an economically-relevant trademark.

I worked out a set of guidelines for these sessions, in order to monitor as many areas of production as possible, from entering the studio, turning on the computer, and opening music-studio software, to the individual elements of the software and the concrete production processes in their individual steps, all the way to submitting a completed track to a mastering studio or label. In addition, I was also interested in socio-demographic data, biography, and scene-specific careers. I had scheduled an exploratory session beforehand, in order to gain insight in this field sector, what I should not forget, which practical problems might be encountered during sessions (e.g. constantly high volume levels and concomitant communication and recording problems) and what I should expect to discover in a home recording studio. As a former (and amateur) home producer with a high level of affinity with computer technology, I did not find the first steps into production knowledge to be difficult. My greatest concern was the possibility that I might overlook important things or dismiss them as irrelevant. It proved helpful to consult the audio recording of the session afterwards and write down all technical terms that came up during conversation, later incorporating these into questions during future sessions with other producers. In this manner, I learned a great deal about the components of this field sector and their possible boundaries, the various value judgments in circulation, and how these assessments exerted an influence on music production. I made audio recordings of all sessions and prepared field-notes immediately afterwards; during the sessions, I took notes for myself. I first wrote down everything that remained in my memory and seemed interesting to me (and even what I perceived to be uninteresting!), after which I listened to the audio recording again, indexing/coding it with already-developed categories while also adding to them. I simultaneously drew up analytic memos out of which these categories gradually emerged, as I would later employ them in my degree thesis (Kühn 2009, especially Chapter 5).

As a final step, I sequentially transcribed the audio recordings, during which the categories attained a final “fine-tuning”. Strikingly, data-interpretation and theory-building often came about in contexts outside of the work process, such as at night while falling asleep, while strolling through the city or during observations in a club. For example, I would get up at 4:00 a.m. and attend EDM events, in order to capture and elaborate differences in sound-, arrangement- and track-design on the dance floor; the effects of “badly” produced music could be studied particularly well by noting the movements of the audience on the dance floor as well as the comments of producers I knew who were also in attendance. The process of knowledge-production was iterative: initial categories were collected from scientific literature and the first exploratory session. It became apparent during data-collection that these categories could not satisfactorily capture the complexity of the creative process. Categories were discarded, distinguished and changed after each session and/or as soon as it no longer seemed sensible to combine empirical phenomena under the same category, due to such grouping blurring rather than sharpening structural typologies. Observed patterns attained typological relevance when they did not only appear in one session as an isolated incident, but rather were traceable across all sessions and could thus be considered as structural for the field sector. Through these continual category-adjustments, I gradually compiled a model of “constellative poiesis”.

I began each field-session by requesting an explanation for everything, for what I saw and whatever seemed special to me in that setting (as distinct from a normal living space or a computer workstation). I asked about the computer and its peripherals (synthesizer, USB/MIDI controllers), the large monitor speakers, the foam matting on the walls and in corners, the t-shirts folded under the door, and so on. The producers then opened their all-in-one production software (e.g. Ableton, Logic, Cubase) and the same questions were repeated for each component of the software. Finally, I asked the producers to begin a new track and to explain what exactly they were doing. I would sometimes change an arrangement (e.g. changing a “straight” beat to a “broken” one as an elicitation) in a way in which all of them would disapprove. But precisely by doing so, I put producers in a position where they had to explain to me why their original arrangement was better, demonstrating their reasons with direct reference to this example.

During sessions, I focused on the activities of viewing, listening and inquiring (Knoblauch 2003). In each situation, numerous inquiries were made. What is going on here? What is the producer doing? What does it mean to him? How does he assess it and why does he assess it thus? The sessions were correspondingly question-intensive, which producers nonetheless took positively: they partly answered indulgently, and they also tolerated my constant, probing use of non-ethnographic- and “dumb”-seeming questions—despite some snorts of laughter. Nevertheless, the producers could not give any precise information about many processes, such as special forms of (implicit) auditory knowledge (Horning 2004), how sounds sounded, or what expressions such as “fat” [fett], “groovy” [groovig] or “to go down behind” [hinten runter gehen] meant. It is here especially that the advantages of FE as research method come to the fore. Nevertheless, that which cannot be talked about does not remain silent—it is demonstrated directly on the computer via a field-sector-specific knowledge-transfer of implicit knowledge. At the same time, seemingly banal statements were made that later proved to be of value during analysis:

JMK: So, what’s the point of giving pieces more brilliance?

CJ: Yeah, now you’re asking me things like: why should something sound better? Because it should sound better. I mean, it’s self-explanatory, right? ... Don’t you still also prefer good sound quality to bad? Well, there are questions of taste that might pertain to sound-color, but there are also absolute values pertaining to the sound quality of a recording.[3]

“Don’t you still also prefer” is a clue to the relevance of scene-relations for the (re)production of a particular form of aesthetics—the “groove”, the “fat” sound, the dance floor-filling presence of tracks (“presence-aesthetics”, “technologized aesthetics”; Kühn 2009: 65). These are overt expectations that find expression in these musical productions; they are also shared by producers who identify and endorse them as expectations that drive their creative work. They are strongly “naturalized” and translated into technological specifications, with the result that they obfuscate their aesthetic ideals and represent technological parameters as objective benchmarks. Additionally, there are certain control mechanisms in individualized, market-structured community formations like the techno scene that ensure the reproduction of such aesthetics: tracks that sound bad (that exhibit less “groove”, less sound-presence on the dance floor) are less often bought and rarely played, and consequently their creators are rarely booked, develop a bad reputation regarding their skills, and slide down in the hierarchy of producers competing for performance opportunities—in other words, they lose scene-capital (Kühn 2009, Chapter 5.4.1).

These observations on my own research project should serve interested researchers as a case study for the method of focused ethnography. It is meant to provide introductory information and provoke interest in further study—as a sort of “teaser”, in a sense. It nonetheless remains indispensible to conduct one’s own intensive engagement with ethnography. It is furthermore essential to engage with pertinent literature regarding the demands and properties of academic knowledge-production (e.g. Knoblauch 2001, 2002, 2003; Flick 2007; Hirschauer, Kalthoff and Lindemann 2008). Ultimately, the usability and significance of collected data always depends on how well researchers prepare themselves during their pre-fieldwork phase, exploring the methodological properties and research-norms of (focused) ethnography.

Author Biography

Jan-Michael Kühn (Dipl.-Soz., 30) studied sociology with a focus in technology studies at the Technische Universität Berlin and is currently working on his doctoral research project concerning productive labor in the Berlin techno scene. He also works as a freelance DJ in clubs and produces a Web-TV show, the Berlin Mitte Institut, about the structures of techno scenes ( His areas of scholarly interest include the sociology of knowledge, culture and music, along with individualization, technologization and post-materialism.


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[1] Since all of the techno-producers that I surveyed were male-identified (i.e. no producers claiming other gender-identifications were available during fieldwork), I use masculine pronouns in the context of music production whenever I refer directly to the people I studied; for general statements, by contrast, I use gender-neutral phrasing.

[2] [Translator: Kühn uses the term “field sector” [Feldausschnitt] to designate that subsection of the cultural/social field to which focused ethnography limits its scope, as distinct from “the field” as a whole.]

[3] CJ, interview with the author (in person, Berlin-Mitte, Germany), 30 April 2009.