Robin M. Williams and Ethnography in Dangerous Contexts 

Dr. Morten Ender, West Point

Published on: July 17, 2021

Photo by the author

U.S. Army Specialist Powell, Summer 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq.  He walked across the busy and dangerous street—putting himself at risk—to meet the kids and give them treats.  He didn’t want them to cross the dangerous roadway to engage us.  

Needing some inspiration as I prepared for teaching my Qualitative Research Methods course face2face again this fall with a heavy emphasis on student fieldwork, I looked no further than a file folder I have on a founding father of ethnography in dangerous contexts: Robin Murphy Williams

While still a graduate student, Williams served in the U.S. War Department from 1942 until 1946.  Curious about his early work and multiple chapter contributions to The American Soldier series of WWII (Volumes 1 and 2, 1949), I started a correspondence with Dr. Williams in late-2005. At the time, he was a Visiting Professor at the University of California at Riverside after 57 years on the faculty at Cornell University.  He wrote me back—a letter, not email.  He writes he moved to the “European Theater of Operations in 1943.”  Embedded with infantry units as a combat observer in Great Britain and after D-Day in 1944, he did some deep hanging out with infantry units including the 9th Infantry Division and the 2nd Division as it fought through the Siegfried Line.  He also spent time with the 82nd Airborne in the winter of 1945.  He penned being mostly “under fire” with the 9th and 2nd

He specifically shared that: “…the interviews about the volunteer “Negro” platoons were done in Bavaria after the German surrender (Where I again encountered the 9th, and renewed some friendships).”  Here he is referring to the segregated African-American units he studied and wrote about in The American Soldier.  A study that obliterated stereotypes of Black soldier motivations and values and no doubt in my mind likely impacted the ultimate 1948 Presidential Executive Order 9981 calling for the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces.    

In my initial letter to Dr. Williams, I asked him a series of questions about backstage experiences in the field.  He didn’t answer all of my questions as we both anticipated this would be the beginning of a series of communiques. As he concluded his initial letter, “Enough said for now.” He provided some fascinating insights into his WWII experiences. For one, like many of us, lay folks don’t know what sociologists are or what we do. I asked Dr. Williams about his initial encounters with troops. He writes: 

"In combat areas, I was almost always welcomed. I was in uniform, under military law, with the simulated rank of major but still officially a War Department civilian.  My role was thus sometimes a puzzle to G.I.’s on the ground: “are you an officer, sir," quickly became “well, Jack are you a war correspondent," and then “why the hell are you up here”.  Harsh conditions and danger were sufficient grounds for trust." 

My own experiences in Iraq in the summer of 2004 are similar yet different. Outside the safety of the Forward Operating Base (FOB), patrolling in vehicles or standing down but still guarding, their demeanor was paradoxically chatty, forthcoming, personable, and genuine. On the FOB is another matter. There they are situationally more relaxed and bored, but with me for an interview they are quiet, reserved, professional, and almost mechanical in their responses.    

Below is a copy of a letter Dr. Williams provided along with his letter to me. It is a 14 September 1944 communique from Major General (two stars) Louis Craig, the Commanding General of the 9th Infantry Division.  It is a letter to the troops summarizing their efforts and movements across two European rivers—the Seine and the Meuse—inspiring them with their “high morale and determination.” 

Dr. Williams has inserted a footnote on this copy regarding a 40-mile march in 24 hours—a marathon and a half—of a specific regiment in the Division—his.  He writes, “This was “my” regiment (the 39th).  I hasten to add that I did not walk all that way.  Robin”   

Professor Williams added a P.S. in his letter to me—to us.  “My best effort to summarize the Research Branch work was an article in the Public Opinion Quarterly” published in 1989 titled “The American Soldier: An Assessment, Several Wars Later.”  He also wrote what he considers his major publications to include American Society (Knopf 1951, 1960, 1970) and Strangers Next Door (Prentice-Hall 1964) among others.  His often cited works include studies of race and ethnic relations (Williams, 1947); values (Williams, 1967); college students (Goldsen et al., 1960); relative deprivation (Williams, 1975); change and continuity (Williams, 1958); and, of course, field observations and surveys in combat zones (Williams, 1984).  

The Peace, War, and Social Conflict section of the ASA established the Distinguished Contributions to Scholarship, Teaching, and Service Award in 1992 and named it after Williams presenting him with the inaugural award in 1993.   


Morten G. Ender is Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Studies Minor at West Point.  His last two books are titled Inclusion in the U.S. Military: A Force for Diversity and Teaching and Learning the West Point Way: Educating the Next Generation of Leaders

Note that the views expressed here are his own and do not purport to represent the views of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.