Coding Lab

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Preparing to draw an ELEMENT participant’s blood, Mexico City
Retablos (devotional paintings) asking for favors and healing from the Black Christ in Chalma, Malinaco, Mexico
ELEMENT Freezer Storage, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Cake, soda, and piñata at a child’s birthday party in Mexico City
Household water storage in Mexico City
Pan dulce (sweet bread) in a Mexico City bakery
Dam maintenance in Mexico City
Tomatillos and peppers on the stove in Mexico City
ELEMENT Biological samples, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Selling candy in front of a family home in Mexico City
Petri dishes with bacteria cultured from waters samples in Mexico City neighborhoods. LANCIS Laboratory, UNAM, Mexico City
Students analyzing fieldnotes in the Roberts Ethnographic Coding lab


Ethnographic Coding Lab, October 2018

The Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab is an integral part of the Mexican Exposures project. In this undergraduate course, students at the University of Michigan are trained to use Atlas.ti software to read, code, and analyze ethnographic data generated by Roberts and her colleagues from 2012 to the present.

Ethnographic ‘coding’ involves examining field notes, transcripts, grey literature, photographs and videos, and then adding interpretive and descriptive ‘tags’ (i.e., codes) to specific sections of text or images. Having these codes then makes it much easier to find and collect together reoccurring instances of the same idea or concept, when searching through the thousands of pages of notes to conduct an analysis. In the lab we decide as a team what codes to create and how to use them, which inevitably involves both practical and interpretive debate about what ethnographic material is significant  and what constitutes a pattern.

The coding lab was set up in 2015 by Liz Roberts and her first postdoctoral researcher, Camilo Sanz. Since then, up to twelve students have worked in the lab each year, either for credit or through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). Our collective coding approach is essential to Mexican Exposures, given the unusually large scope of this project involving transcripts, over 100,000 pages of field notes, and 30,000 field photos, with continuous additions.

Students taking part in the lab gain unparalleled hands-on experience working directly with ethnographic material, and then use this data to develop their own independent research projects in anthropology and public health. So far, several students have continued their work with the lab for more than one year, some completing related theses. Those who have graduated have gone on to pursue Fulbright research in Latin America, graduate research in anthropology, and careers in public health.

The Mexican Exposures project benefits from the work students do to code the primary material and from their insight. In the coding lab besides collectively coding the ethnographic data we also engage in collective analysis. In their day-to-day work and through weekly lab meetings students are encouraged to look for and develop their own lines of interpretation based on their own and each other’s coding.

The collective coding process has highlighted some intriguing methodological issues. Ethnographic field data typically serve as a mimetic device, reminding the ethnographer of knowledge gained through first-hand embodied experience in the field. Notes are usually highly personal and never intended to be read in their raw form by other people, much less made available for others to pore over, critique, and use. However, having a group rather than an individual work with the research material opens up possibilities for ethnography as a collective enterprise, even as it remains an embodied and experiential form of knowledge making.

Mexican Exposures UROP students Josue Toledo and Meagann Ibarra working with ELEMENT biological materials in Ann Arbor, March 2016

Students have found patterns or interpretations in the text that were not apparent to the initial ethnographers. Students have also brought to the data their own life experiences—as young women, for instance, or as Mexican Americans—and their diverse academic training in biology, public policy, and international studies, to name a few examples. They are required to interpret the thoughts of not only the subjects of the project, but also the ethnographer who produced the written or photographic record. This brings to the fore the nature of ethnographic data, produced as it is through the records, recollections, and analytic capabilities of the ethnographer and, in this context, a group of student interpreters and coders in a lab.

Location and Contact Information

The Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab is located in West Hall, Room 208, which is in the anthropology department. The lab is run by Dr. Mary Leighton.

Undergraduates and Graduate students interested in working in the Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab

Permission to work in the lab (either as part of a listed course, as independent study, or through UROP) comes after an interview with Prof. Roberts and Dr. Leighton and a recommendation from a professor or GSI.

Before you contact us make sure you have read all the information on this website about the projects, and the bioethnography articles: “Bioethnography: A How-To Guide for the Twentieth Century” and “Bioethnography as a Methodological Approach to Social and Chemical Life in Mexico City” (see publication page).

Potential participants need to either a) read in Spanish, or b) have a background or interest in STS  (Science Technology Studies). A background in social theory an advantage. 

Students working in the Coding Lab must commit to a 3 hour lab meeting and 5-6 additional hours of coding per week, for a full semester. All coding is done in person in the West Hall lab during weekly lab-hours.

When you send an initial email, please copy both Liz Roberts and Mary Leighton. Include your year and major, whether you are interested in enrolling in the class for credit or doing an independent study, and why you are interested in the lab.

Unfortunately we are not able to offer paid employment, but we do take a limited number of UROP students each year.

Opportunities for Independent Research

Roberts Lab team members, December 2017

There are opportunities for undergrads working in the lab to develop independent research projects using the Mexican Exposures data. Students will work closely with Prof. Roberts and Dr. Leighton, and where applicable with members of Element or NESTSMX in the School of Public Health. Independent projects can be limited to a class assignment or can develop into an honors thesis. We encourage students to publish and present their work. See this site’s publications page for examples of recent student work.

Testimonials from Current and Former Student Researchers

“Our lab is about making qualitative data accessible to researchers. And it’s also about togetherness, and how together we have come up with ways of coding a vast array of data in the so other researchers can use it in the future.” Raquelle Sewell, Gender and Health, Art (2019)

“The Roberts lab made high-level anthropological research accessible for undergraduates. Being able to immerse myself in the project alongside experienced researchers and develop my own research interests with expert guidance has been instrumental in my academic and professional trajectory.” Clara Cullen, International Studies (Global Environment &

Roberts Lab team members, December 2016

Health) and Spanish; minors Biochemistry and Business (2017), Fulbright Scholar

“In the coding lab I have learned how anthropologists use the field notes and transcriptions they have collected in the field for analysis, which will help me become an anthropologist. The focus on Mexico has taught me a great deal about its people and about global public health and cultural practices.” Andrew Mitchell, Anthropology, Spanish (2018)

“MEXPOS provides undergraduates with a unique opportunity not only to learn from experienced anthropologists, public health researchers, and environmental scientists but also to contribute to multidisciplinary knowledge production. It has been rewarding to see conversations we had in lab meetings and seemingly mundane anecdotes fellow students and I came across while coding field notes turn up in published papers. Undergraduate contributions are valued in the MEXPOS project—it’s a unique opportunity for undergrads to learn with a team of experts and other students from diverse backgrounds. My semesters in the lab have given me experience with how ethnographic field work can be done and applied in innovative ways; I have learned about Mexican history, politics, language, and customs; I have connected with intelligent and encouraging professors, post-docs, and fellow undergrads; and ultimately I have been inspired to pursue a career at the intersections of anthropology and public health.” Faith Cole, Spanish, International Studies, Anthropology (2018)

Current and former participants in the Roberts lab


Kelsey Merritt, Aditi Kappagantu, Reilly Coombs, Aliya Khan, Lauren Chapman, Sam Franz, Lauren Weiss, Phoebe Wraith, Margaret Greer, Scott Webster (UROP), Amytess Girgis, Olabimpe Amokomowo, Zoe Boudart.


Sonia Ahluwalia, Hannah Barish, Hailey Briscoe, Reilly Coombs, Faith Cole, Sophie Geyer, Sahar Gowani, Aditi Kappagantu, Kelsey Merritt, Andrew Mitchel, Raquelle Sewell, Mikaela Zamarron.


Hailey Briscoe (UROP), Alexandria Choi, Faith Cole, Clara Cullen, Sophie Geyer, Sahar Gowani, Emily Hogan, Lauren Lund, Hannah Marcovitch, Kelsey Merritt (UROP), Kaavya Puttagunta, Raquelle Sewell, Shivangi Sharma.


Meagann Ibarra (UROP), Josue Toledo (UROP), Magdalena Zegarra (graduate student).