International refugee law permeates a plethora of international, national and local arenas and is developed, interpreted and applied by a wide range of very different actors. In this diversity of contexts, how do we best study the role and place of this body of law? This article advocates for the application of ethnographic approaches in the study of international refugee law, where the positivist legal approach heavily dominates the field. It argues that ethnography’s contribution to knowledge on international refugee law lies not only in its methods, but also in its perspectives on questions of power, knowledge, reflexivity and subjectivity. The article illustrates the value of the ethnographic approach through three vignettes focusing on (i) the concept of ‘refugee’; (ii) refugee rights-claiming and rights-mobilization; and (iii) actors and processes in the creation and spread of international refugee law norms.