What We Mean When We Say ‘Ethnographic’

What We Mean When We Say ‘Ethnographic’ Banner Image

Anthropologists can be an easy target for skeptics. When doing ethnography (our method of choice), we tend to be open-ended, embrace ambiguity, and generally don’t think quantifying something is the only way to be confident in its truth. This can make our work seem slippery and imprecise - I am here to say it isn’t.

In some cases, doubts about our approach come from being unfamiliar. “Just what do you anthropologists actually do? What special knowledge do you have?” was a fair query I once received from a client-side non-researcher. “You guys don’t even do real ethnography” came from a less generous critic. To the first person, I say, “It is less a knowledge than a method.” To the second, “If you’ve got the budget to have me live in a consumer’s home for a year, then I’ve got the time… but also, you’re right, what we do is more ethnographic than ethnography.”

Ethnography, in its traditional (academic) form, is fully immersive, time-intensive (often taking years), and completely impractical in a 21st-century business context (for instance, nothing from my grad school life could be fairly called, “agile”). To make this approach feasible for our clients, time in the field is greatly abbreviated and findings are in presentations instead of dissertations, but the core objective remains consistent. In the words of anthropology pioneer, Branislaw Malinowski: 

“The final goal of which an ethnographer should never lose sight… is, briefly, to grasp the [subject’s] point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”

This is, of course, exactly what we seek to do. In Malinowski’s day a village, a band, or a tribe was used as an example of a larger cultural sensibility. Today our “subjects” may represent a type of work, a style of living, or a shared interest. The beauty of studying culture is that it can be viewed in scalable ways. The processes of making meaning, articulating significance, and transmitting values and beliefs to others are well known and common to all humanity and thus accessible to ethnographic inquiry. While we may not have the time or resources to do traditional ethnography, we can be rigorous about designing methods that are ethnographic. It is critical to ourselves and our clients that we are clear about what we mean when we use that word.

It’s Not The Context, But How You Use It

First and foremost, we are ethnographic in our approach by spending time with our subjects in their worlds, often their homes, workplaces, or wherever their routines take them. In short, we enter the contexts of their lives, but talking to someone in their living room or office is not itself ethnographic.

Ethnographic methods engage the whole context – physical, social, cultural, and emotional. We use storytelling and observation to unpack how physical space, objects and artifacts, behaviors, and relationships give people’s experiences their meaning, value, depth, and feeling. Our considerations are complex because people’s lives are complex. And people who are seriously interested in innovation and change know that ignoring complexity is the fastest route to failure.

Use Your Their Words

Language is fundamental to ethnographic research. The words we use, how we tell our stories, and the categories we create say so much about how we understand our worlds. We all do this. As researchers and business people, the way we talk reflects our priorities, the innovation protocols we create, or even our organizational structures. It’s the same with our participants. What they say and how they say it tells us much about the emotions, experiences, and connections that are important (or joyful or maddening or exciting or…) to them. This is why it’s essential to check our own language at the door and be intentional about speaking 'user'. 

The Experience of Research is More Than Just The Research of Experience

Ethnographic research is not meant to be objective. It’s methodical and theoretically grounded, but it’s not objective. In fact, you could fairly call ethnography a holistic method for understanding the subjective experience of others. Therein lies its power. Immersing ourselves in the lives of our participants is transformative for our ability to connect to their needs. Being there is critical to success because having experiences alongside participants provides a level of learning and communication that is just not possible to gain any other way. No survey, phone call, focus group, or online platform provides the direct experience or the social involvement of participant observation. It is a different and fundamentally human way of knowing and understanding the needs of others.

What Bronislaw Said

Lastly, let’s go back to Mr. Malinowski and how our focus should always be “to grasp the [subject’s] point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” As consumer ethnographers, we can extend Bronislaw’s list out a bit to include subjects’ routines and unmet needs and the meaning and emotions they attach to experiences. All of this is in service of experiencing the world as our users do since we are designing for them and not us.

In short, being ethnographic sounds a lot like the path to another aspirational industry ‘E’-word: empathy.

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