Experimenting With Ethnography

Ethnography means many things to many people these days and heaven knows I’ve spouted off about that topic on more than one occasion, so I won’t go down that path again (at least not for today). But there are underlying currents in how people define ethnography that seem to be representative of a larger degree of consensus. One of the central themes that emerges again and again is that notion of ethnographer as simple observer.  We document, we learn and we report but rarely do we experiment. And that is something I think we need to see change.

“Experimental ethnography” emerged as a general movement in anthropology that focused on issues of representation in ethnographic writing in the aftermath of the “writing culture” critique of the 1980s. Those critiques were largely informed by the poststructuralist, feminist and Marxist assessments of the historical relativism and construction of Western sciences. Long story short, the nature of how we construct, conduct and think about ethnographic research and representation was challenged. The primary meaning of experimental ethnography was the experimentation of writing ethnographies and the representation of cultural worlds, traditions, and things. Interestingly enough, this is also the period when ethnographers began leaving academia for the business and design worlds in noticeable numbers. However, the notion of experimental ethnography remained largely inside academic and/or public sector fields of study.

So, traditionally what are we talking about when we say “experimental ethnography”? Experimental ethnography is a mode of fieldwork in which given, prior and assumed areas of knowledge are used and recirculated in fieldwork activities, dynamics, and practices. The goal is to produce outcomes that hold direct relevance to and for the communities with which research is conducted. From its inception, experimental ethnography then had an affinity to applied anthropology with the goals of effecting a “social change” in a community, producing knowledge for use in policy generation or aiding communities to rediscover and revitalize aspects of their cultural traditions. Again, while these are all noble and worthy pursuits, this approach to how we gain and use knowledge remained in areas other than the private sector. And that needs to change.  Why?

Because it produces better results for our clients, plain and simple. We are here to help the people who hire us build better things. That can certainly spring from a purely observational model, indeed it frequently does, but it also limits our trajectory.  In this emergent paradigm of experimental ethnography, “knowledge” is not being “tested” for truth to produce facts by a determined structure of fieldwork procedures. Rather, fieldwork practices are recombined to explore their utility through the activity of the exploratory bricolage. In other words, the experimentation is not about testing but about fluid modes acquiring knowledge and considering methods of co-constructing outputs. This exploration for utility is where a different notion of experimentality enters into play. In thinking about ethnographic fieldwork in this way, it allows us to incorporate techniques from various fields when working with participants in a methodologically sound way, rather than simply pulling in a range of techniques with little or no clear system or rigor.

As this model of ethnography plays out, the idea is that by engaging the participants, the designers and the ethnographer in a dialog in the field, the participant gains both in terms of good product development and in terms of psychological investment. All parties have a direct connection to the process and therefore the end results. It also means that the parties engaged in the fieldwork and creation/translations of the insights that emerge are not tied to the underlying one-for-one trade of information. The roles are stripped bare and the researcher, designer and participant take on a shared understanding that the intent is to create rather engage in the transaction of knowledge.

Of course, this means that the researcher needs to be well versed in a range of methods and nimble enough to change direction quickly. It also means letting go of the notion, a myth in fact, that purely objective observation is possible. A terrifying notion to some, no doubt, but very real nonetheless. Power, politics, environment, etc. all factor into how fieldwork unfolds. Tricking ourselves into a belief that the more removed we are, the more valid the results, is perhaps the first thing that needs to be discarded. After all, the point of ethnography is exploration and learning, not recreating in a live setting what one gets from a survey. Open the possibilities of an experimental approach to ethnography means opening the door to a host of outcomes that may be overlooked.

Experimental designs offer greater internal validity for learning what the effects of a social program are, and ethnographic methods offer greater insight into why the effects were produced. The prospects for such integration depend on the capacity of parties within social science to work together for the common goal of discovering insights and how to implement them.



Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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1 Comment

  1. One of my favorite techniques in the field is “you be the teacher” where the subject teaches me how to do something. It’s a great way to see them shop and get them to talk while giving them confidence. And it was completely a method built out emergency in the field.

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