Distraction Free Reading

The Messiness of Ethnography

Leaving academia forced me to think more deeply and critically about ethnography than I ever had before. In academic cultural anthropology, my classes, research, and readings all revolved around ethnography. However, my peers and I shared a basic understanding about the purpose of ethnography, the method of ethnographic fieldwork, and its definitions. Talk about ethnography often went largely unsaid, because, as cultural anthropologists, it was just what we did.

Despite having taught ethnography (both method and monograph) to undergraduates, and being fully armed with the history and theory of ethnography, I was not prepared for its applied versions and the questions that it would raise for me about the core values of ethnographic fieldwork. Two years ago, I began working in the engineering and design spaces associated with corporate user experience (UX) research. During this time, I have provided design support on a variety of different products from digital interface design to smart home products, in other words, from software to hardware. I also discovered a space in which ethnography is sometimes unknown, often misunderstood, occasionally seen as a curious methodological addition, but is never taken for granted.

As someone comfortable with the ambiguity of ethnographic fieldwork methods, I find myself often wondering what exactly is ethnography in the UX field—what makes ethnography ethnography? During my work as a UX researcher, I have often struggled to explain to fellow researchers what I see as the “spirit” of ethnography. As the sole person trained in ethnography on all the research teams with which I have worked, I often find myself ill prepared to be the representative of the method. While I have been on research teams with people openly hostile to ethnography, who consider it a waste of resources, I am pleased that my current work allows me to engage with a diverse set of researchers with a variety of methodological specialties. While I expand my own methodological tool box, learning from my coworkers trained in human factors and design, I find myself equally digging deeper into the nuances of a method I thought I once knew well.

What sets ethnography apart?

One of the challenges I face when understanding ethnography outside of academia is presenting the differences between it and other qualitative methods like interviews, observations, and diary studies. For me, ethnography both overlaps and incorporates these methodologies, as I have practiced them myself during fieldwork, but it is also more than that. While looking at undergraduate and graduate resumes for summer research internships, I flipped through resumé after resumé of people who often listed very few research skills but always listed ethnography. When I asked in interviews what their experience with ethnography looked like, the general response was that they had done a few interviews. This example is not the first time I have seen people substitute ethnography for interviews. However, to use ethnography as short hand for interviewing people means that researchers are missing out on what makes ethnography such a strong and subtle method. At the same time, I also sympathize with those, whose focus is not ethnography because, if I struggle to understand ethnography in the corporate environment, they must struggle as well. How do we differentiate—and do we even need to differentiate—between observation, interviewing, voice of the customer, in situ research, ride-alongs, shadowing, diary studies and ethnography?

Corporate applied ethnography is much different than academic ethnography. The method is shaped by different research goals, by different budget limitations, timeline restrictions, and result shares. While academic researchers are pushed to justify their research in terms of intellectual and social impacts, corporate work is always judged in terms contribution to potential profits. Timelines are short, turnaround time is fast – sometimes even weeks or days. The analysis is not as deep. Funding, ironically, is often more plentiful. If a good business case for the research can be made, budgets can be pushed through as necessary. Participation is often much more transactional both in terms of actual payments but also in terms of shared business opportunities. Sometimes ethnography in the corporate environment becomes so different than what I know as ethnography, I wonder if using the same name is even appropriate. Of course, I am not the first person to make these observations; applied scholars in many fields have struggled with the ways that their methods, including ethnography, have been adapted to industry for decades.

The case for ethnography

Still ultimately, I think ethnography is the appropriate term. Approaching it in terms of what gets counted as ethnography or not is too piecemeal. Instead, just as Hasbrouck (2017)  and Hale (2018) have recently argued, ethnography is more than just interviews, or participation observation, or even living someplace for a long time. The classical definitions of a long-term situated fieldworker located in a village don’t work in the corporate environment. As an unexpected applied practitioner, I find myself drawn to both Hasbrouck and Hale’s work, which understand ethnography as less about what one does and more about how one approaches the research field. Ethnography has the opportunity to provide deep and rich insights into actual lived experiences and behaviors in a way that other methods cannot. Ethnography has the potential to embody a meaningful, creative, and holistic framework, which stays faithful to the idea of ethnography within the constraints of corporate research. For me, if we as researchers, designers, and engineers in UX miss this aspect of ethnography, we are missing something exceptionally valuable.

I expect to continue to struggle with situating ethnography within the corporate context for a long time, but I enjoy the struggle. The method’s flexibility makes infinitely useful but also slippery to define. What once seemed simple and easily understood continues to show me layers of complexity and depth and to bring up questions and challenges. Interestingly, but not at all unexpected, this revelation required me to leave the cocoon of an anthropology department to finally challenge my thinking about the fundamental methods of anthropology.

Works Cited:

Hale, Tamara. “People Are Not Users.” Journal of Business Anthropology 7, no. 2 (2018): 163 – 183. http://dx.doi.org/10.22439/jba.v7i2.5601

Hasbrouck, Jay. Ethnographic Thinking: From Method to Mindset. New York: Routledge, 2017.


  • Julia Wignall says:

    I feel this deeply. I’m a hospital anthropologist working in patient & staff experience. It’s often hard to explain to even other ux researchers why I don’t necessarily want to follow a standard set of questions. There’s a nuance to ethnography that is just as much about being able to be led as it is about leading a participant to share their stories. This is strange to people in these fields that just want to see a job done & think exact comparison is all that matters. The tension is one I feel everyday but I agree that it’s often what sets ethnography and good, innovative insights apart from corporate speak.

  • Very interesting essay. As a practicing applied anthropologist for the past 50 years, who has employed an “ethnographic” approach, I have found that the term itself is often the problem.

    Too much of management consulting whether in-house or external is conducted on the basis of the client’s definition of the problem and NOT THE PROBLEM! Ethnography is not a “method” such as interviewing. Instead I found is an orientation to a situation. Another word close to “ethnography” is “ethology”, a branch of zoology. Ethologists  adopt a comparative method to study the varied form of animal behaviour ranging from –  Sexual selection, aggression, co-operation between two organism, kinship etc.
    Ethnographers study human behavior in its natural context and compares it with similar behaviors in different context and/or different behaviors in similar context. Observation is critical for the ethologist since the animal lacks a language. The ethnographer has the advantage of a species that has language — but she/he may not understand it, even when it is a shared native language. Every status/role has its common vocabulary and the its role vocabulary. Frequently these superficially appear to overlap when they don’t. This is where misunderstanding arise, and organizations fail.  

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