Applying Theory to Applied Ethnography

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In applied ethnographic praxis, how should we use theory? Exploring how existing theory from a variety of domains has supported and advanced our work, this paper justifies and demonstrates how theory can be used in an accessible and practical manner when framing research and analyzing experience in the field. Two approaches for using theory are outlined, providing guidelines for different ways to apply theory to applied ethnography. Defense of such approaches is provided through both an appeal to the value we have seen it add to ethnography in industry and to a brief return to Hermeneutic ethnography, inspired by the likes of Gadamer and Geertz. The latter serves as a reminder of reasons to be skeptical that as ethnographers we uncover “the real.” Pre-existing theory provides valuable assistance when transforming an insight about the world into an idea with explanatory and predictive potential for our clients. Drawing upon theory allows us to elevate an interesting description of the “real” world into actionable insights with theoretical muscle. And we contend that ethnographers in industry need not incorporate theory in their work in the manner that is typical of academia – the same ‘rules’ and norms do not apply.

Keywords: theory, applied ethnography, de-skilling, hermeneutics, pragmatic, low fidelity, bricolage, project phases

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