Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Beyond the Toolbox: What Ethnographic Thinking Can Offer in a Shifting Marketplace


(This article is also available in Chinese)

Lufthansa flight 490, Seattle to Frankfurt

Dinner just served, everyone was settling in, each in various stages of preparing their coping mechanisms for the painfully long flight. Laptops, eye masks, charge cords, earphones, earplugs, slippers, hand cream…they were very busy. The woman next to me popped a sleeping pill and was situating her blankets. I began my own ritual of scanning the entertainment channels to plan my movie lineup. As I was flipping through documentaries, I unexpectedly ran across an educational featurette titled “Design Thinking in 30 Minutes.” Yes, 30 minutes!

The more I thought about this featurette as an offering aimed at a mass audience, the more it seemed like an indicator of sorts to me. At face value, it’s a sign that interest in design thinking has become so widespread that a 30-minute short on the subject warranted inclusion in a carefully curated inflight entertainment lineup. But did it also suggest that the practice to which many have dedicated entire careers could be boiled down to an easily digestible infotainment piece? Was it reifying the “anybody can do it” view?

Of course, in the broader business world, you could argue that design thinking is already a stale buzzword—a concept that spread widely as a panacea for dull and slow-moving corporate cultures. Some say it’s now “the happy meal” of business solutions peddled by a growing number of consultants suddenly expert in its methods.

In the Design Sojourn blog, Brian Ling even argues that “design thinking is killing creativity” in part because it is now “structurally deployed like any other business process.” Others, like David Siegel, have observed that this growth has spawned an industry that churns out an endless series of ineffective innovation workshops, from which true actions are rarely undertaken in most organizations. He argues,

Once the fun and games are over, it’s back to business as usual. Meetings tend to run on, they have to end at some point, and it’s time to make a decision. That’s when the easiest, most incremental thing gets the green light and all the cool ideas get filed under “interesting.” It’s easier and more fun to do workshops than to actually innovate, because innovation involves risk, and the culture doesn’t support taking risks.

His solution? “You must change the culture if you are going to get out of the innovation trap.”

Which brings us back to that flight from Seattle to Frankfurt. As I reflected further, I began to ask: why aren’t we seeing in-flight featurettes about ethnographic thinking and what it can do to propel innovation? And, even if ethnographers don’t aspire to position ethnographic thinking in same ways designers have design thinking, why aren’t we hearing a lot more about how thinking like an anthropologist is beneficial in business settings? After all, what group of professionals is more qualified to understand, analyze, and interpret cultures and cultural change (corporate, consumer, creator, or otherwise)?

Granted, designers have integrated what they call a human-centered approach as a core and critical principal of design thinking; and they have portrayed ethnographic methods in ways that have increased the visibility of the benefits ethnography offers as a practice. But that’s the rub. In the same ways that design thinking has been reduced to a series of rote methods or string of “fun” workshops by some, it has itself tended to reduce the perception of ethnography to a practice for which the sole purpose is to provide the observations needed to ‘solve’ a design challenge. For those of us who’ve spent our careers in the discipline, we know that ethnographic thinking can offer much more.

Some are already working in this direction. Paul Dourish has argued articulately for a reinterpretation of how ethnography contributes to Human Computer Interaction. He states, “a focus on implications for design reads ethnographic inquiry too narrowly, containing ethnographic studies in ways that fail to do justice to the kinds of insights that they can provide.” Those insights go beyond ethnography as simply a toolbox of methods. They demonstrate how ethnographic thinking provides an interpretive lens—one that offers new ways to see how cultural worlds are organized and offers frameworks for thinking about how they’re formed, and how they evolve and interact.

Extending this argument, Grant McCracken envisions a new role for ethnographic thinkers in the form of a Chief Culture Officer, who would “manage a new spirit of openness,” in part by helping answer strategic questions like “what business are we [really] in?” The CCO, as McCracken envisions it, will “see the significance of shifting technologies, read sudden changes in consumer taste and preference, sift the perfect storm of the economy for opportunity and danger, and perform pattern recognition…” much like ken anderson suggests in his Harvard Business Review article.

Building on these perspectives, I want to turn our attention toward two things. One is what I’ll call the trajectory of disciplines, and other is disciplinary gaze. For the former, consider for a moment the general disposition of the disciplines of design and anthropology today. Or, more specifically, consider the direction toward which design thinking and ethnographic thinking each aim. Design thinking heralds integrating human-centered observation, iteration, collaboration, and prototyping within a strategy that has the ultimate goal of refining and honing in on a design solution—an inherently reductive process. On the other hand, ethnographers are more inclined to open up new frameworks and perspectives in an effort to uncover the dynamics of social interactions and their formation (which are “always already” evolving). In short, ethnographers tend to ask “why?” while designers aim toward “what?” The relationship is often symbiotic in practice, but they are also at odds empirically. (There’s a reason that designers typically refer to pattern finding and theme identification as data “synthesis,” while ethnographers are more apt to refer to this sense-making process as data “analysis.”)

We need both, of course. And I don’t want to make too much of this difference because disciplinary boundaries seem more blurry every day. But when we consider the current state of the global economy, it becomes increasingly clear that questions of “why?” are very well equipped to provide insight into the rapidly evolving dynamics and volatility of the 21st century marketplace. From drastic shifts in currency markets to dealing with climate change and online security, complexity is now the status quo in our diverse, networked, and globalized reality. We can no longer presume that ‘solutions’ are universal or static (if they ever were). In this accelerated and dynamic economic context, we need to frame our designs within more expansive thinking that is always asking “why” even while responses to the question “what” are manifesting.

The trajectory of ethnographic thinking represents an opportunity to do just that. In this context, ethnography isn’t simply a front-end research component positioned to feed the design process, but an ongoing inquiry that helps shape design solutions while simultaneously observing and interpreting the evolution, or pulse, of human interactions—always asking “why?” Within organizations, these two (often complementary) forms of thinking can hold very different positions. While design thinking ultimately privileges implementation, often at an operational levels, ethnographic thinking sits more comfortably at strategic levels, where it can inform flows of knowledge that provide insight into cultural shifts from both emic and etic perspectives.

Now the question of disciplinary gaze. Turning back to the rise of popularity of design thinking in business settings, the ease with which the ever-increasing number of organizations (especially multi-national corporations) seek to adopt the methods of design thinking can be positioned as a natural extension of the colonialist roots of the corporation. “Ugh, here we go.” I hear you. But stay with me.

The ways in which design thinking is often integrated within these organizations—structurally deployed with an ‘ethnography-as-tool’ perspective—aligns quite comfortably with the ethnographic gaze of early anthropology. From this view, the design researcher’s position in the field of consumers is often presumed to be central, authoritative, and unquestionable. Upon return, the design researcher is expected to bring back and represent the voice of the target consumers for the design team—whose perspectives ultimately ‘really’ count. You can see that this is a dynamic within which it’s all too easy to replace ‘natives’ or ‘colonial subjects’ with ‘consumers’ or ‘users.’

So, in the historic context of the corporation, design thinking has in some ways adopted the ethnographic gaze of late 19th / early 20th century anthropology. The kinds of questions this gaze allows them to ask are mostly comfortable questions embedded within a framework that always focuses its gaze outward toward the consumer or user—the classic anthropological Other. For example, it’s not uncommon for those who adopt only the structure of design thinking methods and the ‘ethnography-as-tool’ perspective (be they consultants or corporate) to frame their inquiries solely in terms of extracting data from consumers. They seek to uncover ‘hidden’ behaviors and ‘unmet needs,’ capture them, and bring them back to headquarters where others can marvel over these exotic treasures from the field. This strays quite far from the original intent of design thinking, and clearly denies some of the greatest critical assets of contemporary ethnographic thinking: relativism, interpretation, deconstruction, and reflexivity.

But what about the uncomfortable questions? Why aren’t more companies and organizations shifting, expanding and broadening their gaze, particularly given the increasingly blurred boundaries between consumers and the brands/products/uses they help shape? Ethnographic thinking—freed from the constraints of the ‘ethnography as tool’ perspective—asks not just what consumers want, but why the organization is solving for that particular challenge in the first place. It also probes for questions of alignment, ethics, and inter-dependencies that occur within the relationship between provider and consumer. Just as importantly, contemporary ethnographic thinking turns the gaze back on itself, forcing organizations and practitioners to come to terms with their own histories and orthodoxies, and to face how those realistically impact their capacity, or inclination, to innovate. So, for example, ethnographic thinking might ask the following uncomfortable questions of an organization: Have you created clear pathways and platforms to co-develop innovative new ideas in the marketplace? Do you know which norms, customs, and cultural dynamics work for and against innovation both within your organization and outside of it? Do you have a strategy for cultural change that incentivizes innovation and adaptation?

This is not to say that some designers (consulting and internal) aren’t asking some of these questions. From my experience, some design consultancies make a concerted effort to ‘look in’ at the cultures of clients they serve. Yet, this is typically subsumed within the goals of a design brief, unless a client can overcome what is often a discomfort with shifting the gaze inward at themselves and understanding their relationship to the consumers it serves in a more holistic way. This is precisely one of the things ethnographers are best qualified to do. Our methods are designed specifically to make sense of complexity by finding the underlying meaning behind human behaviors within ever-evolving cultures and the interactions between them. Our intent is not to fix and define them or to discover or exploit them, but to learn from their dynamics. Using a systematic and interpretive process informed by anthropological theories, we decipher the unique cultural logics embedded within complex human interactions, and develop insights that have the power to change the way people think about themselves and others. We shift perspectives and help people reframe challenges—to see the micro in the macro, and vice versa, all within the context of exploring everyday practices. This isn’t something that has to sit separate from design thinking. It can, and should, work parallel to it.

One way to do this is to position innovation between four domains, and apply ethnographic thinking to each (as well as to the dynamics of the interactions they have with each other):

  1. the cultures within which consumers are embedded;
  2. company cultures;
  3. stakeholder cultures; and
  4. analogous cultures.

We already know that working with consumers is critical to understanding their cultural contexts, needs, values, behaviors, and dynamics. But, in this model, consumer research is positioned within the larger framework of the other three domains, each of which has bearing on, and interacts with, the cultures within which consumers are embedded. Therefore, it is just as important to take an ethnographic view of company culture and the interactions it has with its consumers. Likewise for stakeholders (some of whom may or may not be part of the cultures within which consumers are embedded or the company culture), who direct and shape the flow of interactions between consumers and the company. And finally, ethnographic explorations of analogous cultures help inform dynamics between these other domains by bringing in fresh, different, but tangentially related views of the world. Together, the application of ethnographic thinking to these four domains leads to a set of holistic insights that push the design process in varying directions. Sometimes they converge, other times they radically diverge. In the end, the focus is on the cultural dynamics and interplay of interactions between these domains. From there, ethnographic thinking can develop insights into those dynamics to guide design and strategy.

Drilling down further into the patterns of ethnographic thinking that can be applied to each of these domains (as well as their interactions), it’s helpful to identify the key traits ethnographers use to successfully move from field to insights, and understand how they can be applied beyond the domain of the ‘ethnography as tool’ perspective. As I have argued, in much the same way that the principles of good design practice (iterative prototyping, collaboration, etc.) have now been applied to many realms beyond traditional design, ethnographic thinking can be extended far beyond ethnographic practice alone. Traits of ethnographic thinking like curiosity, keen observation, deep listening, and a propensity toward participation as a learning method, can help build deep empathy, in addition to improving emotional intelligence—both offering clear market advantages as well as personal benefits. Traits like tactfully hosting interactions in unfamiliar settings, as well as deferring judgment and being adaptive in those settings, promote flexibility and can help identify pathways to shift perceptions and assumptions in new and novel ways. And, finally, traits like holistic thinking, selective strategizing, and the timely use of stories can help cross pollinate ideas between different viewpoints, challenge the status quo in productive ways, and craft influential empirically rooted arguments that broaden outlooks and inspire action.

These are all qualities that are crucial for the success of companies and other organizations that are now required to be increasingly nimble, adaptive, and interactive—and they’re qualities that are inherent to the ethnographic mind.

Featured image: Abstract wallpaper by Paul Cross via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

hasbrouckJay Hasbrouck is a Social Anthropologist and founder of Hasbrouck Research Group. He explores applications for ethnographic thinking further in his upcoming book, tentatively titled The Ethnographic Mind: Making Sense of Human Complexity in Business and Beyond, to be published by Left Coast Press.



Jay Hasbrouck, Hasbrouck Research Group