Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Don’t Fear Friction: Complexity and Contradiction Are Pathways to Better Solutions

Where does the fear of friction come from, and how can we engage with friction for better outcomes?


In his book “The Black Swan,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes how unpredictable events can shape our lives. Taleb argues that our understanding of these events and the world at large is often hindered by our tendency to oversimplify complex systems made up by contradictions and unexpected phenomena, thinking we can make better sense of the world by removing the aspects that create friction.

As ethnographers, we recognize the limitations of simplistic explanations and seek to delve deeper into the complex web of human existence. In our line of work, the very concept of friction goes from being a disturbing factor that should be neutralized or resolved in the data, to being the very thing we zoom in on to understand the world. Frictions, in their various forms, then become vital entry points to examine underlying issues, power dynamics, and cultural tensions that shape human realities, and unveil opportunities for a deeper understanding and new value-creating solutions.

However, we must acknowledge that not everyone shares this enthusiasm for friction. In our experience, clients can show resistance or discomfort when confronted with the frictions we presented to them. Most often clients do not set a budget to seek out more complexity, but rather allocate money and resources to resolve the immediate problems experienced. Therefore, when we come in as consultants presenting the messy reality in all its glory, it can seem like a step backwards to solution finders and decision makers in need of clarity.

We could get frustrated with this clash of approaches to problem-solving, but being friction fans at heart, let’s explore the tension instead, engage with it for better outcomes, and figure out what other ways forward could be.

Tracing the Fear of Friction

One way to untangle the messy reality of friction is to view it through the lens of philosophy and distinct epistemological frameworks that shape people’s perceptions of the world around them.

The challenges we face as ethnographers when we encounter friction-adverse clients or collaborators are central concepts in Western philosophical traditions since Aristotle. These are systematic analysis and causality, which are the basis of the wide-spread expectation of linear progression found in our European business context.

Emphasizing analytical thinking, the basis of this common approach to problem solving, this philosophical school of thought teaches us to break down problems into smaller components and analyze them distinctly. Then they are also solved separately, prioritized based on how efficiently that can be done, or on the linear progression deemed appropriate to the overall (business) goals.

Although not the first to propose looking into the causality of nature’s phenomena, Aristotle’s approach to scientific inquiry is now foundational to how businesses and organizations think and operate today. As he was laying the foundation for natural sciences, Aristotle argued that the goal of scientific inquiry is to identify specific kinds of causal explanations for natural phenomena and achieve deeper knowledge of reality. Of primary importance is the ‘final cause’—the end or goal that explains the nature and existence of the phenomenon under study.

Philosophical traditions are varied and complex, but this understanding of causality, the process of isolating components for analysis, and linear progression often underlies problem solving in our own context. It extends well beyond the natural sciences, dominating even less linear and logic-driven spheres — including business. Thus, when friction is encountered, the instinct is to break it down analytically for decision makers until its discrete components can be resolved separately, a frictionless causal explanation can be achieved, and a decision or solution emerges from this clarity. Whatever stalls this progress, or puts a halt to the development of a solution, cannot be productive…right?

Naïve Dialecticism and Embracing Friction

Let us understand the discomfort decision makers and solution seekers might feel with friction as an epistemological phenomenon—friction is at odds with the way they are used to making sense of the world and making progress—not a natural fact. Seeing it this way we are ready to explore how this might also be thought of, by viewing it alongside epistemologies that offer different approaches to sense making.

Peng Kaiping, a social and cultural psychologist from Tsinghua University, found that the epistemological influences of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in East Asia have created fundamental differences in how people perceive themselves and the world around them compared to those cultured in Aristotelian traditions. He then introduced the concept of Naïve Dialecticism, which emphasizes holistic and dialectical thinking as the primary belief systems for Confucian cultures such as China, Japan, and Korea.

Looking at the three main principles of Naïve Dialecticism we start to see how they differentiate from Aristotelian philosophy and create a more fertile ground for embracing friction as a part of sensemaking in the world. The principles are:

Tolerance of Contradiction

Contradictions and opposing forces are a natural part of the world. Rather than seeking to eliminate or resolve contradictions, Naïve Dialectical thinkers embrace them and seek to find ways to work with and through them. They use a multi-frame perspective to process information and knowledge, allowing different (often opposing) views to coexist.


Everything is interconnected and part of a larger whole. Dialectical thinkers emphasize that nothing exists in isolation, and that a complete understanding of something can only be achieved by considering its relationship to the larger context in which it exists.

Expectation of Change

Everything in the world is in a constant state of change. The emphasis is on the idea that there is no absolute truth, static reality, or end state. Instead, reality is seen as a dynamic, ever-changing process.

Whereas the Aristotelian approach, with its analytical thinking and formal logic, has led decision makers to see friction as counter-productive, a philosophical system informed by Naïve Dialecticism can guide us to embrace the complexity—and actually be fine with friction.

Design Thinking as Naïve Dialecticism put into Practice

Encouraging news for those who want to collaborate more effectively with linear thinkers who are averse to friction, and wanting to move beyond surfacing friction: There are commonalities among the shared cognitive processes and mindsets of ethnographers, designers and Naïve Dialectic thinkers. By unfolding how designers navigate and thrive in complex and friction-filled situations, we discover those designerly attributes needed to bridge the gap between making decisions and embracing frictions. These attributes can be adopted and applied by ethnographers as mindsets and can even, in our experience, find their ways into the hallways of large corporations. So, what makes people with a designer mindset so comfortable working with friction?

Reframe Ambiguity and Tolerate Contradictions

The acceptance of ambiguity enables our capacity to reframe it as an advantage and learning opportunity—stripping it from any negative connotation. Designers handle ambiguous situations regularly and work iteratively between problem space and solutions space to start experimenting without having all the answers. This dialogue between new solutions and a messy reality expands the tolerance for contradiction because not everything has to be created or answered simultaneously or sequentially. To solve problems with seemingly contradictory poles, designers often try to find the underlying goal shared by opposing elements and balance the compromise of each opposing element. Asking “How might we …?” questions that incorporate two seemingly contradictory conditions into one problem statement is a classic tool in the design toolbox, creating a Naïve Dialectical ying-yang balancing mid-way whilst working towards solutions.

Contextual Understanding of Interconnectedness

Designers aim to understand the broader context surrounding a problem. By embracing that everything is connected instead of isolating problems, designers continuously find new challenges that can improve their solutions. In other words, letting the context inform not only the problem, but also the solution, is key to a designer’s approach to problem solving. This holistic approach sets them apart from linear formal logic thinking and places them closer to interconnected dialectical thinking.

Optimism and New Possibilities for Openness to Change

Designers maintain an inherent optimism. They believe that solutions exist for every problem, and frictions are seen as gateways to new possibilities. Celebrating friction becomes a catalyst for innovative thinking and uncovering unexplored opportunities, making it easier to expect change because it comes with the promise of new opportunities.

A Non-linear Approach to Problem Solving

Friction, in the context of ethnographic research and analysis, refers to the tensions, conflicts, or challenges that arise within social systems or interactions. It is an important concept in understanding the complexity of human behavior, relationships, and cultural dynamics. Yet, it can collide with a linear way of coming to conclusions.

By examining friction through different philosophical lenses, we recognize that the process of sensemaking can adopt multiple forms beyond a rushed, hurdle-focused strategy solely aimed at minimizing friction en route to the finish line. By looking at various epistemological perspectives, we are reminded that sensemaking can take more shapes, and if you too are curious to explore new approaches to solving for friction, you might explore the toolbox and mindsets of design thinkers, whilst adhering to the core principles of Naïve Dialectism.

However strong the urge to simplify reality and choosing to see it as white swans only, we encourage you to be curious like an ethnographer, widen your lens, and work your way forward like a designer. Then you might find all the black swans out there ready to revolutionize your business.

IS IT A BIRD is an EPIC2023 sponsor. Sponsor support enables our annual conference and year-round programming that is developed by independent committees and invites diverse, critical perspectives.


Junyi Cai

Junyi Cai, Consultant, IS IT A BIRD

Junyi is a strategic designer fluent in creating the synergy between design & business. With years of experience in luxury service and retail industry, putting himself in the shoes of the customer is just business as usual for him, and he uses his emphatic lens to unfold the underlying needs, wants, and social dynamic of every lived experience. His international background bridges Eastern and Western cultures – and this article based on his work “The Yin and Yang of Design Thinking – Navigating Paradoxes With East Asian Philosophical Principles.”

Harmen Pelders

Harmen Pelders, Consultant, IS IT A BIRD

A cultural sociologist at heart, Harmen is interested in human behaviour in its context — whether natural or designed. Putting his broad base in social sciences theory and methodology to use in projects with a spatial element, he also draws on experience in communications and media when telling human stories. At IIAB, Harmen enters each new client project with his ever-increasing drive to understand people better and to help organizations make sense in an ever-changing world.

Lea Møller Svendsen

Lea Møller Svendsen, Lead Consultant, IS IT A BIRD

Lea is experienced in making anthropological knowledge come alive in design processes where humans and businesses meet. She uses a unique combination of curiosity, empathy, and creativity to see extraordinary opportunities in ordinary life. Lea is ambitious on behalf of clients and projects and collaborates to drive change in organizations and businesses. Projects have taken her across the globe where she has brought back insights from markets like Germany, the UK, and Canada.