Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Ethnographers, Bearers of Bad News


Ask any applied ethnographer what is the hardest thing about their work. Go ahead, just ask one. More than likely, she will exhale slowly, slump back in her chair, fix you with a steely stare and say, “I spend so little time on actual research.” Her gaze may drift away at this moment. She might look at her hands and say, “I’m not even sure if I actually do research at all.” She’s not even talking to you anymore, but to some earlier version of herself. “I’m not sure when it happened,” she might say, looking out the window now. “There’s just so much more to do besides research.”

Applied ethnography is not for the faint of heart. It is a tireless job, Sisyphean in character. It challenges a researcher’s essential view of herself, and her role not just in her company, but in the world. Applied ethnographers are purveyors of what anthropologist Elizabeth Colson called “uncomfortable knowledge,” or the discovery of knowledge that contradicts, threatens, or otherwise challenges established belief systems. Academic ethnographers can work comfortably among like-minded colleagues, and share uncomfortable knowledge with industry – from the very comfortable distance of the university.

But not applied ethnographers. They are embedded inside corporations, thus making their uncomfortable discoveries all the more dangerous. Certainly, they get a seat at the table, but they bring with them the potential for troublesome truths. Where once the client stood in happy ignorance of how unintelligible her product is, now she must grapple with the uncomfortable knowledge that consumers reject her product. Where once a product manager felt assured of his product’s success, now he must face the fact that his potential customers see no value in what he has built. Applied ethnographers bring knowledge that can threaten a person’s very identity.

Uncomfortable knowledge is the ethnographer’s cross to bear. It is here that she gets weary. Cursed with foresight, she is a modern-day Kassandra, warning her colleagues of impending doom that only she can see.

This is where we may look at our Kassandra with pity. She spends more time disseminating knowledge than actually producing it. It is at this time that she may begin to lose her own identity as “researcher” and create a new one as “truth teller.” It is here that she may begin to wonder if she is an ethnographer at all.

But do not feel sorry for us applied ethnographers. We may be forced to cultivate an identity we did not plan to. We may well wear the name Kassandra with discomfort. But this transition gives us something else, something new, something many of us didn’t know was possible for academically trained researchers. Unlike academic researchers, we have an extraordinary opportunity to be-in-the-world, to make, and to create.

Applied ethnographers are within the enterprise, that is, they are within an enterprising context, filled with possibilities. It a place where heroic efforts are made to connect things to people. And by heroic, I mean that these efforts often fail. Theories and arcane methodologies are swept away in order to focus on bringing something – anything – to life, in the off chance that this thing will fit in a world already full of people and other things. It is here where the ethnographer has the chance to make people’s lives real and to participate in this heroic effort.

Existential psychotherapist Rollo May argues that the key to creativity is something he calls “the encounter.” A designer, artist, or writer must “encounter” her subject. This is an unstructured, messy, glorious falling-in-love moment, wherein the artist sees nothing but her chosen topic in everything and everyone. She is immersed in this moment, this concept. She thinks it, dreams it, and revels within it. There is no counting of it, there is no analysis of it, but there is a deep, quasi unconscious sensemaking.

The ethnographer must encounter the brokenness of her company’s product or her client’s service. She must spend time with consumers, users, customers, without judgment. She must accompany them or their journey to frustration. And she must do it repeatedly.

It is heartbreaking.

Yet, it is also life affirming. There is not a single project I have completed in my private-sector experience where I have not viscerally experienced an encounter. I have encountered everything from the harried lives of working parents to the sweetness of decorating a home for Christmas. I have met people whose diseases will kill them and whose jobs make them feel they can do anything. I have been inside homes, offices, cars. I have heard stories of children dying in accidents, of friends being laid off. I have encountered the full range of human experience.

I do not sit in the Ivory Tower. I move boulders for a living. They usually roll back down the hill. So if you ask me, what is the hardest thing about my work? I will sigh, fix you with a steely gaze and say, “I’m not even sure I do research. I am trying to connect things to people.” At this point, I am looking down at my hands. I will look off into the distance. “The hardest thing,” I will say, “is that I usually fail.”



Sam Ladner, Microsoft

Sam Ladner is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft. She focuses on the intersections of technology and work, to help designers and engineers reinvent productivity technology. She is the author of Practical Ethnography and has a PhD in sociology. She lives in Seattle with her husband and cat.