Ethnographers Don’t Create Futures, People Do: Ethnographic Context and Facilitating Better Futures

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by DINA MEHTA & STUART HENSHALL, Convo

Ethnographic context helps people see alternate possibilities and situations where decisions may play out—and create better futures.

The future, of course, is inherently unpredictable. As the EPIC2021 theme Anticipation begins, “There are no future facts. Yet we humans constantly create potential futures.”

People create futures when they begin to see alternate possibilities and situations where their decisions—and those of others—may play out. This creates choices and potential options, while also identifying risks, implications of operating in a different world, and new areas for research and exploration. To do this, organizations need to be able to learn about the world “out there,” as well as understand and shift their own positioning within it.

How can ethnographers facilitate this quest to anticipate the future? Our work has focused on the organizational change needed for our clients to see and create new potentials. As ethnographers we bring stories into the organization, identifying those that are most likely to trigger a broadening of understanding and contextual awareness of the world around us, or reshape how we think about an item, artifact, behavior, set of values, etc. Importantly, we must be prepared to travel beyond the ingrained ideas and practices we take for granted, and always be curious.

Shifting Outside and Inside

Many years ago, when cell phones were on the verge of becoming smartphones, we facilitated a discussion for a global tech company on the topic of technology and privacy—an exploration of future utility. There were 24 people in an open room, with chairs arranged in a U. I could see and feel eyes glossing over. We felt the need to make the topic more meaningful!

So, we asked 7 of the participants to stand up and cluster in the middle of the circle. We walked around them (about a 12'X12' square) and said, “this is your house,”  then named them as family members and pointed out that this was where they all lived (in a one room house in India). Some of them gasped while others looked like we had revealed a secret past. We then asked ‘the family’ if it felt familiar (a few nodded their heads suggesting they had lived this way—we didn’t call them out), and if they had ever discussed issues like technology and privacy in this context.

One small intervention brought in things that had been considered “outside” the corporate scope, that in some sense were unspeakable. This enabled the potential for new perspectives and avenues to be introduced. Discussion became animated and the material being shared became more compelling as participants’ stories were animated by their own experiences and observations. They began to see alternative futures, and very different ways privacy could play out in alternative environments.

This example highlights three strategies for sharpening ideation and understanding to help others anticipate the future.

1. Broaden the Context

  • Expand the boundaries of the discussion or set a context that challenges the current mental maps during the share out.

In the example above, the group was discussing privacy and failing to understand how the definition of privacy could be very different depending on social context—for example when a group is living together in small confines and economic challenges mean sharing everything from clothes to phones.

  • Drilling down on the core research questions to exactly what context matters is at the core of developing good ethnographic research.

In the example above, our focus on the ethnographic contexts of privacy led to new thinking for the organization. As many of us have learned, questions that are too broad to assist in generating different or new options and understandings. The value is further reinforced when “discussions” can be brought back to the “focal issue,” particularly when (as in any project) there was group buy-in to the research question up-front.

  • Acknowledge little things can have a large impact.

In the example above, which occurred when the smartphone was first gaining traction, the desire to listen to one’s own music—create a private space in a small environment—was a precursor to the larger shift of TV to mobile devices. But it was a small exercise of imagining oneself in a very tangible, culturally relevant social space that brought home the profound implications for privacy and possible futures.

2. Be Sensitive to Forces of Change

How can we connect these focal points of research to large-scale forces of change? In the world of scenario thinking and anticipating the future, sources of change are commonly summed up as STEEP (Social, Technology, Economic, Environmental and Political). These broad changes are all around us, analysts characterize the pace of change as faster or slower. For example, fashion is transitory, while commerce moves more slowly. Nature, perhaps, is seen as slowest of all (or at least less visible to us, and of course is now accelerating).

Yet forces for change are integrated into our daily lives in uneven ways. AI manifests itself differently by industry as well as social, cultural, and economic context, but reaches broadly in its routine engagement with people. Politically, there is more talk today of totalitarianism and “trust” in governments. Being sensitive to these longer-term vectors can help frame and support the stories we share.

3. Looking Upstream

  • Stories about change

After a study we may have many artifacts and elements that we are dying to share. Findings can run to pages of talking points. However, slide decks seldom change people’s deep thinking. Change happens when people can tell the story that changes how they can see the future. It works when they can repeat it or generate it with others with a simple question or two.

In the field, gaining insights is just the start. The real fun begins when colleagues internalize the stories and make them their own. As stories are retold they tend to get both stronger and easier to tell. Which is why we alone can seldom create the future, as the future is an iterative approach and the best we can each do is bring new stories to the table every day.

  • Experts and Labs

Another method we use for anticipating change is talking to experts already working on the future. Don’t just go by their opinions—visit and observe in their labs too. While we are wading in the river, it’s a good idea to keep walking upstream—where are the new things coming from, where are the experimenters, the hackers, the technologists and philosophers focused? How might they change things? For example, today we can see the many ways in which healthcare is broken—this is wading in the river. So where will change come from? What is the smartphone moment for healthcare? Has it already happened? Going upstream would quickly introduce CRISPR technologies. Regulations haven’t caught up with progress in that sphere. By contrast, evolving browsers involves many agreed-upon industry standards. New standards often introduce new opportunities and may also reframe capabilities and ultimately open up new types of behaviour.  As ethnographers, we might also see change emerging from people and places that foresight experts exclude.

  • Stay Curious

Curiosity never killed the cat! Sharing and enabling people to be curious has never been easier. Enabling “drop-ins” or remote participation is a powerful method for onboarding team members and encouraging curiosity. Thinking and anticipating potential futures requires teams to shift mental models. Add in questions like, “how would this work?” Or simply, “what stood out to you?” Being curious about others' insights will open discussion and help to build a shared perspective.

Be a Future-Facing Ethnographer

Anticipating change means seeking out and seeing first-hand new or shifting behaviors, observing cases that may be leading change, or edge-cases today—all of which would suggest new methods and behaviors. Emergent fashion, re-purposed technology, tasks with a learning curve that might be made simple, etc., are all fodder for the ethnographic eye. Yet it is also easy to gloss over these observations, or miss them (perhaps we weren’t looking for them) if we fail to also ground what we see in a bigger picture.

You can help this process and yourself along by working with teams that embrace different viewpoints, encourage debate and conversation. You can also drill down early and often to gain a deeper understanding of the research questions.

For developing a practice, consider this question. “Imagine a world in which ethnographers can predict the future!” Now step out 10 years and tell me the story of this time? What’s changed? How did we get there? Then review the key steps in the story and ask yourself for each step along the way, laddering down “Why is it important?” Using this question with different people / groups will suggest alternative views on how we or you might change your practice.

Ethnographic work has recently been affected by the pandemic, remote research, and new technology, particularly video recording, editing and capture tools. Think about it—and let’s have a conversation at EPIC2021! What is new in the last five years? Could you have predicted where we are today? How might we have to adapt over the next 10 years? Almost certainly, for everyone the answer is different. Yet broadened horizons create new options and allow us to better judge the choices and direction we take.

Good luck and best wishes for the future!

Dina Dastur Mehta & Stuart Henshall founded Convo in 2012. A qualitative research and strategy firm based in Mumbai and San Francisco. Our practice is built on a deep understanding of human behavior and nuancing of cultural context. Dina brings a background in sociology and anthropology specializing in qualitative research, ethnography and UX research. She is at the forefront of mobile and web technology research in India and works with a global portfolio of companies for whom she also organizes learning journeys, and leadership immersions. Stuart is a futurist, facilitator and strategist focused on providing teams with opportunities for deep immersive learning and co-creation. He evangelizes meaningful conversations for clients, around observations, inspiring insights, innovation, finding design solutions, and approaches for change.

Convo is an EPIC2021 Sponsor. Sponsor support enables our unique annual conference program that is curated by independent committees and invites diverse, critical perspectives.

Image: "Ideologicial circuits, Digital DNA, City of Palo Alto, Art in Public Places, 9.01.05, California, USA 9327" by Wonderlane via flickr https://flic.kr/p/5SFLr3 (CC BY 2.0)


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