Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Ethnographic Expertise as Visionary Catalyst of Collaboration


Cite this article:

2015 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, ISSN 1559-8918.

Recent developments in the scholarship of ethnography, combined with growing recognition of the value of collaboration in business, present industrial ethnography with the opportunity to exercise greater agency and leadership. This paper considers updates to theory and practice of ethnographic strategy, positionality, foresight, and design, observing that the combination of these developments is ideal preparation for such leadership and collaboration in a context of increasing complexity. Discussion of business orthodoxy and related critiques contextualizes the conversation. Atul Gawande’s development of the surgical safety checklist provides a case study for showing how a deep ethnographic approach can apply the specific capabilities highlighted in this paper to foster collaboration and to understand and solve complex problems in a way that bridges “anthropological” and “design” ethnography. The paper ends with practical suggestions for advancing ethnographic leadership and agency. Additional key words: anthropology – bizdev – business philosophy – creativity – consulting – corporate – entrepreneur – fiction – future – leadership – organizational behavior – startup.

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. (Henry Ford)


Industrial ethnography is coming of age, a point hammered home by the title of Christian Madsbjerg’s keynote address to EPIC 2014: “Happy Birthday, now grow up…” (2014). Recent contributions to the EPIC conversation highlight the acceleration and burgeoning complexity of business and market dynamics caused by globalization and technological advances. But that scholarship also identifies particular ways industrial ethnography helps industry adapt to and succeed in this context. This paper will discuss how the evolution of industrial ethnography and business practice points toward the potential for shifts in authority and creative agency. This paper then will explore how industrial ethnography can provide strategic foresight, enable sustainable business development, and foster collaborative organizational behavior within and among organizations. The intent is to suggest an emergent direction for ethnographic praxis and new roles for the ethnographer: as catalyst and mediator of collaborative relationships and as strategic visionary for business opportunities and organizational development.

Where We Are Now

Industry demonstrates an increasing valuation of the contributions of industrial ethnography. Madsbjerg made that point in his keynote (2014), as did Hal Phillips at the beginning of his recent post on the EPIC website (Phillips 2015). But Phillips also notes that existing ethnography often is constrained to preexisting structures, organizations, projects, and processes. Madsbjerg’s keynote celebrated that “it is now completely reasonable and desirable to do our kind of work,” but likewise critiqued the status quo, saying that we should be “taking on new arenas, the big questions, and higher expectations” (2014). We can respond to this challenge by pushing ethnographic expertise, research, and analysis even further forward and upward in the innovation or business development process, to blaze new trails and drive new opportunities.

There’s nothing new about the idea that understanding human context, systems, and behavior ahead of time provides strategic advantage—it’s what underlies the whole general concept of “applied anthropology,” in all its manifestations, throughout the past 110 years (Rylko-Bauer, Singer, and Van Willigen 2006). But ethnography can exercise more agency in business projects by identifying opportunities, developing collaborative organizational structure and communication, and strategically shaping the design process in sync with dynamic contexts. We do some of this already, embedded within some companies and contracted by others. But continued practical and creative success depends on more than advisory ethnographic insight, so there are two parts to my thinking. First, and a direct extension of existing practice: ethnographic expertise is vital to determining strategy and project direction, especially in increasingly complex contexts. And second: ethnography is a key to building and maintaining collaboration, a means by which to enable both greater efficiency, innovation, and success in business and also recursive growth of ethnographic agency in industry.

A discussion of recent scholarship both from EPIC and on collaborative business philosophy shows how and why industrial ethnography is primed to take steps toward practical application of these concepts. Ultimately, the key to creating efficient and sustainable organizations working on novel, far-reaching, multidisciplinary opportunities in the complex and fluid contemporary market is the same as the key to catalyzing real, sustainable collaboration. To do either, we must understand contemporary and future sociocultural dynamics of complex systems, the facts, forces, motivations, and values of participants in those systems, and how to use that information toward practical and effective communication that can bridge cultural barriers.


The reader may ask: if collaboration methodology and ethnographic leadership are so good for business, why are those not the universal standard in industry? In summary reply, the fundamental reason is the entrenchment of success and the challenge of driving change in a self-reinforcing system. This paper is not focused on business practice or theory, but discussing the potential for of ethnographic leadership and collaboration requires problematizing the contemporary state of these landscapes. Madsbjerg exhorted us to “learn to speak business” (2014). In the context of this paper, doing so helps us to present ethnographic leadership and collaboration as of practical and strategic value in current business practice, as well as to discuss the viability of longer-term developments.

The Tautology of Success

Business orthodoxy, whether at startup or multinational scale, can be boiled down to five principles: maximize profit, minimize expense and loss, command and expand the industry, grow as continuously but efficiently as possible, and beat the market (Porter 1979). Michael Porter codified these foundations of strategy based on ongoing study of the dynamics and forces at work in the competitive marketplace (Ovans 2015). Twice he has reiterated that the system of forces and fundamental strategies he described in 1979 remains largely unchanged, if now operating somewhat more rapidly (Porter 1996; Porter 2008).

Formalized business education has existed in some form since the founding of the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris (ESCP Europe) in 1819. Most modern business and management theory is based on Porter’s work, augmented by developments in fields like organizational psychology and behavioral economics and tailored to the contexts of specific national markets and industries. Contemporary business training programs, whether towards an MBA or a targeted certification, provide instruction in a combination of theory and best practices. Because success begets success (Gladwell 2008; McNamee and Miller, Jr. 2004), and because business-school pedagogy is based on case studies of both success and failure, “best practices” basically codifies of how those who have been most successful in industry—C-level executives, serial entrepreneurs, investors—think is best to run a business (Beinhocker 2006). The resulting praxis is not entirely monolithic, but certainly it is clustered tightly around the preferred modus operandi of industry leaders, who attained their prominence by such means in the first place.

Critiques of business strategy and methods provide one window into current potential for change and how to pursue it. But beyond that, however, the rise, propagation, and acceleration of technology, especially digital telecommunications, has profoundly disrupted and reformed the business ecosystem, making it much more complex and dynamic and creating new opportunities for change (Anderson, Salvador, and Barnett 2013).

A Critique of Tunnel Vision

“Marketing Myopia” (Levitt, 2004 [1960]) is a significant and enduring critique of contemporary business philosophy, one to which ethnographic leadership and collaboration can offer both a strategic and an operational response. The critique calls attention to overly intense focus and hyperspecialization, both within and between organizations, as detrimental to creating sustainably successful businesses. The faster, more complex, globalized contemporary marketplace has magnified these trends, making the critique all the more relevant (Heskett 2014; Bazerman 2014). Within the business community, a major response trend has been the explosive popularity of Lean and Agile project management. The close coordination of specialists and rapid iterations prescribed by these methods increase team efficiency and agility, democratize group operations, and increase individual agency (Holbeche 2015). But cultural and communication gaps remain both between disciplines and among larger teams.

“Corporate ethnography” already works to bridge and translate among the different cultures present within an organization in order to reduce barriers to collaboration and efficiency (Off with the Pith Helmets 2004; Cefkin 2010; Fischer 2009; Altimare and Humphrey 2007). And existing industrial ethnography helps hyper-focused organizations be more strategically aware of and responsive to dynamic contexts. But we can do more. We can foster creation of systems of shared values beyond the goal or mission statement of a company or group as a whole, enabling reciprocal value sharing among team members in different roles and creating mutual supportive dependencies to undergird efficient and coordinated parallel operations (Heffernan 2014).

How Can We Do Better?

Margaret Heffernan (2014) critiques our general definition that “success” means “winning,” as well as the fact that what constitutes success is defined in part by those who previously have “won.” She proposes that collaboration is a solution both to strategic or managerial myopia and also to the absence of shared value development and communication. Echoing Levitt, she argues that “focus[ing] single-mindedly on the score” (Heffernan 2014:144) pursues short-term, shortsighted gain to the detriment of cooperation, resilience, innovation, and sustainability. Her cases illustrate that this principle applies both inside and outside of organizations, from relationships among individuals to marketplace interactions of entire organizations. Among people, competition disincentivizes sharing ideas, teaming up, and adding value outside of the job specification. Within organizations, competition discourages employees and managers from considering the broader welfare of the project because “it’s out of scope,” and it also pits projects against each other in the fight for resources. And among businesses, short-term hypercompetitiveness encourages decisions that decrease innovation and longer-term sustainability of a dynamic, competitive marketplace (Anthony 2014).

The reality of the global capitalist economic system requires competition within the market, but the critique of hypercompetitiveness is growing stronger (Meyer and Kirby 2012; Anderson et al. 2007; Graziano, Hair, and Finch 1997). In response, some research is exploring hybrid practices and strategies—for example, “coopetition” among companies in the same industry (Ritala, Golnam, and Wegmann 2014; Basole, Park, and Barnett 2014)—as a way to provide both dynamic competition and stability to the wider economy. Current structures of rewards and incentives encourage immediate market gratification and maximizing quarterly returns, but recent market shocks and recessions have highlighted the importance of more nuanced strategy with a longer horizon. Industrial ethnography has both of these capabilities, developed over the past few years in presentations at EPIC. In combination with the additional ability of ethnographic expertise to lead and facilitate collaboration, thereby maximizing foresight, flexibility, and resilience, this extension of industrial ethnography hints at the possibility for greater changes.


The diversity of industrial ethnography attests to the general acceptance of its value. To respond to Madsbjerg’s exhorting the discipline to “grow up” (2014), we must look for ways to expand its reach and influence—which has been something of an undercurrent to EPIC from the beginning, also occasionally touching on ethnographic collaboration. That conversation has evolved from focusing on the most effective means to extend the value and operation of ethnography in a globalizing marketplace (Mack and Mehta 2005) through discussing what “success” looks like for industrial ethnographers (Blomberg et al. 2006), reflecting on how best to communicate the nature and value of our work (Salvador 2007), and emphasizing the need to navigate corporate political reality (Thomas and Lang 2007).

2008 through 2010 saw the discussion broaden in two distinct directions: one reporting on ways that ethnography was becoming more central to and identified with broader corporate strategy, especially at Intel (de Paula and Empinotti 2008; de Paula, Thomas, and Lang 2009), the other noting the ways that industrial ethnography seemed to be struggling with the combination of increased volumes of work, amorphous expectations, and inconsistent visibility (Hanson and Sarmiento-Klapper 2008; Mack and Kaplan 2009; Ugai, Aoyama, and Obata 2010; Lombardi 2009). This latter thread builds on the enduring observation that much of industrial anthropology adds strategic and operational value to business but is not involved directly in deciding what that business activity should be. The discussion of successful advancement of ethnographers at Intel into positions of greater corporate strategic agency and responsibility contrasts with the fact that many other papers continue to discuss industrial ethnography in terms of advice, consultation, and support. In the latter context, business or creative agency seem reserved, consciously or not, to designers, engineers, or business executives.

The distinction I wish to highlight is between two ends of a spectrum of organizational strategy, leadership, and operations. One is based on existing business and management orthodoxy, led by a typical C-suite. The other is based on the premise that ethnographic analysis and agency provide a framework for collaborative business process, incorporating ethnographers into fundamental positions of responsibility, coordination, and authority. In practice, ethnographic leadership means building explicitly on knowledge that emerges from researching interwoven and overlapping social, technical, and political systems in order to develop foresight and strategy. Intel and Steelcase, for example, lean towards this end of the spectrum. The benefit of this latter approach is that business decision-making becomes optimized to the full range of dynamic systems and contexts within which a business exists.

The benefit of ethnographic leadership builds on the insightful definition of a new kind of “ethnographic focus on Flux, Order and Catalysts (FOC) in the market ecosystem” (Anderson, Salvador, and Barnett 2013:246). Part of the goal of this paper is to respond practically to the cautionary statement at the end of that article: that a faster-moving and more complex market landscape requires that industrial ethnography be able to do more than just get to know people in context and articulate their points of view as a way to reduce uncertainty in product development. To meet this challenge, industrial ethnography must be strategically self-reflective (Foley 2002), about how to engage with the shifting ethical and business imperatives that arise from acknowledging flux and complexity as defining elements of an increasingly technological and globalized world (Anderson, Salvador, and Barnett 2013; Bezaitis and Anderson 2011). This paper suggests that combining several capabilities of industrial ethnography, elaborated at EPIC, with recent development of collaboration business philosophy sets up ethnography to play a more active and leading role in industry.


The most fundamental of these ideas—ethnography as key to strategy (Anderson 2009)—is also the oldest, though recent discussion has shifted away from how ethnographers provide strategically-valuable information toward how the ethnography itself has strategic agency. The fundamentals of ethnographic analysis methodology have not changed from “placing into strategic and disjunctive juxtaposition different representations or perspectives so as to throw light upon the social contexts of their production and meaning, and to draw out their implications” (Fischer 2003:22). In the context of the flux and dynamism of systems of relationships and forces in the contemporary marketplace, static information about the state of those components is insufficient. Good strategy depends on dynamic understanding of the system—being able to ask the right questions about those dynamics and relationships, as such taking an active role in defining strategy as much as informing it (Anderson, Salvador, and Barnett 2013; Bezaitis and Anderson 2011; Fischer 2003:262). Building collaborative relationships and organizations strengthens this agency by augmenting ethnographic expertise with specialist knowledge necessary to tease out important details of complex systems. And in return, such understanding makes it easier to identify what collaboration is necessary for pursuit of particular strategy and how to make it happen.


The history of ethnography centers on an evolving understanding of the ethnographic point of view, from Western European objectivist “descriptive accounts of non-literate peoples” (A.R. Radcliffe Brown 1952 [1909], quoted in Segelstrom and Holmlid 2015:135), through realization of ethnographic subjectivity and reflexivity, to contemporary acknowledgment that “self” and “other” can be anyone with any perspective. The value that contemporary ethnography places on diversity of perspective and thick description makes it well suited to engaging with an increasingly complex and interconnected world (Tedlock 1991; Foley 2002; Cefkin 2010; Segelstrom and Holmlid 2015; Fischer 2003; Geertz 1973).

Kjærsgaard and Smith (2014) elaborate on the value of an explicit consideration of both positionality and “analytical distance” (p.268). The former describes the orientation of the ethnographic perspective; the latter describes the level of magnification. The argument is that both concepts are fundamental, but so far passive, elements of ethnography. However, an ethnographer actively may shift perspective on a system or consider several at once—inside looking out or outside looking in, from in among the most elemental participants to out at the highest possible altitude (Eames and Eames 1978)—with the intent to produce the thickest-possible descriptive analysis of all of its components. A variation on meta- or “para-ethnographic” research, activating positionality and analytical distance also benefits from and catalyzes collaboration (Powell 2015), in addition to contributing to development of extremely comprehensive and strategic understanding.

Fiction and Future

Absent actual clairvoyance, business must seek the next best thing to enable optimization of future plans—the operative word being “future.” People theorize constantly about the future (Bleecker 2009). Anticipatory anthropology—looking forward based on current knowledge—is not new (Riner 1987), but ethnography is rooted fundamentally in participation in the present (Ingold 2007). To enable ethnography to be strategically speculative, fiction can present the opportunity for immersion and participation in alternate or hypothetical realities: “the world of the story” (Lindley, Sharma, and Potts 2014:241; Brenkman 2005; Ronen 2005; English-Lueck and Avery 2014; Currie 1998; Carroll 1998; Gaut 1998).

Ethnographers can use existing thick data to build strategic, probabilistically accurate, speculative scenarios. We can do “fieldwork” in the fiction of others or observe the relationship and communication between contemporary reader and fictional work (Tedlock 1991). We can even look deep into the speculative future, using science fiction as both lens and mirror applied to human experience (Dourish and Bell 2014). Lindley, Sharma, and Potts (2014) present such anticipatory ethnography as an addition to the strategic foresight value of industrial ethnography. It is not clairvoyance, and it does not necessarily foresee disruptive or discontinuous shifts, but it can start to clarify how systems of culture, behavior, business, and technology likely will change, based on comparative analysis of many potential futures and contemporary human experience of those fictions.


Ultimately, the goal of industrial anthropology is not just to study the present, but also to have a hand in creating the future. The “appropriation of ethnography into design” (Segelstrom and Holmlid 2015:135) and propagation of “design ethnography” demonstrates the immediate practical value of ethnographic techniques to supporting goal-oriented, creative endeavors. But the distinction drawn between goal-oriented “design ethnography” and deeper ethnographic practice seems too binary. Thick-descriptive, “anthropological” ethnography in industry has strategic and creative agency to identify “design opportunities” from a deeper “knowledge about human behavior,” effectively bridging the two categories (Figure 1 in Segelstrom and Holmlid 2015:138). As “a planning exercise with intent to change behavior” (defined by August de los Reyes, Principal Design Director, Microsoft Xbox), design involves many different steps at which ethnographic techniques can add value. Madsbjerg’s encouragement to “divorce design” does not reject design, instead reasserting differentiating deep ethnographic research as providing a broader framework of knowledge and inquiry to catalyze and contextualize design. And this position likewise incentivizes ethnographic investigation to enable collaboration among all parties to the design process.

New Roles

Each of the four preceding sections highlights recent work on a key evolution in the theory and practice of industrial ethnography. Taken together, they illustrate the development of industrial ethnographic praxis capable of both deep and comprehensive engagement with the complexity of our contemporary reality and direct participation in shaping its future. The exposition of these emergent abilities of industrial ethnography—to develop and act on strategy, to operate deliberately and simultaneously from many perspectives, to provide well-informed foresight, to exercise creative agency to shape design processes—presents the discipline with an opportunity. It has the capacity to move beyond the success both of reaching prominence within organizations such as Xerox PARC, Wells Fargo, Intel, and Steelcase and of creating increasingly sought-after business and design consulting firms like ReD Associates, Sapient, Continuum, frog, and gravitytank. Growing business interest in the advantages of collaboration magnifies the opportunity for industrial ethnography to exercise its full range of capabilities in three new primary roles. First: to act in a visionary strategic capacity to identify and define business opportunities. Second: to identify the fields of expertise needed for successful and sustainable pursuit of those opportunities in the context of the complex and accelerating contemporary marketplace. And third: to catalyze collaboration by facilitating cross-cultural communication and the establishment of shared and mutual values, both within and between organizations.


The practical and theoretical evolutions of ethnography and business philosophy discussed in this paper show up in various combinations across myriad cases. For example, Heffernan discusses the economic, innovation, and workplace culture advantages of collaboration at W.L. Gore (2014:101–104). Brun-Cottan analyzes Julian Orr’s work at Xerox PARC, highlighting the benefits of shifting positionality (2013:165). Ortleib describes the growth of strategic influence and agency of ethnographic research at Yahoo (2010:202). And Steelcase both relies on ethnographic research for internal strategic foresight and then shares that research via a bespoke publication as a way to drive the whole industry (Steelcase 2015). But for a detailed illustration of the power of combining the different elements discussed in this paper, we will turn to the complex, critical context of the operating theatre.

The Checklist Manifesto

Atul Gawande, by training a surgeon and scholar of public health, has built part of his career around a kind of expert participant-observatory analysis of surgical practice, both in personal practice and at varying degrees of removal and systemic investigation. The most widely-known of his works, The Checklist Manifesto (Gawande 2010), is a case-in-point demonstration of how a deep ethnographic approach enables comprehensive understanding: the what, how, and why of existing behaviors and operations; the social, political, and technical systems within which a subject of study is embedded; the characteristics of an ideal future; and the leadership, practical steps, and collaborative relationships necessary for achieving that goal.

Gawande’s research began as an observation of the routine chaotic unpredictability of surgical mishaps. Echoing Anderson, Salvador, and Barnett (2013), Gawande describes modern surgical medicine as a landscape of burgeoning complexity, in which technology, intensified focus, and hyper-specialization have been the unsurprising primary response (Morozov 2013). Yet fully half of surgical mishaps are evaluated as preventable errors, and that percentage has remained stable despite technical advancements. “Medicine, with its dazzling successes but also frequent failures, therefore poses a significant challenge: What do you do when expertise is not enough?” (Gawande 2010:31). This challenge is analogous to that faced by business and design in the increasingly complex marketplace: what combination of expertise to deploy, how, and to what end.

General scholarship of medical errors previously had shifted from blaming individual failure towards identifying deficiencies in the system (Bates and Gawande 2000), and began to suggest that enabling doctors to attend to the human context of interactions with both patients and colleagues could improve medical care in ways that technological advancement alone could not (Gawande 1998). Gawande started from these two premises, studying the systems and forces affecting surgical practice and interactions among surgical staff. Gawande’s process illustrates how shifting positionality—in this case, among the perspectives of the surgeon, patient, nurses, specialists, hospital administration, insurers, and even a hypothetical surgeon-as-patient—enables a detailed understanding of human systems and behavior present in a particular context. Comparative analysis with similarly complex, critical contexts in different fields revealed broader trends of behavior as well as commonalities among the specific solutions developed by each field.

The checklist solution came from nuclear engineering and aerospace, in which it provided procedural reference and order for frighteningly complex processes (Bates and Gawande 2000:763). The unpredictable, organic variability of medicine meant that extensive mechanical checklists were inappropriate and even distracting in the surgical context. But Gawande’s analytical finding was that the general key to managing complex, critical contexts is human, not technical: ensuring replicable collaboration and clear, complete communication of all necessary information, regardless of field. The surgical safety checklist concept pursued this goal, trying to ensure effective collaboration, deliberate communication, and attentive engagement among everyone in the operating theatre—medical staff and patient.

The surgical safety checklist was a strategic human solution to problems affecting a variety of systems—from rates of mortality and complications to malpractice liability, hospital logistics, and even doctor confidence. Designing and deploying a solution to a problem this complex and multidisciplinary required extensive collaboration among myriad interested parties—the initial journal article had fifteen coauthors (Haynes et al. 2009; Gawande 2010:ch.8). The resulting 19-item checklist was the product of many hypothetical iterations, and it caused subtle changes to pace, procedure, and power dynamics in the operating room. It faced some resistance, but the ethnographic character of Gawande’s research required identifying and understanding the perspectives of all parties to the context of surgery, enabling their active collaboration in developing the solution. Beyond that, though, the fact that reducing surgical errors intrinsically would benefit so many stakeholders provided significant initial incentive for collaboration. The checklist proved extraordinarily successful, reducing surgical complications by 36% and deaths by 47% in the first six months of the pilot program (Gawande 2010:154). If anything, these numbers have improved since its wider adoption.

Gawande’s multi-perspective, expert-participant-observation process and his subsequent comparative analysis of complex, critical contexts were both vital to the development and implementation of the surgical safety checklist. His work simultaneously was both goal-oriented and anthropological, and his development of a broader understanding of human engagement with complexity made possible the creation of a specific, strategic solution to surgical errors. The comprehensive understanding of both underlying behavior and specific context enabled identifying the collaborators necessary for building, refining, and implementing a concrete solution, learning how to engage those parties, and determining what leadership was required to make the hypothetical solution a reality.

Without the deep ethnographic character of Gawande’s research and design process, it is possible that a similar solution eventually might eventually have appeared (Gawande discusses a few instances where more mechanical and logistical kinds of checklists were being employed elsewhere in medical contexts). But the focus on broader systems of human interaction and behavior in complex, critical contexts ultimately is what enabled development of a much more universal, concise, highly successful solution, in addition to advancing scholarship in fields studying teamwork, process management, disaster response, elemental types of tasks and decisions, interpersonal power dynamics, and holistic medical care (Gawande 2010).


The broader goal of this paper, like that of EPIC as a whole, is to develop the strength, value, and potential for influence of industrial ethnography. Taking practical advantage of the ideas discussed in this paper could take several different forms in several different contexts. Existing ethnographic presence within organizations, ethnographic consulting firms, academic training and support, and startup entrepreneurship all present distinct, strategic opportunities for expanding the purview of industrial ethnography. Ultimately there seem to be three or four pragmatic, practical steps that the discipline could take to work toward an industrial ethnography that can achieve greater authority, responsibility, and creative, strategic agency in a more collaborative business environment.

At the most basic level, we can work to shift ethnographic praxis subtly into a more actively creative and facilitating role, slowly leading by example. This is the most immediate, if slowest and least immediately gratifying, step toward a future in which ethnography provides the vision, structural foundation, and leadership in collaborative and innovative business. Existing high demands on industrial ethnographers make this route difficult, though current projects may see some immediate benefit from greater collaboration, multipositional methods, and incorporating the hypothetical. But proving the success of expanded industrial ethnographic capability by such quiet application in existing work, and calling attention to that success after the fact, may be the preparation needed to enable a broader paradigm shift.

The future of industrial ethnography also depends on the training of future ethnographers. In the academic context, we must push for wider acknowledgement of the agency, creativity, extensibility, and strategic applications of ethnography. Academic training in the social sciences tends to be oriented toward the history and theory of the discipline and the application of established methodology in the context of the present (Ingold 2007). Ethnography in this context tends more toward Segelstrom and Holmlid’s “anthropological” end of the spectrum (2015:138), working toward deeper understanding of human experience and behavior. The rapid expansion of ethnography in industry argues for greater coverage of the practical applications of social science within academic programs. In particular, the recent scholarship of anticipatory ethnography deserves a place in academic training, including its creative, strategic, and practical implications. Whether added as elective material or as part of a core course (as a small segment on the vanguard of ethnographic praxis), the material discussed in this paper advances both academic and practical goals in the training of new ethnographers who posses a full complement of skills. EPIC or the American Anthropological Association could support such academic efforts by communicating directly with students about the value and potential of industrial ethnographic opportunities as well as by providing information to university departments to inform and encourage their support of students interested in more applied careers.

The educational context, specifically that of design or business training, provides another opportunity to advance a practical, agentic ethnography in support of collaboration. In both fields, exposure to and experience of ethnographic creativity, insight, and leadership potential while still in training lays the foundation for such collaboration in future practice. Establishing mutual disciplinary respect and understanding of values among students in design, business, and anthropology is a basic step towards a broader collaborative dynamic in industry. In practice, this suggestion requires the support of professors and academic departments to create both cross-disciplinary and practical partnership courses. Funding for new academic efforts is always a challenge, but the large volume of money currently supporting entrepreneurship and innovation, as either grants or commercial investment, is one potential financial resource.

Outside of academia, there are two immediate opportunities to advance ethnographic innovation and collaborative leadership. Existing ethnographic consulting firms are an ideal environment in which to nurture nascent ethnographic creativity and agency. These organizations could develop their own structures and strategies to encourage entrepreneurial research and innovation starting from deep ethnographic investigation of what Madsbjerg (2014) called “the large problems.” Larger companies might consider policies such as Google’s “20% time” for personal projects. And companies of any size could partner with other funders to create the ethnographic equivalent of business incubators, providing professional mentorship in industrial ethnography and requiring both scholarly ethnographic research and development of practical design opportunities as output. This proposal requires some legwork by individual firms as well as by EPIC to identify and develop relationships with investors who would support this modified path to entrepreneurial success, but the growth of industrial ethnography and adoption of collaborative business philosophies suggests that such investors exist.


Ethnography has come a long way from its roots. But that firm foundation of deep descriptive methodology, comparative analysis, and social theory is more relevant than ever to making sense of increasingly complex human systems and the constant stream of new forces shaping human behavior. This paper has proposed that recent developments in scholarship of ethnography and in business philosophy set the stage for ethnography to assume greater agency and leadership in industry and to catalyze more collaborative relationships. But at the same time, we must remember that the fundamentals of ethnography ultimately are what make possible this evolution in ethnographic praxis in industry.

Jonathan LeRoy Biderman is a freelance consultant integrating anthropology, design, and engineering, interested particularly in experience design, crossmodal sensory perception, food, and tradition and innovation. He studied Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Design at Brown and Anthropology of Food at SOAS–London. He has worked at Microsoft and Modernist Cuisine.


My profound thanks to the following people: Genevieve Bell and Ken Anderson, for my initial introduction to the EPIC community; Maria Bezaitis, for honest, critical, constructive feedback; Erick Mohr, for curatorship; and Lauren LeRoy, Jaime Biderman, Emily Clough, Meredith Reiches, and innumerable others who provided comments and support.


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