Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Ethnography for Equity: Using the Ethnographic Lens to Improve Outcomes for Everyone


Why did Donald Trump get elected? Because of the rage of the “working class”? Why did Brexit happen? Because “working class” Britons were angry at getting left behind? We find these explanations troubling because they whitewash events.

We convened the Salon Ethnography and Equality at EPIC2017 to discuss how our community can avoid doing exactly this kind of whitewashing as we work with our clients and stakeholders. We used an ethnographic lens to understand the systems that structure inequalities in our societies and organizations. To continue the conversation about this critical topic beyond the event in Montréal, this blog post describes the Salon’s main talking points and some practical solutions (one involving an actual toilet; more on that in a moment).

We explicitly told the 35 people gathered for our Salon that the discussion was to be safe. By that, we meant that there would be specific order for when a participant may speak, and that before sharing anything about the session, participants should consider the permanence and lack of context that characterizes social media.

Race and Social Change

To begin the Salon, we shared some quotes from readings that were designed to provoke and probe our own assumptions about race and social change—from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspiring account of a glittering black elite in My President Was Black, to the mournful and self-referential lament of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. We discussed how Vance’s memoir leaves out blackness in particular, and intersectionality in general. Some participants felt Vance’s narrative balanced the “only black people are suffering” narrative, by highlighting that “not just blacks” are fearful of the lack of jobs, and are also eager to blame a government and society they feel they have little control over. In contrast, some participants felt this narrative infused inequality into the product and services we create, by focusing on “only white working class” problems. Vance’s account could inspire organizations, clients and stakeholders to focus solely on the “white working class” as target audiences, with specific problems to solve.

The conversation flowed from our provocative readings and toward real world application. Can we build products and services for people of all races? Can we sound the alarm before racism becomes codified in those products and services? One participant questioned how we can make race a topic when even participants themselves do not bring it up. Sam noted that Malinowski too observed that participants rarely are aware of their place in sociocultural systems, and it’s our job to bring that up in our analyses. Arlie Hochschild used that same lens brilliantly in her book Strangers in their Own Land, in her analysis of why working class whites are angry:

“Having once experienced the elation—the “high”—of being part of a powerful, like-minded majority, released from politically correct rules of feeling, many wanted to hold onto that elation. To do this, they fended off challenge. They sought affirmation. One woman with whom I spent six hours talked about Trump continually, countering possible criticisms, leaving no interstitial moments when skepticism might emerge. It occurred to me that the reason for this shield of talk was to protect her elation.”

—Arlie Hochschild

This “elation” of being superior is the point Lyndon Johnson made, Fatimah told the group, when he talked about power dynamics between blacks and whites:

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

—Lyndon Johnson

The Journey of Inequality—from Process to Barriers

The group then discussed situations where inequality in ethnography happens. These are the very places where we can begin conversations about diversity. Some examples the group discussed:

  • During a project kick off or assignment: Being asked to research a demographic with no insider informant, therefore making the entire team “outsiders” assessing a group.
  • Delivering marketing and reporting materials: Photos that are chosen for final deliverables are often perceived as “white washed” and groups being categorized as in/out of “target market”.
  • During group analysis sessions: Stakeholders and even researchers may fall into labeling and categorizing data points based on biases that lead to inequality. Research of people in public spaces was specifically mentioned as an example of making assumptions as to the context and motivations of those being observed.

Participants in the Salon moved on to discuss barriers to equality in ethnography and the difficulty of discussing such critical topics at work. Barriers mentioned by the participants include:

  • Power dynamics: Within companies and as consultants, organizational structure and influence on projects that may enforce inequality may be beyond the ethnographers’ role.
  • Inequality and the bottom line: Corporations specifically are driven by the bottom line. A lack of evidence on how inequality affects the bottom line can lead to inaction by companies.
  • Perceptions of “tokenisms”: Initiating conversations about inequality is particularly difficult. This difficulty is especially heightened when the researcher is also a member of “diversity” groups being analyzed (minority, woman, LGBTQIA). As Fatimah wryly pointed out, and members of the audience agreed, it can be uncomfortable for a researcher to speak for the members of an entire group as the only one in the room.

The Stepping Stones to Overcoming Inequality in Ethnography

We explored real strategies for overcoming equality in ethnography. We talked about the importance of incentivizing empathy—people need a reason to care about others, and we can create structural opportunities for that.

Some of the ideas that emerged:

  • Be direct; it’s our responsibility to say “don’t focus on that”
    • Force or “coerce” clients and stakeholders to acknowledge inequality in ethnography.
    • Affect or evoke the bottom line of the company, identify areas where inequality may impact the overall goals of an organization.
  • Incentivize empathy for better design (include in formal goals and objectives of a team).
  • Include and be aware of structural biases—not just individuals in the process.
  • Highlight the fact that the product/service will enable members of an underrepresented group to influence the development of products/services actually used by members of their group.
  • Capitalize on “deep curiosity” of the team members. Insert equality where curiosity about the customer emerges.
  • Use brainstorming techniques, like “Yes and…”: set the space for us to explore without judging one another. (ex: IDEOU Brainstorming Rules)

We even explored more provocative or even subversive strategies, such as art. Who could forget the story of the toilet stall, in which Danish cancer doctors were asked to sit – and be examined by cancer patients! Art has a transformative power, the group found. Other ways to be provocative included:

  • Using ethnography “on” coworkers, by using an ethnographic lens on organizational dynamics.
  • Personify the product, capture data on how research subjects perceive the product/service. “White, male, professional, tech worker” might be the “identity” that comes to mind. Ask stakeholders and customers, “Who is this product?”
  • Simulate experience with stakeholders to feel the experience. Consider building experiential prototypes.
  • Empathy Exercise, experiencing prejudice (ex: Privilege Walk Activity). Different countries and company cultures may respond differently.

Finally, the group explored the importance of tracking progress. Consider tracking success of diversity efforts and changing the language of diversity hiring to prevent feelings of “tokenism.”

We closed the session with a brief, high school chemistry lesson. Sam recounted the only thing about chemistry she remembers—how to speed up a chemical reaction. Increase the temperature (find the urgency in diversity); increase the surface area (spread the conversation across the entire organization); or introduce a catalyst (look for that catalytic event or moment in your organization).


Coates, T. (2017). “My President Was Black.” The Atlantic.

Hochschild, A. R. (2016). Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right. New York: The New Press.

Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper Collins.


Reflections on Positionality: Pros, Cons and Workarounds from an Intense Fieldwork, Eduardo Gonçalves & Marcelo Fagundes

Consulting against Culture: A Politicized Approach to Segmentation, Marta Cuciurean-Zapan

Empathy as Faux Ethics, Thomas Wendt

Who We Talk about When We Talk about Users, Kris Cohen