Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Evolving Ethnographic Practitioners and Their Impact on Ethnographic Praxis


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Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2011, pp. 18–28. © American Anthropological Association, some rights reserved.

As we reflect on the evolving nature of our practice, it is timely to consider how these individual evolutions impact the broader field of ethnographic praxis in industry. First, we look at the career paths of senior members of the EPIC community to chart key transitions in their individual careers. We observe that their career paths have moved them away from fieldwork, and into management where they shape projects, mentor staff and participate in decision-making. Thus, a key aspect of evolution for the EPIC community lies in how senior members are influencing what industry expects from ethnographic praxis. In a second intersecting theme we review how these individual career evolutions collectively influence the EPIC Community of Practice. We discuss how our field continues to evolve both on an individual level and within the Community of Practice to which we all belong.


With this year’s focus on evolution, we felt it was also an appropriate time to consider how ethnographers themselves are evolving, and how this evolution of individual practitioners is, in turn, changing the field of ethnographic praxis and influencing our evolving community of practitioners. Our goal is to both highlight how far our field has evolved over a fairly short span of time, and to raise awareness of the impact we each individually have over its direction as we conduct our own work, whether that work is primarily research, management, or teaching. Certainly we are not the first to take a reflexive view of our community practices; EPIC itself has been a venue for many reflections and self-definition over the last few years. At the first EPIC conference in 2005, Blomberg introduced the notion of hybrids to conceptualize our identities across design, research, applied, academic, corporate, and citizen. In so doing, she highlighted the importance of the intersection of work across disciplines, and in fact, the necessity to expand beyond ethnography to truly impact industry outcomes (Blomberg 2005). Likewise, Flynn and Lovejoy noted that “our biggest challenge as practitioners is to redefine perceived value beyond our immediate contexts of praxis” (Flynn and Lovejoy 2008:248). They questioned what this “arc of impact” would mean for the identity of ethnographers, and even whether ethnography itself had an organizational glass ceiling (Flynn and Lovejoy 2008:249). Such concerns are not unreasonable. Lombardi provoked the EPIC audience in 2009 by proposing that ethnographic labor risks being de-skilled, with more and more outsourcing of “fieldwork.” As we evolve our careers and our community, it behoove us to look toward the “higher order activities” that are not so easily de-skilled. For instance DePaula and his Intel colleagues described themselves as “decision-makers in the corporate business environment” who are asked “to contribute as product and business strategists, as dealmakers, and as corporate narrators” (DePaula, et. al. 2009:3).

As we turn our gaze toward the evolution of ethnographic praxis and the evolving roles of practitioners, we want to begin by looking back at how the practice and practitioners come to this point. We are mindful that this audience has come to ethnographic praxis through different disciplines and routes. Yet, training in a field (and in the field), either formally or informally, is a part of all of our backgrounds. Byrne and Sands (2002) have noted that design has traditionally worked on an apprenticeship model, while social science focuses on mentoring. Lombardi noted that ethnographers’ “work was rooted in our professional traditions, passed on through various kinds of apprenticeship, and was essentially under our direct control” (Lombardi 2008:42). Thus, when confronted with introducing ethnographic fieldwork to engineers at Fujitsu, Ikeya and this colleagues were unprepared because “professional” ethnographers have learned “through a mostly unstructured and, to be honest, self-directed process” that was enhanced by informal discussions with peers and faculty. Therefore, he and his fellow ethnographers not only had to introduce methodology to professionals from another field, they had to dig into differences of mind-set and value. (Ikeya, 2007).

This “situated learning” is key to building a workplace community according to Lave & Wenger (1991). The process of sharing information and experiences within these diverse groups provides a place for members to learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger 1991). Eventually the “practices of social communities” allow individual and group identities to emerge in relation to these communities forming what we now call Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998: 4). These workplace Communities of Practice, along with other factors, has had an impact on the evolving careers of individual practitioners. In turn, their career trajectories, workplace experiences , and the sharing the work at venues such as EPIC, is shaping a collective, and evolving, Community of Practice.


To understand career evolution of practitioners, we interviewed 8 members of the EPIC community. We sought individuals who have attended past EPIC conferences, and may have also presented papers and/or volunteered in organizational roles. Each of the interviewees has been “practicing” for at least 10 years, and all have attained a level of professional seniority at the organizations in which they work. As with all qualitative research we realize that a small subset cannot represent every aspects of EPIC community. Given these constraints, we did try to encompass a range of experiences and factors influencing career trajectories by selecting participants to obtain range of disciplines, geographies, ages, and institutions. Our interviewees included:

  • 5 women and 3 men
  • 6 U.S. citizens and 2 non-U.S. citizens
  • 5 currently based in the United States, 3 currently based in other countries
  • 5 with academic training in social science (including anthropology, political science, and psychology), 2 with academic training in design, 1 with academic training in computer science
  • 5 currently working for large enterprises, 2 currently working for consultancies, 1 currently working for a university

Each individual participated in at least one in-depth interview with open ended questions addressing their formal and informal training, the positions they have held, and what instances led to transitions in their professional lives. We also sought their opinions on the meaning of “ethnographic praxis in industry” and the evolution of the field as they themselves defined it. We recorded, transcribed, and coded all the interviews, which revealed the themes and patterns we discuss here.


While we don’t wish to give an in-depth description of a past that many have lived through or otherwise heard told around the bar, we do feel it is relevant to provide a brief timeline of “ethnographic praxis in industry” and to acknowledge some of companies that have had an impact. More extensive histories can be found in Reese (2002) and Baba (1998). We will begin with the first social scientists, including Lucy Suchman, Jeannette Blomberg, Julian Orr and Gitte Jordan, who were hired at Xerox PARC in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. At the time, PARC’s interest in social scientists centered on what psychological and linguistic expertise could bring to machine learning and artificial intelligence. Once at PARC, these social scientists broadened their roles to encompass a bigger picture of work, human practice, and technology interactions, and by doing so, we argue, created a Community of Practice. In the last 30 years, the number of people who worked at PARC have made this a significant locus of influence for ethnographic praxis in industry, in particular those who have moved on to other organizations and thus spread their understanding of practices.

Throughout the 1980’s jobs appeared at a variety of companies, but the 1990s was the period when positions for social scientists and design researchers were created within enterprises. We should acknowledge that 6 of our 8 interviewees (as well as both the authors) date their first full time positions as “ethnographic practitioners in industry” (whether or not these were their first full time positions) to the period between 1997-2001. One of our interviewees referenced a “blip in the landscape” that enabled her to get her first job. We believe this “blip” was not unrelated to the establishment of a couple of key firms.

While a number of consultancies represented at this conference were founded during this time, our interviews kept returning to the influences of a couple of significant agencies. The two who stand out are IDEO, founded in 1991, and e-Lab, established in 1994. Like PARC, these firms developed their own Communities of Practice, and employed a great number of practitioners, many of whom moved on to other positions and spread their ideas and practices further afield.

In the early 2000’s “ethnography” became trendy, fueled by stories in the popular media, and more jobs opened up. In 2005 this conference, was established as a home for people who felt other venues, such as AAA, SfAA, CHI, were not fully meeting their needs. It was named in part to capture the interest generated by the term ethnography, and to create a convergence around, as one interviewee put it, “the boundary object that we all share.”


In analyzing the interviews, we found that while each individual followed their own trajectory, there were clear commonalities and themes that emerged. Many of the interviewees told us that they always had the inclination toward their chosen field before they worked in it. In other cases, there was interest before they even knew there was such a field much less that it had a name. One social scientist noted that her dissertation work, though academic in focus, involved understanding the perspective of small businesses. Once she learned that opportunities exist where she could apply her training to design, she actively pursued them. As she explained, “because I already had an inclination in that direction, I think, that is why I sought out something different [from academia].” Another, who had majored in neither ethnography nor design, noted that “It wasn’t until later that my natural inclination and my passionate interest came together and I started looking at cultural anthropology.” This inclination was not limited to the social scientists. A designer discovered after his own training was completed and had taken a position teaching that he observed how difficult it was for younger designers understand the “human factor.” After teaching for 7 years he decided to go back school himself to “retool” himself.

In another reoccurring them, along the lines of this “inclination toward the human,” we observed that many of those with whom we spoke had traveled and/or lived abroad from their home countries for reasons separate from their academic training or work assignments. The desire for such experiences may speak to this inclination, but it also provided a form of training for them. As one interviewee said, “it really teaches you in a way that can’t come from book understanding. That sense that the other is so different, and getting the opportunity to be the other and to understand that some of the things that you’ve taken for granted in your own upbringing are so different in the place that you’re in now.”

Along the way, many of the social scientists we interviewed became disenchanted with academia, and the implications of an academic career. We did not hear the same complaints from designers, perhaps because design training does not place as high an emphasis as many social science graduate programs on a long-term research as part of the degree, or expectations that a graduate can only work in academia. As one of our interviewees described the situation, “Well, when you get a PhD in anthropology the underlying assumption is that you are going to teach. What other job can you get?”

This disenchantment, combined with the feeling that opportunities were limited to teaching in the academy, may have contributed to the revelatory feeling many experienced upon learning they could apply their skills in more broadly. Several were amazed that their “inclination” not only had an application, but a name. One anthropologist who worked at E-Lab realized “Oh, what I am doing is called visual design.” A designer who worked at the same firm said, “Suddenly I realized oh, this is what ethnography is.”

These two interviewees exemplify both the desire to be challenged that we saw in all our participants and to need to grow beyond their initial training. For all of them, crucial knowledge for success in industry had to be acquired through practice, which ultimately led to what we are calling, “hybridization.” Social scientist learned about design, designers learned about fieldwork and analysis. More significantly, most spoke of the need to learn about business. One interviewee explained that her early reaction was, “Like what, you do fieldwork and then you put it in PowerPoint? I just didn’t get it…its so far from the reality of my training.” Others were more methodical about their learning reaching out to coaches, finding friends of friends or development centers with expertise in HR and sales.

One interviewee summed up this need to learn and experience by simply describing herself as a polymath. We contend that all our interviewees, as well as most other successful senior practitioners in industry, are in fact polymaths, working in interdisciplinary contexts, with a range of methods across many Communities of Practice. In many cases, they are taking on multiple roles, as they navigate leadership positions within their organizations. One described his work saying, “What I do is a combination of ethnographic practitioner but also other kinds of practitioner fields: leadership, management, consulting and innovation, marketing.” Another noted, “No one can just be a field worker.”

Careers are not built through training and skills alone—external factors contribute as well. Earlier we mentioned the “blip in the landscape” that occurred in the 1990’s, which meant, as one interviewee put it “Suddenly you could get a job as an ethnographer…the consultancies were picking it up, the design shops were picking it up.”

More than one interviewee described their first job as “happenstance” or “luck.” Perhaps we are in a better position than they to recognize how their intelligence and skills contributed to their “good fortune.” But it is undeniable that timing can be crucial. As another interviewee pointed out “there were truly no jobs in the summer of 2001,” which led him to consulting.

Life also has its own impact. Mortgages, financial commitments, relocation options, and family obligations impact decisions to move into new roles and responsibilities. As one interviewee who has young children noted “Ethnography as a method is very travel intensive,” Having a child could limit job choices as one interviewees who found that large corporations provided flexibility when their children were young and so stayed with that company rather than seek other opportunities.

Consistent across this landscape, is the desire and ability of these individuals to adapt to the opportunities presented to them. As one summed it up, “I’ve found myself in places that opened up opportunities for me to look at certain kinds of things and I went for it. But when the environment shifted, the opportunities changed, I left it, in order to continue to be relevant, or to continue to bring value to the places where I worked.”


The careers described in this paper reflect the career arc of many of EPIC’s senior members, beyond those interviewed. As individuals, they have a depth of knowledge and experience which they share through papers, mentoring, advising, and serving in leadership roles within EPIC and other organizations. As a group, their collective influence is greater than the sum of each individual and, we argue, have influenced EPIC as it has evolved from a collection of individuals with differing professions and methodologies into a Community of Practice with a (admittedly amorphous and evolving) shared core of understandings and world view.

To understand the evolution of our praxis in industry we reference the model developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who suggested that it is through the process of sharing information and experiences within a group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger 1991). They use the term “situated learning” to talk about learning in context as well as “legitimate peripheral participation,” the initial role an apprentice assumes upon first becoming part of the group. This process of legitimate peripheral participation creates the structure for a community over time (Lave & Wenger 1991: 29). Thus, for ethnographic praxis in industry, Communities of Practice provides a model to discuss what knowledge is communicated, the community mechanisms that allowed transfer of knowledge to others, and the system in which that knowledge resides (Brown and Duguid 1991:45). Key structural characteristics of a Community of Practice includes a domain of knowledge, practice, and a community (Wenger et. al. 2004: 27 – 29). We will look at each to learn how our community fits this model.

Domain knowledge provides common ground for members’ participation, guides learning, and gives meaning to actions. While we are continuously evolving our understanding about what knowledge we share, at the core we are evolving a common set of domain knowledge, which has been influenced by the knowledge of senior members. These learnings have been influenced by their experiences, skills acquired, and participation in training encountered along their career paths. Within EPIC, there are several work environments that have, and continue to, contribute to our evolving knowledge domain.

As mentioned earlier in this paper, many EPIC participants (including some interviewed for this paper) got their start in companies such as PARC, e-Lab/Sapient, IDEO, and Doblin. At these companies, employees are exposed to, and encouraged to use, a select set of research methods and analytic approaches. They also have had large numbers of practitioners—as one former Sapient interviewee reminisced, “So you had a community of people that you could sit down with and talk about all the really cool projects.” For those who worked in such firms, these workplace experiences and training set a loose domain of knowledge around practice approaches, and many carried those concepts to other workplaces as they moved on in their careers. Nonetheless, not all our senior practitioners share this set of understanding. Many entered the field through other firms. In the late 1990s, when “ethnography” became trendy, many firms hired “ethnographers,” without really knowing what it was or meant. These new hires created their roles and the methods for doing the work.. This impromptu approach has also had an influence on the diversity of knowledge and methods we use.

Whether they were “making it up as they went” or gaining formal training in a particular approach, most of our interviewees were exposed to business practices for the first time in these jobs, and admit they had a steep learning curve. They also may have worked in multi-disciplinary teams for the first time, and had to learn to collaborate with a variety of people from vastly different disciplines on the job. All of these experiences contributed to individual knowledge, and to the identities they formed as to who they were and what value they brought to business. As people mature in their career the knowledge of who they are –their identity—continues to evolve, beyond that of a practitioner of a particular method. With that, the definition of ethnographic praxis evolves as well.

While ethnographic praxis may be the “boundary object” around which this conference was originally established, and has been an important part of their career paths, many of our interviewees were very careful in using, as one put it, “the e-word” in their self- definition. While they all claimed ethnography or ethnographic methods as part of their identity, it is only a part. Instead, they define what they do in terms of sensibilities and outcomes. They described this sensibility as

  • “The ability to take very complex worlds and being able to get to a core question”
  • “There’s this strategic perspective from the end user point of view”
  • “We are champions for being open ended, we are champions for the contextual”
  • “Making things that have value to people”

This expansive identity has enabled them to pursue opportunities that have moved them into roles informing strategy and organizational change. In addition to enabling a bigger impact on the organizations for which they worked, taking on these new roles expanded their domains, allowing for new challenges and expansion of skills and knowledge. But operating in such positions of influence also raises issues as one interviewee phrased it, of “ethical engagement within industry… In that context you realize that you have influence.” Bringing corporate ethics into our collective domain knowledge is a topic that senior practitioners are already raising in the EPIC community (Treitler and Ramagosa 2009) and will continue to be important because, as another interviewee explained, “We need to get comfortable enough that we have a moral center that we can be in the board room where these decisions get made and be part of those decisions—not just a voice but to shift moral centers. I think we are now getting comfortable enough to be in these positions.”

For Lave and Wegner practice is at the core of self-reference and the basis for teaching and sharing knowledge: “learning by doing.” For EPIC the choice of the word praxis over practice takes this to another level, implying the application of theory and an art to the work we do. Additionally, unlike many Communities of Practice, our work takes place outside of the EPIC community. We practice in multiple workplaces where the endogenous processes are placed within “the content and meaning…is determined within the social field it is designed to regulate” (Edelman, et. al, 1999:407). These multiple workplaces also imply differences related to professional training, variable worksites and project goals, the needs of those for whom we work.

We have already mentioned that some workplaces have had an outsize influence on domains of knowledge; we believe that they have influenced practice as well, due to the simple fact that they have hired a lot of people, and many of those people have moved on to other workplaces. Further, as their careers have matured, practices have been shared and discussed within the community formally though papers and presentations as well as informally.

Our senior members are now in management and in position to hire the next generation. Their hiring choices will influence our membership and the type of practice they enter. Many of our interviewees entered practice with different backgrounds and experience than many of those currently being hired. In the 1990’s academic PhDs were hired into industry roles, and learned by doing or from mentors. This is less common today. While there is still an expectation of learning through practice, what still needs to be learned has changed. As one of our interviewees said, “I wouldn’t hire me out of school right now.” Today, an academic PhD is not enough, and can in fact be a handicap. Designers are expected to have some training or practicum experience on how to go about learning customer needs. Finally there is now an expectation that the people hired are, if not multidisciplinary, at least adaptable and able to learn new things, new ways. As our practice has matured, we have come to expect that those entering practice already have more practical knowledge, business knowledge and multidisciplinary experience. At the same time, we risk losing some of the training that comes with traditional graduate programs. As one interviewee pointed out, “Academic training helps hone a vision and differentiates from someone without the academic training. It does not mean they cannot do it but we just have more practice at it.”

Senior practitioners who are now in positions to teach and mentor novices will influence the ‘practice’ taught. While some of the practice that the novice learns is informal, in other business settings formal training in practice is part of a new employees orientation. While only one of our interviewees is currently working full time for a university, several of them teach part time, or have taught and advised students. Senior members are also expanding practice into new parts of the world, teaching and setting up firms in South America and Asia.

Lave and Wegner’s third component is community; the social fabric where learning and interactions and a sharing of ideas occurs. While they considered communities to build in the physical environment where practice happens and practitioners gather, we argue that community can be more dispersed. In our case, the EPIC conference provides a base for our Community of Practice, augmented by other venues, both physical and virtual, including the anthrodesign listserv and local get-togethers. These places provide group focus around which the community develops, shares and maintains its core of knowledge. As network theorists Edelman, et. al. note, processes from the workplace are diffused through professional networks (Edelman, et. al. 1999).

Within our ethnographic praxis in industry Community of Practice, we will find our core as we learn from our members and from their workplace knowledge. Cefkin made a call for this a few years ago at EPIC, proposing that “the community of ethnographers in industry—a community productively built from multiple and intersecting disciplines, backgrounds and practices…would be well served to conceptualize our efforts as a project in its own terms” (Cefkin 2006, 167).


While we cannot predict the future, we can discuss the trends we found in our interviews about who we are and what we are about. It was clear that as careers evolve a sense of identity emerges, which is consistent across our interviews. First of all everyone agreed we are not our methods: ethnography. Rather, at the core of this evolving identity is a “sensibility,” or way of seeing the world: a higher order understanding “about people” and the system in which they live. We share a perspective on the world that comes from understanding people. Even though many of the senior members of our community are not in the field anymore, they told us they continue to frame their work with this worldview. This “world view” influences how we go about our investigations, frame a problem, and finding solutions. As DePaula, et. al. have noted, “The transformation of our work practices, as aforementioned, did not happen by chance, we deliberately changed and adjusted them to match the ongoing changes in our organization” (DePaula et al 2009: 14).

Lave and Wenger (1991) anticipated such a construction of identity as fundamental to the formation and maintenance of a Community of Practice. Within our community, our identity formation process appears to be in full swing. And, while there appears to be loose boundaries for this emerging identity, it is still amorphous In the future we expect our core identity to become clear as we continue “engagement in social practice…by which we learn and so become who we are” (Wenger 1998: preface). During the process we should be ever mindful to maintain our flexibility to allow us to continue to be inclusive and creative.

As we mentioned earlier in the paper, it is the very inclusiveness and creativity that has enabled senior members of the community to move into organizational roles that have major impacts on strategy and direction. This influence allows them to speak directly to executive decision makers, and perhaps more importantly, become decision makers who shape projects. As our careers grow and develop so will our community. Thus senior members are influencing corporate organization, and what industry expects from ethnographic praxis—a significant influence on the future of the community overall. And, we must take care to ensure that our community’s growth reflects our desired trajectory.

As we as individuals and as a community adapt to our own career goals and what industry needs, we should also be mindful of new members, and be thoughtful about what we expect of next generation coming into the community of praxis. Many of the people we interviewed had the opportunity to experiment and discover what is most useful for a successful career. They built upon knowledge they brought in through their formal training, and found where their formal training was lacking and had to be enhanced through “situated learning” and mentorship. Their formative learnings have shaped their expectations about the basic set of skills and knowledge a novice should have entering the field, and have led to the creation of formal opportunities to build such a foundation. Our newest community members can now receive formal education through universities, in workshops, or at in-service training, though much of the learning still continues to be situated in the workplace itself. Both the formal and informal learning is likely to be under the direction of ourselves—we shape what these novices are learning, and therefore, this is another avenue by which we continue to shape who we are.

How will the new career paths shape ethnographic praxis in industry moving forward? What is the balance of practice and theory we want from new employees (or for that matter, from experienced community members)? How do we expose new members to the work that has been done over the last 30 years, and how do we support members whose professional development is about dealing with managerial and organizational issues while balancing their human and ethical sensibilities? And should all of our evolution happen in the same venues—what do we want from our conferences versus our listserves, local get-togethers, and workspaces to satisfy our individual career needs and interests, and the long term health of our Community of Practice?

Alexandra Mack is a Research Fellow in Pitney Bowes’s Strategic Technology and Innovation Center. Her work is focused on developing ideas for new products, services, and technologies based on a deep understanding of work practice. She is currently focused new innovation practices.

Susan Squires now at the Anthropology Department, University of North Texas, has consistently demonstrates leadership in the technology sector creating innovative product solutions, and is a recognized expert on customer insights research. Her edited book, Creating Breakthrough Ideas (2002), chronicles the application of her research theory and methodology as used by anthropologists in business and design.


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