Advancing the Value of Ethnography

In Defense of Personal Bias in Ethnographic Research


Past midnight, I’m shivering outside a pub in Shoreditch, the rain beginning to drizzle ever so viciously. It has been fifteen minutes since I left my friends and ordered an UberPool home. As I watch yet another cab drive by, I think about the millions of factors that make one choose how to get around a city. I think about comfort, cost and convenience, space, speed and safety.

Earlier this year I was involved in a study of pooled mobility in the UK, India and Brazil, where we tried to make sense of car sharing ‘grammar’ across these dramatically different cultural landscapes. The project, which came to an end in March, and the subsequent paper I wrote for EPIC a few months later, should feel like a closed chapter. Yet as I traverse cities, home and abroad, during the day and late at night, I never stop noting, observing, collecting data – often without realising I’m doing it. Even after a night out, I am still an ethnographer, fascinated by how people and vehicles, cultural values and economic considerations shape the face of urban mobility.

Whether studying car-pooling, voice assistants or models of subscription shopping, I often feel deeply affected on a personal level. As I leave the field, I continue asking myself and others the same questions that we asked our respondents, applying the same analytical frameworks that we used in the project to my own behaviour and to people around me. As my ‘ethnographic gaze’ turns inwards, I continue to try and make sense of socio-cultural phenomena we study, in the most personal and intimate way one could imagine.

One of the main reasons I am so highly ‘susceptible’ and involved, is because so much of what I research are things, products and experiences that I can strongly relate to as a user and therefore deeply care about. When researching mobility, I think of my own commute; talking to teenagers about social media inevitably brings me to think of my own ‘scrolling and sharing’ practices, and so the list continues. The point is, there is a great deal of projects I go into caring deeply about the subject matter on a personal level; and because I care, it makes me reconsider my own values and routine at the end of each journey.

Getting ‘too close’ is a rookie mistake a good ethnographer is taught never to commit. The problem of personal bias in ethnographic research has been central throughout the formative decades of the discipline. As any ethnographer steeped in years of purist, academic thinking, I have always been extremely wary of the danger of one’s personality, cultural orientation, social status, political philosophy, and life experiences colouring how one interprets the data. With this awareness comes the acceptance that the bias will always be there, and it is by being self-conscious and mindful about it that we can avoid misinterpreting our findings. A simple solution, and perhaps the only one that works, it discards the bias of personal experience as an unpleasant, embarrassing truth, ugly but unavoidable, one that leaves a marque of hseudo-science upon the ethnographic method – something anthropology has always struggled to deal with.

Yet as consumer ethnography continuously strives towards a more embodied understanding of people’s worlds and experiences, with phenomenology becoming an unlikely buzzword in the world of research, we are perhaps undermining the value of our own embodied experiences, and in doing so failing to fully appreciate the unique scope of the ethnographic method.

I never feel completely out of the field (and I know many colleagues who feel the same). The ethnographic toolkit is not something we get out when we go into the field, and put back into its dusty box as we return home. We continue to have it with us at all times. The ‘ethnographic gaze’ is not a ‘cap’ we put on and take off again; it becomes a second skin, an augmented vision that changes the way we perceive our surroundings and actions of people around us – as well as our own.

There are three main points in defence of personal bias as a form of ultimate embodied experience:

  1. Before we are ethnographers, we are and will always be consumers and users ourselves. Rather than awkwardly brushing aside our experiences as something that clouds our judgement, we can use these to establish a better rapport with our respondents, and, when appropriate, to observe and self-reflect on our own practices and behaviours in the context of the research subject matter.
  2. Because we never truly leave the field and continue to perceive and make sense of our own experiences (and those of people around us), we engage with our subject matter longitudinally, expanding both the physical and the temporal boundaries of the field, allowing ourselves to accumulate expertise and knowledge beyond the limitations of a project timeline.
  3. When designing activities and interactions for field immersions, by being our own guinea pigs (testing our methodologies on ourselves and colleagues) we can ensure the efficacy of our method, relate to our respondents and create an experience based on walking in other people’s shoes, not on abstract academic ideas.

Turning the Gaze Inwards

As an anthropologist, I’ve been fortunate to have researched fascinating (and mind-boggling) topics that I knew very little about to begin with. It’s an incredible learning curve. There is a huge virtue in being able to approach these unchartered territories without having to worry about personal bias. It’s not that it’s not there – it always is – but it feels somewhat peripheral when you’re desperately trying to understand the relationship between chemical compounds in pharmaceutical R&D. But just as much virtue – although of a quintessentially different kind – can be gained through the things we do have an intimate experience of. Simon Roberts’ piece on living with Alexa is a brilliant example of an ethnographer himself gaining ‘embodied insights’ in order to be better placed to research Smart Home AI and voice assistants.

As we studied models of subscription shopping earlier this year, I felt I would have made as good a respondent as I was a researcher (in fact, I ticked every single box on our screener). As a subscriber to a number of household, pet care and culinary products, I had a personal understanding of the needs, the joys and the frustrations that our respondents were dealing with. My knowledge was truly embodied, the kind that three hours in a respondent’s home, however well-structured and immersive, would not have been able to generate. It allowed me to quickly transcend the barriers between myself and the respondent, and dive straight into how they experienced something we were both very familiar with.

Always in the Field

Being in a state of always observing and self-reflecting can at times be rather irritating. The ethnographic ‘gaze’ and the always ‘on’ mode, however, gives us a professional edge, a degree of passion and involvement that allows us to continuously learn, gather new observations, constantly adding on to the ethnographic findings from the field. What we bring to the table goes beyond our billable hours, as a good ethnographer is never truly off the clock. Thus, the ethnographic method is valuable due to its ability to uncover insights about people’s lifeworlds, values and emotions, in a way other methods cannot. What adds even greater value is that we continue to uncover insights weeks, months and even years after we finish a project.

The work that we do thus has a longitudinal quality to it, as our immersion into the subject matter goes far beyond of what a typical project financially and logistically can allow for. If we are always users and consumers, even as we strive to forget it and be unbiased ethnographers instead, there is another process happening at the same time: as we get on with our own lives as consumers and users we can’t stop being ethnographers – and in it lies our great strength.

It’s All about the Method

In developing our methodological tools, tailoring them to the needs of a specific study, we seek to abandon abstract research design very early on, by testing our methods out on each other. Textual, visual and other types of exercises we design undergo a rigorous process of self-testing. Over the last months, we have made a great use of maps in our research, some to create an understanding of people’s relationships with their cities, others to learn where technology fits within different spaces of people’s homes.

To get from conceiving of a way to use a map in a study, to creating an exercise that actually helps us uncover people’s relationships with spaces, we go through a number of iterations where we ourselves draw, scribble and highlight, creating the kind of visual networks and maps of meaning that we hope to get from our respondents. If we can’t make it work, it won’t work in the field. Without our own personal experience and bias to test methods against, we would be left with purely academic frameworks, which may or may not be useful in the field. We wouldn’t find out until it was too late. It is the ‘all too human’, subjective and personal experience that helps our methods come alive and help our respondents to share knowledge that they weren’t necessarily aware they had.

We believe that the best knowledge is embodied knowledge and have argued so repeatedly. Using our own bodies and minds, shopping experiences and social media routines, is something that can bring an invaluable degree of expertise and engagement to almost any project. Instead of lamenting the unobtainable objectivity that would make anthropology a ‘true’ science, we should embrace the art of employing the rich layers of embodied knowledge that we as ethnographers, consumers, and human beings, can bring to the table.

Image: San Francisco Street Scene by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr.

Anna Zavyalova is a Research Consultant at Stripe Partners. A trained anthropologist, she is passionate about applying the ethnographic method to real business challenges. She has worked on projects spanning technology, healthcare and retail industries. With a particular interest in AI, Anna has carried out ethnographic studies of spoken interfaces, Smart Home, driverless cars and pharmaceutical R&D. Anna holds a BA in Archaeology & Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in Social Anthropology from the University of Copenhagen.


Knowing That and Knowing How: Towards Embodied Strategy, Simon Roberts & Tom Hoy



Anna Zavyalova, Stripe Partners