Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Protesting for Change, #BLM


We support the protesters. Black lives matter.

Working at my desk in the past few days, a fairly constant thump of helicopters and aggressive wail of sirens has forced me to parse space in new ways. Here, in the US, the rights of protestors to claim space is contested by presidential rhetoric and ruthlessly cynical uses of force for political ends. We are feeling the reverberations wherever we are sitting—in cities or not, in the US or not—as we bear witness. As we act and speak as citizens, families, neighbors and cities, it is worth a moment to be thoughtful about how we, as ethnographers in industries and organizations, choose to participate.

As ethnographers we observe life as lived on the ground, as it unfolds, embodied or ephemeral, with affect and purpose, in relation to material systems and systems of meaning. The ground is where change happens—is practiced, performed, and contested in acts small and large, messy and often with contradiction. Our practice is also framed within larger organizational interests and goals. We produce research and representations about who matters and where, orienting organizational strategies and products around these choices. This past week, protestors are using their bodies and voices to claim space—on the street, the internet, at work and school, in home life, in one another’s hearts and minds—transgressing normative boundaries to stake claims about who matters and where. We must pay attention.

Ethnography trains us to think systemically, to understand the way anti-blackness exists in and through relationships that no one sits outside of. Yet, it is easy to be consumed by the tactical, transactional ways in which our work is organized. We won’t make change by observing or making statements but by daily practice that highlights systemic relations in what we study; applies and interrogates models of human action in equal measure; and re-attaches our work to larger social and political histories. We make choices to push back, or not. To call out contradiction.

Taking our systemic frame beyond the parochial spaces of our project work, being more transgressive, might mean situating narrow-gauge, tactical implications for a new products project into broader-gauge conversation—about the politics of food, say, or the social history of a product category. It might mean transforming narrowly scoped queries on ride hailing into broader discussion about mobility and differential outcomes on equality, considerations that go beyond the product team’s interests.

Our actions might have limited scope, impact might be incremental, but we are bound together by discerning eyes, tenacious will to understand, tenets and theories by which to explain, and a predilection to upend things. Our work with others is grounded in reciprocity and steeped in contexts we ourselves create. We are agents of change…or not. There is no neutral ground.



Rita Denny, EPIC