Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Renewing Our Practice: Preparing the Next Generation of Practitioners


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Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2012, pp. 296–310.

A key aspect of renewal is disciplinary renewal though the addition of new practitioners, who can bring revitalization to our practice. To successfully land their first job, today’s new practitioners need practical, relevant basic skills and knowledge, which they can acquire through a range of training programs. In this paper, we reflect upon the significant methodological, interpretive, ethical implications of such training programs for ethnographic praxis in industry. How they evolve and change the work, how new knowledge is created in the field and what that may mean for the future renewal of our practice begins with how they are trained.


A key aspect of renewal is disciplinary renewal, which takes at least two forms. In the first, practicing professionals engage in “continuous” and self-directed learning, building on their skills and knowledge through conferences such as EPIC and through the practice itself. A second renewal of our discipline is though the addition of new practitioners, who may initially lack knowledge and experience but also bring fresh perspectives and revitalization to our practice. These new practitioners have very different opportunities and challenges than those faced by their senior counterparts. As we wrote in 2011, today’s senior practitioners did not train to be ethnographic practitioners in industry. Rather, the majority came through “traditional” academic programs but, for various reasons, found jobs in industry and learned the skills of practice “on the job.” As we noted last year (Mack & Squires 2011) to successfully land their first job, today’s new practitioners are expected to come into that first jobs with some practical business or industry relevant background and basic ethnographic skills and knowledge, which they can acquire through a range of training programs that have emerged worldwide

In this paper, we reflect upon the significant methodological, interpretive, ethical implications of such training programs for “ethnographic praxis in industry” beyond the addition of new bodies doing the work. Educators have long held that teachers teach as they were taught. Following this maxim, those who teach new practitioners will have an important influence on how these new practitioners practice. While professional development influences our personal practices, what we collectively will become in the future is dependent on those yet to enter the field. How they evolve and change the work, how new knowledge is created in the field and what that may mean for the future renewal of our practice begins with how they are trained. We begin by reviewing the current ethnographic training programs for practitioners and why such programs are so important. Next we describe the Design Anthropology course currently offered by the Anthropology Department at the University of North Texas with its stress on theory-building in combination with hands-on learning. Finally we reflect on the trade-offs each of us has made to create and conduct the design anthropology course.


In the last few years several academic programs have emerged to train practitioners in “ethnographic practice in industry” including institutions such as Savannah College of Art and Design, Swinburne University, Mads Clausen Institute, University of Dundee, and the Institute of Design. However, most of these programs are based in departments or schools of design. While all of these courses are multidisciplinary, their homes in design schools do influence the courses offered. Many members of the EPIC community, including the authors, were trained in anthropology and other social sciences and we believe that one of the strengths of our practice is the multidisciplinary nature of the practitioners. If we are to keep our multidisciplinary approach we must continue bringing new practitioners in from a variety of fields including anthropology. As a social science, anthropology brings theory (in particular social theory) to bear, and that is a particular analytic view that is distinct from other fields represented in this community of practice. From firsthand knowledge we admit that bring theory into practice is not always easy. It takes a little more time to develop theory-based insights and a tension can develop on a multidisciplinary team between those who want to ensure a solid theory-based model for action and those who are eager to implement ideas or are concerned about business needs and timelines.

Theory is core to “ethnographic praxis in industry,” in that the conference started to help bring theory into practice. As Rick Robinson noted at the first EPIC conference, “Application of methodology to an arena doesn’t make a domain, or a discipline. Theory debate does” (Robinson 2005:2). At the same conference, Stokes Jones meditated on the need to balance theory and observed “fact” (Jones 2005). Skill, we argue, can only be gained through an understanding of both. Using anthropological theory in combination with ethnographic methods can provide explanatory models that broaden and deepen the understanding of the context(s) in which events happen and people act (Crain & Tashima 2005: 42-47). Thus, anthropology should continue to be a core field for training industry practitioners based on its potential to prepare people who can practice in the context of theory, and further push our field to new places in the future. As practitioner-scholar and anthropologist Meta Baba reflects, “a praxis theory of practice which places the applied anthropologist in a collaborative role founded on the dynamic exchange between theory and action” will not only enhance the work of the multidisciplinary team but the field of anthropology as well (Baba 2000).

While as two anthropologists we are admittedly biased reporters, we strongly believe that anthropology departments should continue to be one of the key sources of new practitioners in our field. However, as the training of practitioners has become more formalized, anthropology departments have not followed the path of design departments in terms of this training. Of the few academic anthropology departments who have taken the reigns in training practitioners, only a handful of applied anthropology programs have a business focus—most notably at Wayne State and the University of North Texas (UNT).

We also acknowledge that this more industry-aimed training faces particular challenges within departments of anthropology. While traditional anthropology education includes a great deal of theory, and sometimes practice, often there is little that is applied practice. Much of this stems from a traditional distrust of private practice and industry.

Most academic departments do not teach their students about the history or anthropological practice, much less provide courses on practice for future professionals. While interviewing academic anthropologists Meta Baba found two widespread concerns: lack of theory in practice and ethics.

It is likely to be during a discussion of ethics, when practice may be disparaged as dangerous ethical ground. . . . If pressed to explain why practice is denied a place within the required curriculum or as a source of knowledge, some of our colleagues will contend that the reason is theoretical. Applied anthropology, they argue, has no theory of its own but only borrows superficially from other fields and dilutes what it borrows (Baba 1999:10).

Baba suspects that fundamentally academic anthropologists argue against practice because they are suspicions of large corporations and government and. by extension, those anthropologists who work with them. The relationship practitioners have to commercial interests does not allow them to maintain an objective orientation, the academics argue, and research conclusions are, thus, questionable (Baba 2006). Baba has written extensively about the tension between the academy and practice and we recommend her articles on this topic for further reading.

This distrust has meant that while we are not the first industry academic pair to collaborate in the goal of educating new practitioners, nor are we groundbreakers in academic and industry partnership, such collaborations are relatively rare in our academic discipline. While academic anthropology partnerships with industry are rare, in the design and engineering/technology fields academic partnerships are found with many industries. Likewise the renowned design programs mentioned above have successfully partnered with industry as part of training their students. In fact, Mack and her group at Pitney Bowes have collaborated with the Mads Clausen Institute for several years.


Building theory into practice does not always happen naturally, but we believe that orienting practitioner students through training early in their careers provides a crucial foundation on which they can continue to build. Our case study for this reflection is a Design Anthropology course described in this paper, which is part of the applied business anthropology program at the University of North Texas. The anthropology department is one of the few programs in the United States to offer a master’s degree in applied anthropology with a business focus option. The goal of the program is to provide graduates with the knowledge they will need to undertake informed and thoughtful action, whether as street-level practitioners, administrators, agency-based researchers, or as program evaluators in private and public sectors, foundations, and businesses in local, regional, and international areas. Students can obtain a master’s degree in one of two ways: through a traditional on-campus program where students meet face-to-face with an instructor, or through an online program that was created to serve students who are unable to attend an on-campus master’s program due to geographic, work and/or family constraints (ReCruz et. al. 2007: 1-6). The on-line program attracts students with diverse backgrounds and work experience who live all over the world. The department offers several specialties including Business, Technology and Design Anthropology (BTDA). Within this specialty, students can take courses in organizational analysis and change, teams, user-centered design, marketing, communication in the workplace, human-computer interaction, consumer behavior, diversity and globalization.(http://anthropology.unt. 2012, Jordan et al. 2013). The Design Anthropology course described in this paper is an elective within BDTA, though enrollees have included students from design, information sciences, marketing, education, library science and media studies among others. It is considered one of the primary courses for a minor in anthropology in the college of business and in the college of design. The only prerequisite is that each student has taken an introductory course in anthropology.

The first Design Anthropology course at UNT was initiated by Christina Wasson, who worked with Christa Metcalfe of Motorola as an industry partner. Her course was created for the classroom where students from a variety of disciplines learn the fundamentals of the design anthropology field by reading about, and discussing topics relevant to design anthropology in general. In the second half of the course, there was a class project where students had the opportunity to practice applied research methods and video ethnography based on proposals and field guides created by the instructor and industry partner (Wasson & Metcalf 2012). Students worked in teams of two, a designer and an anthropologist, to collect the data. Data analysis took place in the classroom under the direction of the instructor and the final report was organized and assembled by the instructor for delivery to the industry partner.

Redesigning the course

In 2010, Susan Squires joined the department and taught Wasson’s face-to-face Design Anthropology course. She invited Alexandra Mack to be the industry partner based on our personal and professional relationship and shared research interests. The evolution of the course also took into consideration the experience that both authors have working in industry. Squires was a practitioner for over 20 years and brings a practitioner’s knowledge to the project process. Mack is a Research Fellow at Pitney Bowes who has been a practitioner in both consulting firms and industry R&D for over 15 years. The first time this course was taught, Squires and Mack largely followed Wasson and Metcalfe’s successful formula including the face-to-face classroom environment. However, Squires did begin to put more responsibility on the students for framing the research and final deliverables than was expected in earlier iterations of the course.

The second time the course was offered in 2011, Squires was ready to reframe the content to better prepare the students for actual industry practice. Importantly she was able to consider the recent findings from interviews she and Mack had conducted with senior EPIC members about the skills and knowledge both necessary and valuable as a practitioner in industry (Mack & Squires 2011). These interviews had asked senior practitioners to reflect back on the “first generation” of ethnographic practitioners in industry who were mainly trained in conventional graduate anthropology programs and geared toward the academic job market. These senior practitioners, who now hire, had cautioned Mack and Squires that “no one can just be a field worker.” The skills they brought to bear in their jobs included “leadership, management, consulting, innovation, and marketing” (Mack and Squires 2011) and advised that such skills were important for new practitioner success. Squires and Mack decided that some background and hands-on experience in these additional skills was necessary as the course content evolved.

In addition to a redesign to meet the changing demands and expectations of employers, the course had to be reworked to become a class for online students in 2011. We realized that the pedagogical changes prompted by the shift to online could be further used to help prepare students for workplace realities, which are also shifting toward more remote collaboration. The Department of Anthropology at UNT has offered online course for a number of years. Squires followed the format for departmental online courses (Davenport & Henry 2007:12-15, Nuñez-Janes & Re Cruz 2007: 20-23). All the work was completed while working through online supportive technologies, such as Blackboard, Skype, Google Docs and PBWorks.

In line with the need to train for current jobs, the course objectives explicitly reflect what senior practitioners advised regarding the skills and knowledge necessary to become a practitioner:

  1. Develop the ability to think and relate with the world in an anthropologist.
  2. Learn the values of anthropology and its conceptual tools as it relates to ethnographic practices.
  3. Provide project experience from the client interview to final deliverable.
  4. Understand the different research approaches and how to select the most appropriate: discovery, definition and evaluation.
  5. Can describe what different disciplines bring to the process (psychology, sociology, design, engineering, marketing etc.).
  6. Learned to work in multidisciplinary teams.
  7. Understand business and business goals.
  8. Be able to work with others remotely.

Underlying the design of the course is a pedagogy called Constructivism. It is also called, ‘hands-on learning’ or engaged learning. “Constructivist” learning theory was inspired by Jean Piaget’s ideas about experiential learning (Piaget 1950). Behind these ideas is the proposition that each student is an individual with a unique set of knowledge acquisition preferences and skills that are situated within the context of their background and culture. By extension using a ‘constructivist’ pedagogical teaching approach provides the student with the tools to manage their own learning experience. The particular model used for the Design Anthropology course has been modified from Kolb & Fry’s four component model of constructivist learning (Kolb and Fry 1975):

  • Providing the student with a concrete experience – a project
  • Building skills in observation and reflection through the application of ethnographic methods
  • Using analytical skills to formulate abstract concepts and theory derived from anthropology, and
  • Testing in new explanatory models and insights.

In the first two steps learning is based on hands-on experience where the student carrying out a task or activity and reflecting on its outcome. In the third and fourth step, the concrete experiences must be analyzed and translated into general principles or explanatory models under which the task or activities fall (Kolb & Fry 1975). In the final step the course applies anthropological theory for deeper insights and hypothesis testing.

The constructivist pedagogical philosophy led us away from the structure of an overview course that included a project in which students had the chance to practice data collection methods. Instead, we used the project as a frame for teaching theory and skills. Thus the project became the framework for the course in which students could participate in all aspects of a practitioner’s work. Working in teams the students were engaged in the entire process from the first meeting with the client (Mack), writing a proposal, conducting the research, analyzing the data and creating a final deliverable of findings and recommendations, which was presented to the client during the final week of the course.

In order to build the students’ theoretical knowledge, each phase of the course project is accompanied by theoretical readings that provide insights relevant to the current project phase. The course has 10 learning modules which are woven into the sixteen week course project (Table 1). Topics include the anthropological perspective, the concept of culture, comparisons of theoretical models used by different disciplines, theories on team-building and practical manuals on developing a field guide and the various methods for coding data and finding themes. By the end of the course the students are expected pull this knowledge together to develop explanatory models to explain findings that are supported by research literature. While each learning module includes a theoretical overview of the weekly topic, we realize that one course cannot give all the theory they need. However, what is provided has two benefits: the theory gives an introduction that provides a foundation on which the student will build, and it allows the students to work with the theory as it connects to practice and vice versa.


Table 1. Design Anthropology Course Modules

All students were expected to form teams of 2 to 3 individuals who collaborate on all project work through the entire process. Stress was placed on small team-based work, and team-based analysis and theory building. The students were expected to reconcile differences and work out team dynamics. Each team used space on a private Wiki to facilitate group interaction. Teams created and posted “deliverables” every week which were shared with the entire class. We gave direction in broad strokes so as to allow creativity in teams, but did not otherwise structure team or project work. For example, each team developed their own field guide using a field guide template, and the field guide was then posted to the entire class. It was up to the class members to agree on the final document. Before the final client presentation was created, each team developed its own theoretical models and posted it to the class to decide which would be use. The liveliest discourse centered on these. By collaborating on an applied project, students gained transferable skills on how to interacting with a client, write a proposal, apply research methods, engage in collaborative analysis, build theoretical models to explain findings, and to translate their research into practical applications.


While it is admittedly difficult to assess results in only a year or two after a class has been taught, we have asked for feedback from the students themselves on the preparation they feel the course has given them. At the end of the course each student was asked to provide anonymous feedback on their learning experience. While we always like to receive positive comments, the most valuable feedback provides specific information on what is good and should be kept and what was challenging and might be improved.

Reflections on Design Anthropology

Overall students found the course rewarding. “This is truly among the best courses I have taken at UNT. I have learned so much during the course of this semester. I think about research completely differently than before.” Included in this comment is a nugget of learning about the nature of design anthropology, which provides some positive information about the success of the course content. Efforts to instill the importance of anthropological theory appears to have been well received as reflected in the student comment which noted that, “The subject matter is maybe the most relevant to anthropology because the design of ethnography is central and paramount to the discipline.” And another commented, “Many of the concepts are important for any focus in anthropology.”

While online teams were a challenge for the students, they valued the experience, noting, “I appreciated . . . all of the importance placed on making great groups.” Finally the constructivist approach combining theory with hands-on learning, is supported by the comment that, “The course provides “a wealth of real-world anthropology in a field filled with academicians.”

Challenges of the Online Course

Under the best circumstances distributed work is not easy and the tools used in both academia and industry tend not to be state of the art. As students learned remote collaboration can be a real negative as illustrated by one student’s comment, “The structure of the course was challenging. Going between Blackboard, which is a terrible interface. PBWorks, which is better, but not great. And various word documents and PDFs. It was hard to know where to go for what and go between the different forums. Blackboard is an abomination and online courses are suffering greatly.”

For better or for worse, the tools used for remote collaboration in industry are often no better than the ones the students complained about. Mack’s research with a globally distributed group at Pitney Bowes revealed that challenges to “good communication” included both infrastructure and practices (Mack, et. al, 2009). While we can’t improve on the infrastructure provided, we did try to take these prior learnings on practices into use with the students, guiding them toward developing their own “rules for engagement” for “good communication” within their work groups. Learning how to communicate in the context of an online course provided real time preparation for the work environment.


Industry-academic partnerships are not without their challenges. As Bruneel observed, academia and industry will have “different incentive systems and different goals” which can lead to misunderstandings (Bruneel et al. 2010). Wasson and Metcalf found particular “challenges of combining anthropology and design across organizations” (2012) echoing the reflections of the editors of the forthcoming book, Design Anthropology: Between Theory and Practice, that design anthropology has at least two research traditions with different objectives, assumptions and methods (Gunn, Otto & Smith 2012).

The academic/industry partnership we have established, is what Freitas defines as “personal contractual,” a partnership that is based on personal knowledge and trust. This partnership models is one of the more successful, Freitas suggests, not just because of the existence of a personal relationship but because each individual in the partnership also agrees to take responsible for navigating their own institutional barriers (Freitas et al. 2010:16). Perhaps the tacit agreement by each of us to share the responsibilities has made our particular partnership work. Likewise, as we are both anthropologists who have worked in industry, we have avoided some of the industry-academia disconnects possible. Yet there are challenges and trade-offs to our partnership.

Industry Tradeoffs

Monetarily, the cost of the course has been minimal for Pitney Bowes. In contrast, many industry partnerships with academia involve a transfer of finances in exchange for research and consulting services. Coming from a research division that is primarily focused on technology, Mack has experience with such partnership agreements with other departments in which Pitney Bowes gains knowledge and maintains clear ownership of intellectual property while the partner university benefits from financial support. Pitney Bowes’s currently has several university relationships and payments of up to $100,000 a year in exchange for student course work and research consulting with various professors are not unusual.

The relationship we have established is more informal, though in deference to Pitney Bowes’ corporate legal there are signed agreements in place between the institutions regarding non-disclosure and intellectual property, and individual students are also required to sign off on these. Where necessary for the work, Pitney Bowes has invested some money in the course. For the face to face class, Mack has traveled to Texas for the final presentations and bought pizza for the class—not a big outlay. Pitney Bowes has also covered recruiting and incentive fees for a student conducting an independent study version of the course with multiple participants.

With regard to the partnership with Squires, Mack has different expectations about what she will gain from the research. Her expectations are based on two factors. First she came into the agreement with the understanding that she was helping to train students, some of whom will join the field as industry practitioners. Since the project was framed as a learning experience for them as well as data gathering around Pitney Bowes’s interests, she knew that some of the data the students were asked to collect was not of central interest to her projects, and that some of their findings would not be “new.” At the same time, every group of students did deliver new insights and perspectives, with outcomes comparable with those of class projects at universities with which Pitney Bowes has paid agreements. She understands that she is not paying for consultant level work, nor does she expect such based on the minimal investment. For her as well, the process of helping students learn and gain experience was positive in and of itself. As a practitioner who is very involved with EPIC, she also views the renewal of the field as worthy of personal investment, beyond where her company may or may not see direct or quantified value. At the same time, she realizes that her particular position grants her some leeway around this personal investment that is not always allowed in industry contexts.

Academic Tradeoffs

For Squires the partnership allows her to introduce the design anthropology students to “real-world” research from a “real” industry client and provide the context to engage in theory building. In turn, the learning experience is foundational for the transition from the classroom to a workplace setting. Further benefit is gained from Mack’s understanding that her involvement is educational, and her contributions have been instrumental to student learning beyond her role as “client.” But this partnership has trade-offs for Squires too.

For one thing class projects such as those undertaken in the partnership are more time consuming than traditional teaching. However, the university makes no consideration for the extra time involved. This is directly tied to the unpaid nature of the project. While her partnership with Mack and Pitney Bowes is valued at UNT, it has been made clear that such unpaid academic-industry partnerships have less value than those that bring in funds. Further, such unpaid partnership projects have no career impact while those that are funded are included for tenure consideration.

For both of us, the rewards of the partnership include the enjoyment of working together, and the commitment to renewing our practice by training the next generation of practitioner.


During the summer of 2012, we began to experiment with extending the design anthropology course model from the classroom to a guided internship. To discover if a guided internship model might have value, Pitney Bowes offered internships to two anthropology students who are getting a masters in the applied anthropology department at UNT. One student intern had previously taken the Design Anthropology course. The second student intern took a Design Anthropology directed study with Squires, which focused on the same theoretical frames offered in the course, at the same time she was conducting a research project for Pitney Bowes under the supervision of Mack.

The student with previous coursework in design anthropology reported that working within the company provided important knowledge about its organization and goals: knowledge that was not as in depth for the course. This knowledge was helpful in crafting the research and customizing the research deliverables and present findings clearly to Pitney Bowes staff. Being there also provided informal encounters with individuals and teams from other parts of the company who would be “acting on the ideas.” These informal get-togethers in the hall or after a presentation, allowed the intern to get to know the internal staff and their thoughts and reactions to the project findings. It also allowed the intern an opportunity to clarify and discuss research findings. He reported that the theory taught as part of the course was valuable in his role as intern and he found himself returning in particular to the books and articles on analysis.

The second student followed the course curriculum as outlined for the Design Anthropology course while an intern undertaking a project. While this student had less background in anthropology than the other, she did have extensive experience in “practice” as a market researcher. We found that she struggled more with applying the theory to the project. In part this may be due to the intellectual burden of application of theory before it can be internalized, as well as the challenge of doing something seemingly familiar (user research) in a new way (with a theoretical orientation). In addition, unlike the students in the course, she did not have a team and lacked the support team members can offer, nor did she have peers with whom she could discuss ideas or build themes from analysis. She also reported difficulty juggling the on-the-job research requirements Mack expected as a job supervisor with the course paced direction provided by Squires as her instructor. Despite these drawbacks, she reported that she learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the experience noting,

This dual format turned out to be a highly rewarding learning experience. I especially appreciated being able to apply lessons learnt in the coursework parallel to conducting the research, e.g. I was able to use the interview techniques in field and theme development methodologies in the analysis.

We were both satisfied with the results of the projects. Given the experiences of these two interns, we are comfortable with continuing with guided internships, but are reluctant to say whether it is preferable for a student to conduct an internship once the course has been taken, or to do one concurrent with the course material. In the end the choice of model may depend on a student’s individual background and needs.


Theory is core to “ethnographic praxis in industry” and the EPIC conference was founded in part on the goal of bring theory into practice. The renewal of practice includes the ability to continue with the theory and methods from a diversity of fields, including anthropology. For the field as a whole we need to continue to include the anthropological perspective and anthropologists on our multidisciplinary teams.

However, while we argue in this paper that we need to train practitioners who know how to put theory into practice, we also recognize that we can no longer expect aspiring practitioners to spend years in traditional academic departments of anthropology acquiring analytical skills as we ourselves, and many other senior practitioners, did. Yet at the same time we also have struggled with the challenge that Jordan (2011) has identified regarding the ability to teach and to learn deep analytic competence without “years of graduate education that include multiple stints of fieldwork.”

While a challenge we do feel that the connection between method and theory is a key part of anthropological training, and we (perhaps stubbornly) also want to see practitioners trained in our discipline so they can continue to join the fantastic practitioners being trained by our colleagues in design schools as ethnographic praxis in industry evolves. Yet, it is not practical, nor even possible to embed years of literature review into a semester. We recognize that we are only providing an introduction to theory and practice and that it is far from all the theory or all the practice they need. The Design Anthropology course described in this paper is our attempt to overcome some of the challenges by offering an approach that provides a practical real world experience that is also grounded in theoretical perspectives, which parallel the experience. It is a beginning—a way to start introduce important concepts early in the careers and, in this way, guide the renewal of our practice and a learning experience that is rare in anthropology master’s programs. We also see the course describe in this paper as only one model for introducing students from a variety of disciplines to the convergence of theory and practice. It is by no means the only model for the emerging courses in applied anthropology departments that can be offer, nor is it the only model that will work for industry partners. Yet we do argue that we all (academics and industry practitioners) should be taking conscious actions regarding the renewal of our field, and consider the formal and informal actions and structures that enable us to grow and move forward. This routinization should come from all disciplines and practices, as part of the power of what those of us at this conference do comes from the diversity of background and experiences we bring to projects. The more we can continue to introduce this diversity early in the training of new practitioners, and in more academic departments and training environments, the better prepared practitioners we will bring into the field.

Susan Squires now at the Anthropology Department, University of North Texas, has consistently demonstrated 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.

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.


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