Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Tutorial: Spatial Ethnography – A Place-Based Approach to Research


Learn frameworks and techniques to understand how people engage with their physical and material environments and illuminate opportunities for innovation.


Understanding how people use and engage with their physical surroundings adds depth and dimension to your ethnographic analysis, enabling you to design better products and services. This tutorial introduces you to new tools and frameworks that not only allow you to record how well a space performs from the perspective of the people who use it, but also provide insight into people’s preferences, habits and social contexts, leading to more impactful solutions for a resilient future.

We’ll explore new techniques of participant observation by zooming in on patterns of use, pinch points, line of sight and material language, revealing how people under- or over-utilize their physical environments, and investigating opportunities for product and service innovation. Techniques include visual documentation on Google Maps, using plans as cultural probes, keeping activity diaries, intercept interviews for placemaking, place-related surveys as well as other methods. In addition, you’ll become familiar with theories associated with the study of space and place to inform your analysis.

From the future of work to smart devices for the home to retail store design, every project has a spatial context. Rather than give it cursory consideration, this tutorial will show you how to harness the benefits of carrying out ‘spatial ethnography’ in your research, covering:

  • The landscape of spatial ethnography: what it is, how it’s done and what ethnographers bring to the study of spatial context
  • The importance of spatial ethnography for business and organizational challenges: what are the wicked problems of space and place, and how it can provide insight into existing behaviours and unearth opportunities
  • The techniques of spatial ethnography: how to use new tools and frameworks in your research, collect more relevant, high-quality data, analyse the results, and communicate research to colleagues and clients
  • Case study in the spatial ethnography of work: how can spatial ethnography be deployed to develop new work (and home) related products and services

The video has been edited to protect the privacy of participants.


Gemma John completed her PhD in social anthropology in 2009, and now conducts academically rigorous and strategic research to advise organisations on sustainable property development and management. An applied anthropologist, she began her career in planning and architecture in 2014 with AECOM and Foster + Partners in London. She has since worked with private, public and nonprofit organisations across Europe and Africa, carrying out research to understand the impact of cultural and technological change on the real estate industry and harness business opportunities. She is the founder of Human City, an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London’s Department of Anthropology and Adjunct Faculty at University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainable Leadership. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and a Winston Churchill Fellow.

Sophie Goodman is an applied anthropologist primarily working in customer experience and strategy, employee experience and service design. Most recently she has written about how ethnographic observation can help organisations in the area of talent management, particularly as it becomes more automated and digitalised (Routledge), and how firms could establish ongoing dialogue and work with communities impacted by artificial intelligence. She is Director of Research at SEC Newgate Australia, and has worked at Deloitte and with a wide range of clients as a consultant.


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