What is Ethnography?Ethnography is a powerful approach to understanding people, organizations, products and services using theory and methods from the social sciences.
Ethnographers help organizations make strategic decisions, create value, and navigate uncertainty by understanding people within cultural ecosystems.
People—but also products, services, organizations, and industries—are fundamentally social. They are part of complex and evolving systems, connected to diverse communities, and imbued with layers of meaning. An ethnographic lens illuminates these relationships, opening pathways to solve problems and create new opportunities for our organizations, clients, and communities.
“Ethnography offers both a systematic approach to understanding the complex social life of a city that helps policymakers frame the ‘problems’ they are solving for, and a central method for surfacing and interpreting the complexity and diversity of lived, urban experience.”
—Chelsea Mauldin & Natalia Radywyl
“Ethnography helps reframe wearables – in people’s terms, and in culturally resonant ways – by challenging standard innovation practices and redefining design targets around what people find relevant and valuable.”
“[H]uman beings are always part of naturally occurring social systems…When we shift our perspective this way we find our work is as much about catalyzing human social systems as it is about understanding ‘the consumer.”
—John W. Sherry
What is the ‘ethnographic method’?
To understand cultural ecosystems and activate insights, practitioners draw on many decades of theory and methodology. A core ethnographic principle is understanding diverse people where they are, on their own terms, and within relevant social contexts. Where people and culture are traverses social relationships and physical, digital, sensory, semiotic, ecological, and imaginative environments. This means ethnographers use an evolving range of techniques and frameworks in collaboration with colleagues, stakeholders, clients, and research participants.
Often, ethnographers use techniques they are most known for: observing and participating with people in their own communities, homes, offices, train rides, shopping trips, and so on. We observe people and things in the course of everyday activities and rituals; analyze digital traces, sensor data, and discourse; conduct interviews and surveys; decode spatial, visual, and sensory environments; experiment and prototype; assess economic, political, and regulatory environments; and more. We co-create and triangulate many kinds of qualitative and quantitative data across spaces and scales.
Our organizations, stakeholders, funders, and our own practices are also a focus of analysis. This is critical to the way our work is designed and the value it can create. We ask why business challenges and research questions are framed the way they are; what assumptions are being made about markets or constituents; what kind of knowledge and evidence are considered authoritative; and what organizational dynamics facilitate or prevent strategic goals.
It is a socio-cultural lens, rather than a specific method or technique, that defines ethnographic praxis.
“Ethno-mining produces rich findings—where “rich” means multi-faceted, interwoven, and connected to wider contexts. Richness is achieved by collecting multiple types of data, working inventively and collaboratively with study participants to interpret this data, and working iteratively to identify connections between findings and contexts.”
—ken anderson et al.
“In dance, we are trained to keenly observe every physical and emotional nuance…we are taught symbolism and theory to deepen our interpretation. This foundation has shaped my connection to every aspect of ethnography: from practice to analysis to presentation.”
“Seeing how data is created and transformed by humans is essential to devising useful data-driven solutions for businesses. …Optimizing the company’s ability to use data without changes to the culture and organizational structure wouldn’t give agents the freedom and incentive to use that data.”
Ethnography, ethics, and equity
As people and practitioners, we are connected to diverse, global communities through systems that benefit some and disadvantage others. Ethnography is grounded in understanding social and cultural systems, so it also must be grounded in equity.
The implications of our work extend far beyond the scope of any particular project or business problem. A focus on cultural ecosystems pushes ethical attention to the full social and material context of people’s lives and relationships as they change over time. It illuminates dynamics of power and agency, as well as diverse perspectives and worldviews.
The essential practice of ethnographic reflexivity also demands this rigorous analysis of ourselves and the organizations, stakeholders, funders, and clients that frame and enable our work.
“To truly develop inclusive products we must find ways to expand the concerns of ethnography beyond questions of representation to strategies that can help decolonize the sites and processes of techno-production.”
“Ethics lives in social systems, and can only be explored in collaboration with people centrally involved. An ethnographic understanding will tell us who is in the conversation and who is not.”
“Before there was this concern about machines taking our jobs, there were bodies being treated like machines. …The system needs a pool of exploited labor, a population so dehumanized that we don’t question their cruel treatment.”