Reflecting on Pragmatic Ethnography


I'm not a ethnographer by training and its not on my CV, but I realise that I have often (and increasingly) employed methods that are common to ethnography in my work.

My BarCamp Canberra 2013 presentation, "Pragmatic Ethnography" tried to capture a little of my own professional experience of working in the field. At Ripple Effect Group, one of the constant themes in our social business research and strategic projects with clients is working out how we get closer to the stakeholders that our work will affect. Sometimes we use surveys (including social network analysis) or other analytical methods, but our preference for employing a design thinking orientated approach tends to counterbalance this with a desire to be immersed in the physical and human context of the work.

Pragmatic ethnography from James Dellow

(Originally published as a Haiku Deck)

In my opinion, this kind of ethnography isn't the domain of either the hardcore user experience (UX) community or academics (a subject for another post, perhaps). But rather than talking theory, in this talk I wanted to simply share some stories from my our work experience to illustrate three aspects of ethnography that are important to me:

This isn't without its challenges. Two interesting concepts from the discussion at the end of my talk were rapid ethnography and pseudo-ethnography.

Pseudo-ethnography of course describes the use (or misuse) of ethnographic-like methods. The main complaint about pseudo-ethnography isn't that people are just doing it wrong or without training, but that they lack knowledge of the relevant social theory to ultimately make real sense of what they experience or that they simply don't spend enough time researching. There is also an element of anti-consumerism in critics of pseudo-ethnography, in response to the use of ethnographic practices in marketing and advertising.

On the other hand, Palo Alto Research Center's (PARC) concept of rapid ethnography (which might also be thought of as corporate ethnography) embraces the constraints of practising ethnography in a commercial context, rather than dismissing it.

Gavin Johnston describes it this way:

"Due to budget constraints and time demands, a 'rapid' approach to ethnography can be both more practical and still yield findings and insights that can produce highly actionable results. Is it always appropriate? No, but it is often better than no research and may actually be more beneficial depending on the goals of the research."

As a follow up to my own presentation at BarCamp, I particularly enjoyed reading this book chapter by Brigitte Jordan and Monique Lambert's, Working in Corporate Jungle: Reflections on Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (.doc) - the themes from their experience mirror closely my own.

Some further reading by PARC researchers that you might find useful includes:

Overall, BarCamp was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on my own practices.

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