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					To: Prof. George Pullman
From: Osman Shaw
Re: Ethnography Defined
Date: February 12, 2003



                                          The Science of Ethnography

            Ethnography is basically the science of observing people aimed at interpreting their lives

    and behaviors. Ethnography differs from other forms of observation in that it is based upon

    participant observation, in which the observer becomes involved in the lives of those being

    observed over a period of time in order to understand the details of those lives. This can be done

    either openly in the role of researcher, or covertly in some disguised role. An example of the

    latter can be found in Whyte‟s (1955) study, Street Corner Society, in which Whyte glossed his

    research role by referring to himself vaguely as a writer.1 Ethnography focuses on culture and

    meaning and attempts to understand how people behave and why they behave in certain ways.

    Thus, as Simon Roberts puts it in The Ideas Bazaar, “the goal of ethnography is to provide a

    description of the world as perceived by those within that world, to understand what activities

    mean to the people who do them and to provide an interpretative description of this world.”2 True

    ethnography therefore means to see with the eyes of those being observed, to think and act like

    them, and even to live in their dwellings, because it is only through this can we achieve an

    accurate understanding and provide a fitting description of their lives.

            Formerly a practice of anthropologists and sociologists, ethnography aims at studying a

    sub-culture, which is a social culture within a larger culture, for example senior citizens or

    hairdressers; or an ethnic group, which comprises people who share distinctive cultural


1
    http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociologyVSOC/handbook
2
    http://www.ideasbazaar.co.uk/abc.htm
    characteristics originating from a common national, linguistic, or racial heritage,3 example the

    Hispanic community or the African American community. Ethnography has been used to study

    exotic tribes, neighborhoods, industrial subcultures, prisons, occupations, the army the police etc.

    Moreover, the commercial world also now frequently uses ethnography. And the reason for this

    is clear: businesses like to know about the people to whom their goods and services are marketed;

    ethnography provides the penetrating insights into the lives of those people. We shall return to

    the benefits of ethnography later.

            For now we have clearly seen that participant observation plays an important, if not the

    most important role, in the science of ethnography, but a number of tools are also available to the

    ethnographer. First we have the interview, which gives the ethnographer a chance to discuss his

    observation and interpretation with the respondent to clarify points and fill in the blanks. But it is

    also important to point out that such an interview must take place over a period of time. This way

    the researcher has the opportunity to go over the question-and-answer transcript away from the

    interview, a process that might reveal significant loopholes and new questions to be addressed at

    the next interview session.

            Next among the ethnographic tools we have a collection of artifacts, which will serve as

    excellent visual representations for some concepts that might otherwise sound abstract. A

    collection of tools used by the subjects, photographs and or video clips of the scene, people and

    equipment etc, will show, rather than merely tell, research stakeholders the context of the

    ethnography. The use of microphones and tape recorders is also popular among ethnographic

    researchers. Usually called verbal diaries,4 these taped conversations provide an excellent method

    for the researcher to get as close as possible to the respondents‟ lives and thoughts.


3
    Oxford American Dictionary
4
    http://www.ideasbazaar.co.uk/abc.htm
          Note, however, that these data-gathering activities such as interviews, field notes,

    photographs etc are meant merely to complement, not to serve as an alternative, to careful and

    involved observation, because careful and involved observation always provides a more accurate

    and unbiased picture for the ethnography.

          Furthermore, one must differentiate ethnography and orthodox social research methods,

    which have their own structure of information. Analysts and researchers using orthodox methods

    already have their own theoretical preconceptions of the social setting and tend to interpret things

    just as they see them. Such methods impose on the phenomenon they purport to investigate. For

    example, an interviewer or a questionnaire might ask respondents about their occupational

    history, their experiences at work, their attitudes toward the firm they work for etc, and treat

    these as indices of the general social context. But these can hardly accurately reflect reality since

    the respondent‟s responses maybe contrived. For example, an employee would not be willing to

    reveal details that might jeopardize his/her job. Ethnography, on the other hand, does not impose

    framework on the setting; it merely discovers the social organizational properties of that setting

    as it is naturally exhibited.5

            But what is the rationale of Ethnography? What are the benefits of Ethnography? I have

    indicated earlier that ethnography was formerly a practice of sociologists and anthropologists, but

    it still serves as an invaluable tool to help these researchers understand the people and cultures

    they intend to study. Ethnography investigates and interprets complex social and cultural

    differences and creates a better appreciation for the cultural landscape. Typically, it is only

    through ethnographic research that we learn about most exotic cultures. For example, it would be

    extremely difficult to understand and appreciate the lives of the Massai tribesmen in Kenya

    without the help of ethnographic research. This can be called traditional ethnography.
5
    http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociologyVSOC/handbook
           Furthermore, because of its ability to penetrate the lives of people, ethnography is also

    now widely applied to the commercial world, and the following caption by Gestalt, a company

    that specializes in commercial ethnography can best explain this:

                 “Gestalt helps you see the whole picture and get the whole story. Products, advertisements, spaces,
         brands, services, etc., are all meaningless until consumers place meaning in them. In order to know what your
         products, services, messaging, and brands mean to consumers, then, you have to be able to see them through
         the eyes of your consumers. That's where we come in. Through ethnographic research (full immersion,
         participant observation, and on-going informal interviewing) we uncover the insights that will transform your
         business”.
         In a sense this excerpt succinctly summarizes ethnography, the goal of ethnography and the

benefits of ethnography. Commercial ethnography generates a detailed understanding of a market

and generates actions based on these understandings.6 Without commercial ethnography,

corporations will have a hard time trying to understand consumer response to their products and

services. No wonder more and more corporations are now deeply involved in ethnographic

research. For example, software developers almost always rely on some kind of ethnographic

research to understand their end users. In fact there has been a growing interest in ethnography

within the context of system design. A well-done ethnography can be an important educational

exercise for designers by sensitizing them to the „real world‟ context of work activities, forcing

them to think about things where they did not do previously.7

         “One of the things that make a successful technology is a technology that supports

experiences that people want to have,” explained Dr. Genevieve Bell, senior researcher and design

ethnographer at Intel. “Our job is to find new uses for technology by spending time with people in

their daily lives.”8




6
   Ideas Bazaar
7
  http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociologyVSOC/handbook
8
   Ideas Bazaar
       In conclusion, it is important to point out that the survey and the questionnaire, not

ethnography, remain the standard model of social research. However, as more and more

corporations become increasingly reliant on ethnographic research, there is reason to believe that

ethnography is becoming more and more respectable, and thus might overtake surveys and

questionnaires as the standard model of social research.

				
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posted:11/4/2011
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