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Ethnography - an ABC

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a specific research method and a perspective which
focuses on culture and meaning in everyday life. Some practitioners of
ethnography call it the 'science of the everyday', a science based on
observation and absorption.

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 interpretive or
'thick' description of this world.

As a research practice, ethnography attempts to seek out the details on
which the analytic sensibility of the ethnographer can work.
Observation is one of many tools available to the ethnographer. Read
more about research tools.

Traditionally, ethnography has been practiced by anthropologists and
sociologists. However, its ability to deliver penetrating insights into the
contexts of everyday life have led to its more widespread application
within the commercial world. Read more about the uses of ethnography

As commercial ethnography has grown, the terms ‘immersion’,
‘observation’, ‘deep hanging out’ and 'rapid ethnography' have been
used to describe the technique and activities of ethnographers.

Good ethnography combines analytical rigour and interpretive creativity
to ensure that successful innovation, strategy or additional research
techniques deliver value and effectiveness.

Why use ethnography?

Ethnography is valuable:
When you want to generate a detailed understanding of a market,
culture or environment and to generate ‘actions’ based on these

When you have little or no knowledge of an environment and want to
get a baseline understanding or interpretation of the context

When you are not sure what it is you don’t know and want to both
generate an appreciation of the environment and develop hypotheses
for further research

When you need to understand complex local or cultural differences and
create a sympathetic appreciation of the cultural landscape

When research to date has consistently pointed-up the same results
and you need a fresh perspective – when you want to get beyond
reported action / opinions

In areas of established behavioural patterns, opportunities are often
hidden beneath consumers’ lack of ability to perceive, recognise and
articulate their needs.

Ethnographic methods do not supplant traditional modes of
investigation. In fact they work very well within a wider research
process, which might include surveys or focus/discussion groups.

What are the benefits of ethnography?

Ethnography can offer insights into consumer practices, language,
myths and aspirations that cannot be deduced elsewhere and that
people find hard to articulate.

Ethnography delivers a more holistic and nuanced view of the total
social environment: closeness to the heart of human experience.

Consumer understanding across global cultural barriers. Ethnography
has historically been associated with generating cross-cultural
understanding - on translating culture. Never more so than now, this
imperative faces most companies and organisations with global

Fresh and genuinely new insight and understanding of familiar
problems, scenarios or environments.

Ethnographic research helps convey an experience, a sense, a feeling,
a glimpse, or a window into another world. It is a way to look into
people's lives that follows their own stories and interests.

It is also a way of talking about deep cultural patterns that implicate
everything that people do. Knowing these stories, interests, and
patterns makes it possible to design and develop products and services
that fit (intuitively) into people's lives.

Upstream thinking – ethnographic research is ideally suited to
proactive, future orientated strategy which anticipates rather than
responds to change, and provides actionable strategies based on the
wider environment.

Read about:

The Tools of Ethnography

Which Companies are using Ethnography

To find out more about Ideas Bazaar and ethnography, please contact
Simon Roberts on:

T: 020 7978 8140 or 07970 050 723

ideas bazaar: home |ethnography- an abc| services| projects| people
anthropology: links| books | articles and papers|
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What does ethnographic research involve?

The basic premise of ethnography is for the researcher to immerse oneself
with the group, household or organisation under investigation and
participate in and observe their everyday life. Such observation is
complemented by other data-gathering activities such as interviews,
informant diaries, photography and video.

Each set of ‘research encounters’ must be tailored for the task in hand.
However, the following rules of thumb are true to most projects Ideas
Bazaar have undertaken.

Active involvement in people’s lives – Ethnography is not just passive
observation. It involves mucking in and doing exactly what the research
subjects are doing - be that trips to the shops, watching TV, car journey’s, a
quick drink in the pub, birthday parties or cleaning the house. Anything
and everything, because in some small way all these things are likely to be
connected to the research objectives, be it revealed through conversation or

Collecting, documenting and recording cultural artefacts – Most
ethnographic projects include magpie-like collecting of artefacts because
these are an excellent way of providing insights into the context of
behaviour and of communicating this context to research stakeholders.
Ideas Bazaar uses digital photography and, to a limited degree, digital
video in order to effectively communicate findings to research

Unstructured questions and conversation - Although the researcher will
have objectives top of mind, ethnographic researchers are careful to let
informants lead the flow of activities and conversations. This allows the
respondents' lives, not the researcher's brief, to predominate and ensures
that the brief is considered in the larger context of the respondent’s
everyday life. Only towards the end of an ‘immersion’ will the researcher
reveal the focus of the study and probe deeper through an interview.

Interviews – Interviews are used towards the end of each ‘immersion’ in
order to allow the researchers to discuss their observations &
interpretations with respondents, and to explore the research questions in
more detail. The preceding observations allow the interview responses to
be contextualised and understood better than an interview conducted

Dictaphone Diaries and Photo-Accounts – The aim of research is to get as
close to respondents' lives and thoughts as possible. Therefore, respondents
are often requested to complete verbal diaries using a Dictaphone. This
might be used, as for example in a recent project for Channel 5, to record
plans for an evening and to express moods & thoughts as the evening
developed. What resulted was a rich record of typical evenings in and out
of the home, which was critical in the analysis stage. Similarly,
photographs taken on disposable cameras allowed respondents the
opportunity to create another account of their evenings.

To find out more about Ideas Bazaar and ethnography, please contact
Simon Roberts on:

T: 020 7978 8140 or 07970 050 723

ideas bazaar: home |ethnography- an abc| services| projects| people
anthropology: links| books | articles and papers|
from elsewhere: weblogs & links| the idea bazaar blog | isociety blog

Anthropology Links

Who else is using ethnography?

Thinking about using ethnography to understand your business
environment or complement your current research practices? You are not

A very large number of companies are beginning to use ethnographic
research. Here are a selection of links on current uses of ethnography
within a commercial environment.

An article about how Intel recently used ethnography to understand how
people actually use mobile phones.

Kodak are another technology company who are becoming increasingly
engaged with anthropologists and the practice of ethnography in designing
better products and innovating more successfully. This piece from their
website looks at how 'Kodak have taken anthropology from the jungle to
the living room'

Harvard Business School reprints an extract from Margaret Mead Meets
Consumer Fieldwork, Harvard Management Update, September, 2001.

Company Anthropology. Anthropology has a century long history of work
within companies, though latterly the topic has been receiving increasing
attention. Anthropology's discovery and subsequent contribution is nicely
summed up as follows: "Adding an anthropologist to a research team is
like moving from black-and-white TV to colour," ...we're able to observe
shades of colour that others can't see. Anthropologists understand
complexity and can help devise answers that reflect that complexity."

This is longer, conference paper looks at the history of workplace
anthropology during the C20th in America. It was the famous (and
brilliant) octogenarian anthropologist Mary Douglas who wrote How
Institutions Think.

This paper looks at the 'brand' of anthropology as it is used increasingly by

This really nice, brief piece epitomises how ethnography can be turned to
literally any setting, in this case a park bench.

Reprinted from the New York Times, this article examines one of the
pioneers of anthropology among the technologists.

This article acts as a corrective to the claims that ethnography as practiced
by companies and marketers is actually ethnography at all - it's a sham, the
anonymous author contends.
 To find out more about Ideas Bazaar and ethnography, please contact
 Simon Roberts on:

 T: 020 7978 8140 or 07970 050 723

                                 by Brenda Danet

        The Garland Enclopedia of Semiotics, Paul Bouissac, General Editor
                         New York: Garland (in press)

Linguists have traditionally equated language with speech, either ignoring writing
altogether or relegating it to secondary status. Recent ethnographic approaches to
the study of writing by linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists, ethnographers of
communication, and folklorists have begun to establish it as an important topic in
its own right. Researchers focus on writing as a form of everyday communicative
activity embedded in a given sociocultural context, rather than on the nature and
features of canonical, literary, or even mundane texts. There is an extensive social
science tradition of research on the similarities and differences between speech and
writing. However, unlike researchers in this tradition, who analyze the linguistic
features of decontextualized corpuses of texts and transcripts, ethnographers of
writing focus on writing practices and the social functions of writing, as observed in
the situations of their naturally occurring use.

The ethnography of speaking studies the speech community, its shared knowledge
and competence with respect to the speech code, the norms for its use in a repertoire
of oral genres of communication, and the strategic choices speakers make in specific
situations. Similarly, the ethnography of writing aspires to study shared knowledge
and norms for culture-specific genres of written texts, produced in specific media.
Who uses writing for what purposes? What genres and subgenres of texts are
recognized? How do these genres develop? What media are considered appropriate
for which kinds of messages? What are the norms for the various genres? What
range of deviation from them is tolerated, and under what circumstances? What
range of strategic choices are available for personal expression, given these general
normative constraints?
In historical accounts of writing practices, one can only reconstruct functions of
writing and genres of texts from surviving exemplars. Analyses of texts from the
ancient world shows that writing was used to indicate ownership, to make contracts,
to write letters and wills, to record treaties, to curse someone, to transmit works of
literature, to record chronicles, and so on. In modern times, researchers have the
additional advantage of using techniques of interviewing and participant and non-
participant observation to observe at first hand the uses that groups and subgroups
make of writing.

The emergence of the ethnography of writing as a research agenda has been
influenced by developments in the sociology, psychology, and history of literacy.
Claims for the social, cultural, and psychological consequences of literacy by the
"grand theorists" of literacy, such as Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Jack
Goody, met with criticism for lack of empirical verification or lack of verifiability,
and for ethnocentric overemphasis on the pattern of development of literacy in the
West. Beginning in the 1980's, ethnographic studies of literacy identified uses of
writing in non-Western societies which differ from those of mainstream, urban
Western culture. In addition, researchers began to study the interrelations between
oral and written modes of communication in rural and lower-class groups in
modern society.

Wherever large groups are illiterate or only marginally literate, but writing is
central to the business of society, literate brokers play an intermediate role, writing
letters on behalf of petitioners to government bureaucracies and the courts, for
example. Who uses their services? How do these letter-writers acquire their skill
and their status? What strategies do they employ to enhance the interests of their
clients, and with what effect? What features characterize the documents they

The ethnographic approach calls for attention to informal, expressive, and even
politically controversial or subversive uses of writing, as well as to formal,
instrumental, institutional ones. Thus, rather than focusing only on children's
classroom compositions, researchers have studied note- passing among students
during classes and graffiti on public toilet walls, outdoor walls, and subway cars.
Other expressive, ephemeral forms of writing include skywriting, fire inscriptions
set alight during youth movement ceremonies, inscriptions on birthday cakes,
posters at political demonstrations, and stickers distributed to advance political

In a deep sense, speech always lurks behind or beneath writing. In the tradition of
Western essayist literacy, writing has generally been characterized by processes of
decontextualization: texts are supposed to "speak for themselves." Thus, prose
essays, scientific articles, and legal documents came to be characterized by
prominent use of nominalizations, the passive and other devices which suppress the
voice of the author. Texts were supposed to omit information about the
circumstances in which the author created them, such as the location in place and
time, mood while creating them, how awake or sleepy the author was, and so on.

Recent critical thinking on self-reflexivity in anthropology and on the rhetoric of
"objectivity" in scientific and journalistic writing has led to a return to linguistic
features of texts which resemble speech. Authors openly use the first person
pronoun "I", avoid passives, and evidence emotional involvement. The Plain
Language movement of the 1970's, which called for reform of the mystifying
language of legal and bureaucratic documents, in effect made documents more
speech-like. These developments strongly suggest that the processes of
decontextualization thought to be essential to the transition to literacy are not
inevitable, but are in part culturally constituted. The idea of a "Great Divide"
between speech and writing is therefore now widely rejected, and researchers
recognize that some genres of speech may be quite "writing- like," e.g., a university
lecture, and some genres of writing are "speech-like", e.g., a personal letter.

Some researchers suggest that there is evidence of a general cultural drift toward
increased proximity of speech and writing in our own times. Research on various
oral and written genres in the English language indicates that over the last few
centuries, many genres of writing are indeed becoming more speech-like. The
advent of computer-mediated communication (CMC) challenges many received
notions about writing and may be fostering dramatic changes in beliefs and
practices associated with it. The immediacy, ephemerality, and interactivity of the
medium contribute to its dynamic, conversation-like quality. Research is already
revealing that messages sent by electronic mail (email) contain many speech-like
features, along with classically written ones, as well as some new, uniquely digital
features. Writers are inventing and reinventing devices known from other genres of
communication, such as the comics, to enhance the representation of intonation in
digital messages. Thus, framing a word in asterisks, as in "I am *very* happy," or
capitalizing it, as in "I am VERY happy," conveys the emphasis one could have
heard, had the word been spoken aloud.

The language of email is in a state of flux, and should be analyzed in the light of the
history of letter-writing, from ancient times. Some researchers believe that we are
witnessing a revival of the art of letter-writing which flourished in the 18th century.
What genres or subgenres of electronic messages are emerging, and in what ways do
they differ from previous genres of letter-writing? The medium may be
undermining our traditional distinction between the business letter and the personal
letter. Who clings to earlier literate norms when writing electronic messages, and
who adopts more speech-like practices with relish? How will these developments
affect the acquisition of literacy in the future? Will the schools insist on teaching the
old literate norms, or will they show signs of openness to new norms?

A holistic, ethnographic perspective also calls attention to the material aspects of
writing, including both the surfaces on which messages are inscribed and the
material appurtenances of their creation. In ancient Mesopotamia, the shape of clay
tablets often matched the type of text inscribed: historical chronicles were inscribed
on prisms, legal documents on palm-size, pillow-like tablets; junior scribes practiced
on circular tablets. In modern cultures, we also sometimes match materials and even
shapes to type of text. Important documents such as diplomas have traditionally
been written on parchment scrolls, a hold-over from the Middle Ages. Under what
circumstances is parchment still used and why? What material means are used to
enhance the performative capacity of official documents of all kinds, and how does
this vary from one culture to another? Here, one could study the use of color in
ribbons and seals, calligraphy, gilt lettering, special lettering or fonts, distinctive size
and shape of the document, and so on.

In some cultures, and in some situations within cultures, aesthetic aspects of written
messages may be just as important as, if not more important than the verbal
content. Aestheticization of writing probably reached a peak in human history in
traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, which cherished the visual and sensuous
aspects of writing to an extent difficult to grasp today. Muslim calligraphy has also
been a highly developed art form. For medieval Japanese aristocrats, the texture
and color of paper, the quality of the calligraphy, the manner of folding a letter, the
choice of flower or twig attached to it, and the matching of all of these to the mood
the writer wished to convey, the season, and so on, could make or break a
gentleman's reputation. Even writing implements were highly aestheticized. Brush
holders and brush rests, inkstones, stationery boxes, and seals were exquisite works
of art in their own right, well into the 19th century.

While the West has probably invested less than traditional Chinese, Japanese, or
Muslim culture in the aesthetics of written texts, handwriting has continued to be
valued, at least in personal letters, if not business ones, as a trace of the unique
personal touch of the individual. Among collectors of autographs, entire documents
in handwriting are more valuable financially than documents with only a signature.
Traditions of production of fine paper-making and of connoisseur-quality fountain
pens also persist to this day in the West.

How is digital word-processing changing writing practices? To what extent do
people owning computers continue to draft their compositions and to write personal
letters by hand? If they compose letters on a computer, do they try to personalize
them? What other situations involving written messages are still considered to
require the personal touch? Do some cultures, subgroups, types of individuals, give
it up more quickly than others?

With the transition to computerized texts, hard copies become optional. To what
extent do they continue to be important to people and why? Under what
circumstances are people becoming "weaned" of them? As they learn to draft
documents on a word-processor, do they continue to print out interim hard copies?
Or do they print only at the end, when the document is completed? Does printing an
interim hard copy really facilitate editing, as many believe, or is it an expression of a
magical need to see the text as material object?
Does the transition to the writing practices and possibilities of the digital age vary
with culture? Here, the most interesting case might be that of Japan. With its
enormous investment in the aestheticization of writing, on the one hand, and its
leadership in the development of high technology on the other, has Japan excelled in
selling the world its inventions, yet, paradoxically, clung to its traditional writing

Ethnographers of speaking distinguish between two senses of speaking as
performance: (1) performance as praxis, the situated use of speech in the conduct of
social affairs, or, simply, any use of a code to convey a message; and (2)
performance as the display of skill and artfulness to an audience. The same
distinction can be made for writing. The ethnographic perspective leads one to
recognize that not only fine calligraphy but also graffiti and other types of playful
writing in popular culture are also forms of artful performance.

Graffiti artists, who call themselves "writers", adopt nicknames called "tags" and
proudly display their skill in spray-painting compositions created in the dead of
night in forbidden public places, most notably, on subway cars. Some "writers" end
up in art school. Audiences are not ordinarily present when graffiti artists produce
their works. Their achievements are observed and appreciated at a later time.
Skywriters, on the other hand, perform for an invisible audience in real time.

Writing as artful performance flourishes in synchronous modes of CMC like
Internet Relay Chat and Multi-User Domains--MUDs, forms of text- based virtual
reality in which participants create collective role- playing fantasies. In these new
forms of interactive writing, individuals perform together and for each other, like
dancers taking turns performing solos within a circle, or like participants
improvising in a jazz jam session. Using the ostensibly meager resources of the
computer keyboard, they demonstrate their skill in playing with typography,
language, their own identities, and frames of social interaction.

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