Ethnography in a Parallel World

My first post in this series argued that the market research industry commoditized ethnography and failed to capitalise on its potential. As a result, ethnography has become at best weakened, at worst sidelined in favour of newer, vogue ideas and approaches.

This post explores a parallel story of the use of ethnography. It is a story of the rise and rise ethnography in contexts outside of market research where its application was more sophisticated and delivered more.

Elsewhere, a different story

Journalists repeatedly ‘discover’ that anthropology is being used in commercial settings. But there is little new about the use of ethnographic methods or the participation of anthropologists in business.  The earliest engagements were in the early 1920s (here’s a great history of the early years).

This was not long after Malinowski took anthropology out of the library, and off the veranda, to pioneer participant observation as a way of understanding how people construct their social worlds.

So when ethnography became fashionable in the world of market research in the late 1990s, it wasn’t anything new. But, as I explored in the previous post it adopted ethnography in a less than sophisticated manner.

Ethnography in the labs

In other places  – primarily but not exclusively in the US – and many decades earlier, ethnography had become part of the world of corporate research and development efforts. The now famous Xerox PARC labs are the usual start point in this version of events. (And the following is highly abridged!)

In the world of technology R&D, ethnography has been much in demand since the late 60s. Its use in this area has increased in the decades since.

As computing and other devices became more pervasive new user experience (though that term had not yet to be coined) and human-computer interaction challenges emerged.   Ethnographic methods and thinking became important to addressing thorny questions arising from the interaction of humans and increasingly complex and smart machines. The work extended to understanding the mechanics charged with fixing these complex machines.

Over time, ethnography also became more central in the product design, innovation and strategy arenas. The annual conference for those practicing ethnography in industry – EPIC – began in 2005 at a point when the community of practitioners had reached a critical mass and wanted a place to interact, share experiences and build a body of knowledge. By this point, Intel, IBM, Microsoft had joined Xerox to become, at least in the journalistic imagination, the key companies doing this work.

A story of growth and consolidation

So the story of ethnography in these specific business (and geographical) contexts is very much one of growth and the consolidation of a community and a body of knowledge that straddled a range of fields (HCI and CSCW). In these contexts, ethnography was not a fad or a momentary trend – quite the opposite. The rolling stone was gathering moss – professionalizing, strengthening its identity and making increasingly strong claims to relevance.

Ethnography flourished in these contexts for quite unique reasons. Ethnographic approaches were being embedded in businesses where investment in, and commitment to, long term (and often fundamental) research was in the DNA of the organisation.  These are contexts where a focus on advancing theory and critical practice is positively welcomed, not merely add-ons to the ‘day job’. People doing this work often, but not always, sit outside of the day-to-day need to make and sell widgets.  

How was it used and what benefits?

Given the success story I’ve outlined the question arise – what was (and is) the value that this body of people provides to their organizations? There are as likely as many answers to this question as there are organizations hiring them. Here is a collection on thoughts on how their value has been viewed.

Ethnographers and anthropologists —

1. Reduce risk through the product development process: helping companies transform promising technologies into products that have that greatest chance of success with clearly defined target markets.

2. Understand the social and cultural worlds of consumers: “Ethnography lays bare the cultural erotics that consumers employ to animate the world of goods, and renders those principles accessible to creatives whose job it is to translate them into artifacts and relationships” (1)

3. By projecting a view of the outside world on the cloistered worlds of business: using their work to puncture the damaging conceit that ‘our customers are just people like us’.

4. Rendering the world intelligible: Using their skills in deciphering culture and cultural practices to ‘puzzle things out in situations of complexity’ (2)

5. To start long conversations: A long term cultural project that engages their organisation to rethink their orientation to the markets and consumers.

The description I most love is the idea that anthropologists give organizations an ‘opposable thumb‘. Opposable thumbs are required for efficient gripping of objects as well as performing fine manipulations upon them.

Signs of change

If all this sounds wonderfully positive and rose tinted, that’s because it is. Successful though these groups of people have been in their various locations they are not immune from winds of change – within and beyond their organisations.

There are a number of shifts afoot. Here are a few:

As the world moves faster within and outside of business – the often slow and detailed explorations of ethnographers can be accused of being expensive luxuries that deliver a ‘rear view mirror perspective of the world’.

The focus of attention to ‘start-up’ cultures – moving at pace, shipping first, and evaluating later might be viewed at odds with the former focus on the slow removal of risks in NPD processes.

Big data has become a substitute for a rich and thorough-going understanding of how and why people behave as they do. Its promise to provide a picture of the world that requires no theory for how the world works can be appealing to many business leaders.

All of these represent, if not existential threats to the future of ethnography in business, then challenges that need to be addressed. They all, in their own way,  deny the role of proper exploration, interpretation and thinking as a way of generating value.  As Bill Gates commented nearly a decade ago, in response to another business trend (now in reverse gear), this amounts to ‘outsourcing your brain’ .

In my final post in this series, I’ll attempt a resolution of these first two posts, by exploring possible routes forward for ethnography as a vital tool for businesses (and others) in their on-going attempts to understand and engage with a complex world. 


(1) From John Sherry’s foreword to Creating Breakthrough Ideas: The Collaboration of Anthropologists and Designers in the Product Development Industry, Susan Squires & Brian Byrne.

(2) Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations – Melissa Cefkin (Ed).