I'm working on a more complete post about the Adaptive Path conference, UX Week 2007, that just finished up yesterday. I did want to go ahead and write something up about a little trend I noticed throughout the conference which caused me both some measure of satisfaction and simultaneously a measure of anxiety. These feelings are centered around the use of the word "ethnography" and its meaning in this context.
All my grad school work (Master's and doctoral) has been around history and/or anthropology. I've always felt that both disciplines offer a great deal in terms of the rigor and methodological approaches they bring to bear even outside their particular domains. I've been heartened to see more and more "corporate anthropology" being done and I feel that it is a really worthwhile endeavor. At this conference though, the frequency that "ethnography" was mentioned as a research tool for user design projects reached buzzword status.
My anxiety stems from the simple fact that there are methodologies and practices that define the field of ethnographic research. There are even dynamics about how ethnography relates to the larger field of anthropology so that even when we talk about ethnography, it is a bit misleading to speak of it as if it were an entirely separate discipline. So when people look and see that participant observation and key informant interviewing are some of the most often used techniques in ethnography and then go out and interview some people or watch some people and call that ethnography...I have a slight issue.
Ethnography is powerful because it purports to reveal a deeper truth about a culture than a superficial reading will. There is also the power for harm to come in here if for instance, the people practicing ethnography have not been properly trained in certain key aspects of field work such as acknowledging and mediating the affect of biases whether or not those biases are personal or theoretical.
So in a sense I remain torn. I think there is a real danger here to the reputation of ethnography if it becomes attached to activities more rightly described as market research, focus groups and so on. I do though want to continue the discussion and maybe even get to a "thick description" of the role of ethnography in the corporate world.
"In Geertz’s understanding, ethnography is by definition “thick description”—“an elaborate venture in.” Using the action of “winking,” Geertz examines how—in order to distinguish the winking from a social gesture, a twitch, etc.)—we must move beyond the action to both the particular social understanding of the “winking” as a gesture, the mens rea (or state of mind) of the winker, his/her audience, and how they construe the meaning of the winking action itself. “Thin description” is the winking. “Thick” is the meaning behind it and its symbolic import in society or between communicators."