As was the case with “discourse analysis,” the definition of ethnography is itself problematic. Barbara Hall’s reference on Public Interest Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania define ethnography as such:      

(1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology, and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results.  Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings.  Ethnographic questions generally concern the and/or how cultural processes develop over time. link between culture and behavior The data base for ethnographies is usually extensive description of the details of social life or cultural phenomena in a small number of cases.

Tim Plowman, in Design Research, defined ethnography qualitatively. It goes beyond mere description, he says. Ethnographic studies are descriptive and interpretive – descriptive “because they are designed to capture as much detail as possible, crucial to testing and developing theories”; interpretive “because the ethnographer must determine the significance of the detail in the relatively narrow scope she observes without necessarily gathering broad or statistical information” (Plowman 32).

Both Hall and Plowman also define ethnography methodologically. Hall says:

In order to answer their research questions and gather research material, ethnographers (sometimes called fieldworkers) often live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable amount of time with them.  While there, ethnographers engage in "participant observation", which means that they participate as much as possible in local daily life (everything from important ceremonies and rituals to ordinary things like meal preparation and consumption) while also carefully observing everything they can about it.  Through this, ethnographers seek to gain what is called an "emic" perspective, or the "native's point(s) of view" without imposing their own conceptual frameworks.  The emic world view, which may be quite different from the "etic", or outsider's perspective on local life, is a unique and critical part of anthropology. 

You should remember this emic/etic thing from our discussion on qualitative research. Plowman, as you’ll recall, classified ethnographic methods according to their visual or textual basis, and their qualitative or quantitative-ness.

  • Quantitative: statistical data collection, surveys and questionnaires, linguistic data collection
  • Qualitative: archival and document collection, structured interviews, group interviews, oral histories, participant observation, passive observation, local model and representation collection, artifacts and material culture collection, videotaping and photography

He presents participant observation, in particular, as a value-imbued method; it provides “empathy and understanding through immersion” (Plowman 34).

Pink rejects these methodologically defined definitions – particularly those that suggest that ethnography is little more than a combination of participant observation and interviewing (recall Larsen’s rejection, in Chapter 10 of Jensen (pp. 164-66), of such a thing as media “ethnography”). Pink proposes and alternative definition of ethnography:

[It is] an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture and society that informs and is informed by sets of different disciplinary agendas and theoretical principles. Rather than being a method for the collection of “data,” ethnography is a process of creating and representing knowledge (about society, culture and individuals) that is based on ethnographers’ own experiences. It does not claim to produce an objective of “truthful” account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced. This may entail reflexive, collaborative or participatory methods. It may involve informants in a variety of ways at different points of the research and representational stages of the project. It should account not only for the observable, recordable realities that may be translated into written notes and texts, but also for objects, visual images, the immaterial, and the sensory nature of human experience and knowledge. Finally, it should engage with issues of representation that question the right of the researcher to represent “other” people, recognize the impossibility of “knowing other minds”…and acknowledge that the sense we make of informants’ words and actions is “an expression of our own consciousness” (Pink 18).

Pink addresses some important key concepts here. First, ethnography draws from multiple disciplines and, like any other methodology, it's theoretically grounded. Here, Hall discusses the “theoretical contexts” that often frame ethnographic work; some include “gender as a social construct,” Foucault’s “power” (which we discussed in our lesson on “discourse analysis”), and social semiotics. Second, ethnography is about the researcher as well as the subject; therefore, researchers must acknowledge the subjectivity and “constructedness” of ethnographic “knowledge" and practice reflexivity. Third, that reflexive practice must address issues of representation, and acknowledge that representation has an ethical dimension. Fourth, that “constructed” knowledge is often a product of collaboration. It’s not simply a matter of the researcher making claims about the subjects; oftentimes, those subjects are themselves active participants it the creation of insight. And fifth, contrary to Hall’s claim that ethnography is primarily about the “written text,” Pink argues that ethnography is multimedia, material, and embodied. It’s not only about fieldnotes; ethnography is also about non-textual texts; material objects; physical spaces; and physical, sensory experiences.

Bronislaw Malinowski, in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific, addresses how one gets at the lived, embodied experience through immersion in a culture:

Living in the village with no other business but to follow native life, one sees the customs, ceremonies and transactions over and over again, one has examples of their beliefs as they are actually lived through, and the full body and blood of actual native life fills out soon the skeleton of abstract constructions.... As to the actual method of observing and recording in fieldwork these imponderabilia of actual life and of typical behaviour .... the main endeavour must be to let facts speak for themselves. (18, 20)


Rachel Strickland's Portable Effects project:

"Everybody is a designer in everyday life. Yet we share no common vocabulary for describing everyday design practice, and few would even claim to have a coherent method for pursuing it. Through glimpses into human mobile nature, Portable Effects is an interactive anthropological exploration which prompts each of us to consider the design motives and methods that underlie our daily transactions with ordinary objects.
People's selection and arrangement of the things they take with them—in handbags, pockets, briefcases, backpacks, etc.—form the context of the investigation. Between setting forth in the morning and returning home at night, each person lives nomadically for several hours a day. You canít take everything with you—neither in your backpack nor in your head. Identifying essentials, figuring out how to contain, arrange and keep track of them as you go are instances of design thinking. Understanding the properties and consequences of portability is a way to grasp principles that underlie the transferability of knowledge from one domain to another. A purse is a physical container, a changing array of interrelated functions, a prosthesis for memory, a haptic "user interface," an information system. The life size lessons of purse design and pocket organization may be adapted to larger and more complex 3-dimensional problems that frame our ephemeral earthly experience." [Image Credit: PE Inspection Station]

Richard Wentworth's Making Do and Getting By:

"In his ongoing series, Making Do and Getting By, Wentworth also uses photography as a means of documenting what might be called 'the sculpture of the everyday': a cigarette packet jammed under a wonky table leg; a makeshift construction to reserve parking space; a bucket jammed on to the side of a dented car so that the headlight can still operate. 'I live in a ready-made landscape', he remarked early in his career, 'and I want to put it to use'" (Cass Sculpture Foundation). [Image Credit: Art and Industry]

Pink wraps up all of these factors into a concise, if dense, statement about how ethnographers should approach these texts in multiple media formats – and in this case, through the visual:

The ways in which individual ethnographers approach the visual in their research and representation is inevitably influenced by a range of factors, including theoretical beliefs, disciplinary agendas, personal experience, gendered identities and different visual cultures. Fundamental to understanding the significance of the visual in ethnographic work is a reflexive appreciation of how much elements combine to produce visual meanings and ethnographic knowledge (Pink 29)

Plowman, too, discusses how ethnographers can focus on the sensory experience of a material artifact in a physical setting. In fact, this kind of work is of particular interest to design researchers, who look at the “situatedness” of experience and “the multiple ways people consume and integrate designed artifacts into their lives through interaction (use and embodiment) and through their experience creates understanding” (Plowman 31). Plowman further links the description of these embodied experiences to a theoretically-informed interpretation. Designed artifacts, he says, are “materialized ideologies” (31).

RP: How might semioticians or medium theorists study this claim? And what different ideologies do you think are “materialized” in various media technologies, e.g., the cell phone, earth-shaking car stereo systems, even the Xerox machine? What different media cultures or populations might you examine through ethnographic methods to learn more about these “materialized ideologies”? Furthermore, how do these artifacts “interpellate” us into particular subject positions?


Plowman and Pink both recognize that ethnography isn’t only about the written text. Photographs, audiorecording, and video can supplement or replace the written fieldnotes one collects in the field. But this assumption that media serve to record reality is of course something that we in Media Studies would call into question. Long, long ago, before people used terms like “constructedness” and “visualizationification” (I just made that up), some ethnographers – rather naively, we might think – drew a distinction between objective footage and creative footage. Objective footage should be “objective, unedited, not ‘manipulated’, it should be guided by scientific, ethnographic principles, rather than cinematographic intentions” (Pink 78), while creative film is edited to create a narrative, and can be created with the intention of presenting it for public consumption – perhaps somewhere like Anthology Film Archives or Film Forum.

[Image Credit: Direct Cinema. Read more about Whyte's project at the Project for Public Spaces.]

But of course we know that this claim is spurious. As Sontag, Barthes, and others have told us, we cannot record people “undisturbed”; the very act of mediation or recording disturbs them. Media representations are inevitably “constructed.” Furthermore, as Pink points out, “ethnographic knowledge does not necessarily exist as observable facts,” and it’s often produced  collaboratively, “in conversation and negotiation between informants and researcher” (Pink 79). Finally, the “ethnographicness” of your media “recording” depends not on its content or your intention – but on the context of its creation.

Rachel Strickland, a documentary filmmaker and architect, claims that it’s not only the pursuit of objectivity that has compromised ethnographic film; it’s also Hollywood. Hollywood production annihilated spontaneity; its polish left no room for chance or imperfection…or reality. Researchers using film, Strickland says, aspired achieve this polish -- and, through it, to achieve some kind of "objectivity." “Social scientists’ various prescriptions for neutralizing the filmmaker’s intervention, such as the elimination of camera movement and the minimization of editing, have approximately the same effect as burying one’s head in the sand in hopes of becoming invisible. For minimum of structuring does not yield maximum of truth” (Strickland 125). Still, it’s important to remember that, at one time, few researchers embraced film as an appropriate research tool; Strickland quotes David MacDougall, author of Transcultural Cinema, who attributes scientists' resistance to film to “an incompatibility between the respective modes of description and discourse that belong to writing and moviemaking” (Strickland 125). Cinema and research, they thought, were too epistemologically or discursively different to be brought into service for one another.

The “spontaneous” movie, Strickland says, didn’t resurface until the 1960s, when lightweight cameras and synchronous audio recorders emerged. New technology – and, specifically, what Harold Innis might refer to as their “space biases” (e.g., portability) – made possible new styles of production, and allowed media to be used in a new way to capture everyday life:

…the advent of small, silent cameras capable of producing crisp images in dim light has enabled far more subtle and intimate approaches to the recording of real people and actual locations, executed with a fluency of camerawork and naturalness of action that rival the most polished of studio productions (Strickland 126)

Strickland outlines the qualities of what she calls “observational” cinema. We can see parallels between her description and Malinowski’s and Pink’s characterizations of ethnography:

  • “an inexhaustible attention to the minutiae of everyday life” – “under no obligation to advance a story of contribute any particular meaning, but simply emerge from the rhythms and textures of everyday life” (Strickland 127)
  • “…favored prolonged sequence shots and camera movements that represent the viewpoint of a lone pedestrian observer looking through the viewfinder with starts and stops” – rather than the multiperspectival, multiple camera position, omniscient view of narrative cinema
  • cinema verite
  • “transition from narrative structure as the predominant principle of organization, to that of a collection (or database)” (128)
  • collection is open-ended – “the trajectory of experience is susceptible to a viewer’s input” (128)
  • spatial montage: space as something traversed by a subject, navigable
  • polylinear construction

Yet media “in the field” – media used in ethnographic research – shouldn’t be regarded as just another form of visual or audio “note-taking.” These tools have the potential to reshape the research experience, to change the relationship between researcher and subjects – even to turn those “subjects” into creators of knowledge about themselves. Pink is quite critical of Collier & Collier, whom she claims “advocate a systematic method of observation in which the researcher is supported by visual technology” [italics mine]. These media reports are just that – reports; they record the reality observed by the researcher. Pink continues:

[The Colliers] assert that ‘good video and film records for research are ultimately the product of observation that is organized and consistent. The equipment, except in specialized circumstances, cannot replace the observer….This approach depends on a realist interpretation of still and moving images and…has been criticized on this basis…. On their terms ethnography is an observation of reality, as opposed to the constructedness of the narrative-based communication ‘stories’ of scripted films” (Collier 162; quoted in Pink 8).

There has been a shift away from a scientific-realist approach to the use of media in research, she says, and toward a more “reflexive” use of photography and video in ethnography. Ethnographic filmmaker and writer David MacDougall proposes an approach to ethnographic media use that would “look at the principles that emerge when fieldworkers actually try to rethink anthropology through use of a visual medium” (quoted in Pink 9).

  • Oxford University already has a well-developed program in Visual Anthropology.
  • And NYU’s Center for Media, Culture and History, housed in part in the Anthropology Department, addresses “issues of representation, social change, and identity construction embedded in the development of film, television, video and new media worldwide. Our focus on the role that these media play in shaping our perceptions of history and culture; in forging individual, collective, national, and transnational identities; and in mediating the direction and character of social change.
  • Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin use "electronically activated recorders" (EARs) to collect audio samples that have "shed light on, among other things, romantic couples' dynamics, cross-cultural variations in sociability, and how students coped after the September 11 attacks." This technique raises obvious ethical and legal questions. Read a 1/20/06 article about the EAR project from the Chronicle of Higher Education.


That reflexivity should inspire, among other concerns, an awareness of how one’s choice of media technology has the potential to reshape the “ecology” of the field, define the identity of the researcher, and influence the relationships between the researcher and those in the field. Note the influence of medium theory here.

The selection of a digital or ‘traditional’ camera, a semi-professional video camera or the cheapest hand-held VHS model may be related to economic factors, but should also account for how the equipment one uses will become part of one’s identity both during fieldwork and in academic circles. Individuals constantly re-situate themselves and construct their self-identities in relation to not only other individuals but also to material objects and cultural discourses (Pink 35).

Even the decision to use media is one that’s influenced by context, or social ecology. Pink quotes documentary filmmaker Eric Metzgar, who, in his research on Lamotrek Atoll, found that “…in order to continue filming the culture, I had to maintain separateness; in maintaining separateness, I felt alienated, alone. … [T]here was no choice but to give up the fight and join the dance” (Pink 82). Sometimes, your research suffers – you’re incapable of immersing yourself in the experience – if you’re too intent on capturing everything on film or tape. Similarly, when you’re conducting an interview, you can often disengage from the conversation, and compromise intimacy or credibility, when you’re too focused on taking notes. You have to make these decisions – to record or not? – on a case-by-case, sometimes minute-by-minute, basis.

The use of these technologies raises various ethical questions about covert research (do they know you’re filming?) and informed consent; the “right” to photograph/videotape at public events; harm to informants; and the permission to publish your images or footage (Pink 40-6). Media use raises questions of timing and propriety: there are some cases in which it is simply socially inappropriate to photograph or video- or audiotape. Let’s say you’re making a documentary about how families watch TV together. You can’t just walk into your subjects’ home for the first time, set up a professional camera, and say, “Okay – watch TV. Act natural!” That’s not going to happen! [See James Lull’s Inside the Viewing Family: Ethnographic Research on Television’s Audiences (Routledge)] Pink recommends an “incremental” use of media to “warm” people up to your – and your camera’s – presence. At one site, she started out with a photographic camera, then introduced a handheld video camera. “Once we had requested permission to film, with our professional looking equipment, we were ushered by the organizers into the enclosure reserved for television and film crews. Our presence with the camera developed various responses from people attending the event. One woman treated us as a source of public information, another interviewee gave well-considered responses…as if to a TV audience” (Pink 84). Thus, the form of the medium shaped the subjects’ respondents to the researcher.

When I was writing my book, I received a grant to spend a summer traveling all around the country, visiting new civic buildings. To save money, I decided to take all my own photos -- and since my focus was not on these buildings as objets d’art, but on their function as public spaces, I preferred photographs that showed the buildings in use, or peopled. When I lugged in the camera bags and set up the tripod, however, everyone – particularly the older women in sweatpants – became concerned that I was a professional photographer, and that they were going to appear in Architectural Record without makeup! Heaven forbid! So, eventually, I discovered that, in order to capture the moments and settings I wanted to capture – that is, moments of everyday use – I needed to be more inconspicuous. A point-and-shoot became my primary research tool.

See Kwame Braun’s Passing Girl, Riverside, which demonstrates the impact of “the gaze” – or the act of being videotaped -- on the video subject.

Instead of reserving the footage for post-fieldwork review, you could make use of it in the field – and new technology makes that possible; just swing around the playback screen, and share your images with the folks featured in the image. This practice of sharing, Pink says, allows researchers to address the following questions: “How do informants’ commentaries on video footage relate it to other aspects of their video/media culture? And what discourses do they refer to in their comments and discussions of the footage?” (Pink 89)

You could also pull yourself out of the recorder role and allowing your subjects to shoot themselves. Errr….that came out wrong. Not that kind of shooting! What I meant to say is: You could hand over the camera to people in the field and allow them to capture footage of themselves and one another. These practices, Pink says, allow the researcher to “question how different people created video narratives of the same context” (Pink 85). Pink characterizes these participatory practices as “feminist” approaches, wherein “knowledge is produced not about, but for [the subjects] and [the subjects] themselves are situated ‘at the centre of the production of knowledge’” (Pink 86). See Vicki Mayer’s “When the Camera Won’t Focus: Tensions in Media Ethnography” In Feminist Media Studies (2001).

In the June 9, 2005, issue of The New York Times, Alan Riding wrote about a “videoletter” project developed by documentary film directors Eric van den Broek and Katarina Rejger. "Videoletters" is designed to “further reconciliation among people from the former Yugoslavia who had once been friends and who had been separated and even alienated by the bloody nationalist conflict.” Although the directors don’t turn the cameras over to the letter “writers,” these films’ circulation – their delivery to the lost friends and exhibition in small town halls and on television – has impacted everyday life in former Yugoslavia.

Anthropology is, in a sense, a social art. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, who worked with McLuhan, and whose Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! has taken a place in the media studies canon (if we even have one!), says of anthropology: “It’s an art – as much as art as a method.” He particularly admired the early anthropologists – those who worked in the field before methods were institutionalized: “They literally built their own typewriters with phonemic scripts. They got hold of old movie cameras. They filmed. They took stills. They drew. They collected objects. They wrote poems. They did plays” (quoted in Carol Ann McBride, “A Sense of Proportion: Balancing Subjectivity and Objectivity in Anthropology; quoted in Harald E.L. Prins & John Bishop, “Edmund Carpenter: Explorations in Media & AnthropologyVisual Anthropology Review (Fall-Winter 2001-2)).


Most ethnography is to be found in books and articles, rather than in films, records, museum displays, or whatever....Self-consciousness about modes of representation (not to speak of experiments with them) has been very lacking in Anthropology. --Clifford Geertz: The Interpretation of Cultures

Film and video cameras are particularly well suited as data gathering technologies for experiments and small group interactions, classroom studies, ethnography, participant observation, oral history, life history, etc. The tape recorder preserves things that are not preserved in even the best researchers' field notes. Similarly, tape recordings preserve audible data not available in even the most carefully annotated transcripts: timbre, the music of a voice, inflection, intonation, grunts and groans, pace, and space convey meanings easily (mis)understood but not easily gleaned from written words alone. By opening another channel of information, visual recordings preserve still more information. The raised eyebrow, the wave of a hand, the blink of an eye might, for instance, convert the apparent meaning of words into their opposite, convey irony, sarcasm, or contradiction. So, regardless of how we analyze the data or what we do with the visual record, we can use cameras to record and preserve data of sociological interest so it can be studied in detail.

Visual recording technology also allows us to manipulate the data. Visual recordings have long been appreciated and employed by natural scientists because they make it possible to speed up, slow down, repeat, and zoom in on things of interest. -- Eric Margolis, Arizona State University

The choice of medium and model, of film speed and microphone placement – all of these decisions and the choice to even use media technology in the field at all – should be, like any other methodological choice, theoretically grounded and reflexive. “When ethnographers take photographs” (or record audio or video), Pink says, “they do so with reference to specific theories of photography and in the context of particular social relationships…. [I]t is useful to pay attention to the subjectivities and intentionalities of individual photographers, coupled with the cultural discourses, social relationships and broader political, economic and historical contexts to which these refer and in which they are enmeshed” (Pink 54-5).

And here Pink addresses how her choice of a particular model and a particular medium impact her interaction her subjects and her place in the field:

In place of a viewfinder, the PC7 has a fold-out mini-TV screen that creates a distance between the camera operator’s eye and the camera, allowing the camera operator to see both the camera screen and the scene recorded. Thus the camera no longer follows the operator’s eye but allows him or her a split vision and to see and decide what is being recorded in relation to the scene in front of the camera (78).

The researcher can maintain better eye contact with the her subjects – and, what’s more, video footage can be viewed in the field, or perhaps with the subjects to see how they make sense of representations of themselves (Pink 81).

In a recent issue of The New York Times, David Pogue featured the SC-X105L Sports Camcorder from Samsung, which has a detachable external lens. “This arrangement opens up a world of new recording possibilities, because you don't need two hands - or any hands at all - to hold the camera. Nor do you have to watch the viewfinder or screen; this camera looks wherever you're looking. In other words, this external-lens affair allows the camera operator, for the first time in consumer camcorders, to be a participant in the action instead of a spectator.” Dude! Imagine the ethnographic possibilities!! [Image Credit: NYTimes]

An in chapters 5 through 8 of her book, Pink addresses such issues as how to analyze this mediated “data” – must it be translated it into words, in accordance with extant standards in this  still-logocentric field? – how to organize, narrativize, and archive your media records; and how to integrate hypermedia. See also Bruce Mason & Bella Dicks, “The Digital EthnographerCybersociology 6.

See also "Video and Audio Media in Qualitative Research," Don Ratcliff, Ph.D., Vanguard University

Tips for Using Video, Film, and Photographs in Research [Peter Loizos, “Video, Film and Photographs as Research Documents” In George Gaskell & Martin Bauer, Eds., Qualitative Researching With Text, Image and Sound: A Practical Handbook for Social Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000): 105-6]:

1)   Log every roll of film, video cassette, sound tape or photo as you produce it.

2)   Make sure your informants give you definite permission to reproduce images about (sic) them. This applies equally to your use and possible publication of images they possess. Agreements should be in writing.

3)   …you need to pay at least as much attention to the quality of the sound as to the quality of the picture.

4)   It is easy to get carried away by the idea of ‘making a video,’ and to end up letting the technology, or the excitement, dominate the research.

5)   There is no reason to introduce video recording into a research situation unless it is the best or only way to record the data, and unless it is clearly imperative to record these data


Plowman says that one of the challenges in applied ethnography – that is, ethnographic methods used in the service of design or production or business projects – is to convince the corporate researcher or “client” of the utility of theory. He writes: “…it is not immediately clear how to apply the work of these theorists to issues so intimately bound up in the generation of capital and social reproduction… [Yet] the application and ‘materialization’ of theory in design stands to clarify and operationalize theories, as well as to contribute to the development of alternative or supplementary criteria in the planning, crafting, manufacture and assessment of graphic and industrial design” (Plowman 37).

He wonders: “Can the cross-pollination between these professions move toward the introduction of emancipatory content into designed artifacts? Can this direction comport with the business imperatives inherent in the production of goods and development of services?” (Plowman 38).

Here’s an outstanding paper by one of Eric Margolis’s ASU students; Jani examines the “meaning and image” of the ipod – the device’s “signifying practices” – and the “relationships between the object and the technocratic cultural landscape in which it operates and interacts."

Several design and media companies have already realized what ethnography can contribute to their operations. Cheskin, a design, branding, and intercultural and youth marketing consultancy, has used ethnographic methods to serve some of its clients. For instance, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wanted to know about the newspaper’s future in a world of increasing media choices, they asked Cheskin to find out what people want from the “news-consumption experience” and, in the end, to help them reposition the paper.  You can find Cheskin’s other reports here.

Cheskin makes use of variety of research methods – outlined here – including one that they call Digital Ethno™. My goodness, we’re trademarking methodologies. They describe this proprietary technique as follows:

Drawing on traditional ethnographic methods, cybersociology, anthrofuturism, ethnoconsumerism, and design ethnography, we have added the latest technologies in creative ways to produce new ethnographic tools, analytic methods, and deliverables that provide deep and actionable insights to our clients. We've defined this convergence and updating of traditional methods with digital technology as Digital Ethno™.

Cheskin Digital Ethno™ is essentially the modern, digital evolution of traditional ethnographic forms. While traditional ethnographers physically immerse themselves in distinct places and cultural formations, digital ethnographers capitalize on wired and wireless technologies to extend classic ethnographic methods beyond geographic and temporal boundaries. This approach is ideally suited to documenting the fluidity and flexibility already distinguishing contemporary cultures, communities, and practices.

IDEO, a design firm and consultancy, also approaches design research with methodologies that could be characterized as pseudo-ethnographic. They outline their four-step design process here. The first of those four steps – observation – is described here. IDEO even makes available for purchase a set of Method Cards that describe 51 methods classified according to their primary participant observation activities: “learn,” “look,” “ask,” and “try.”

Here, you can access a CBC interview with IDEO’s Crispin Jones, who discusses IDEO’s research into and proposed design solutions for irritating cell phone behaviors [scroll to the bottom of the page to find the interview].

Human Factors International, a company that focuses of “user-centered design,” which they describe, in rather effusive self-praise, as follows:

Our research methodologies, rooted in cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology, help us contextually study the "situated" behaviors, goals, intentions and thoughts of the potential users. Unlike traditional market research, which employs staged focus groups and superficial questionnaires as their main data source, we use tools and methodologies that elicit the deepest responses—thereby laying the building blocks of tomorrow's designs.

You can read more about HFI’s methodologies and services here. See also Intel Research and Design Continuum and their list of “ethnography” clients.

Xerox-PARC teamed up with some Indian researchers, artists, and mediamakers to undertake a very exciting research project -- The Crossing Project -- that reexamined the very form of computing technology and the graphical user interface; and considered ways of integrating the hand – and the whole body – in the computing experience. The “medium theory” framework should be obvious to you – but it’s important to note that the researchers also derived some Eastern philosophical inspiration: they blended their technological research questions with a concern for “a traditional society’s notion of eco-cosmic connections” and “the expressions of traditional arts and crafts in the design of expressive information delivery devices.” It’s a wonderful example of thoughtful, creative, ethnographic multimedia research; read more about it here.

But are the above examples of ethnography? Plowman himself appears on Cheskin’s blog, debating the pros and cons of this “commercialization” of ethnography:

Over the past few years ethnography and ethnographers have been popping up everywhere I turn. From human computer interaction, to branding, to computer supported co-operative work, to product development, to tangible computing, to advertising. The value of the unique insights offered by ethnographic approaches in a commercial context is now pretty much undisputed and lots of different entities are willing to meet the demand for ethnographic insights.

I would say ethnography is nearing commodity status, which is both a good and bad thing. It is good because ethnography helps a variety businesses get a deep understanding on what they need to do in order to succeed and sensitizes them to important aspects of their relationship to end-user/customer/audience. It is bad from the perspective that a lot of people purporting to do ethnography seem to be a little shy on the methodological and theoretical equipment necessary to do solid ethnographic research. Without question, ethnography can be learned. But if people who purport to be doing it don't take the time necessary to learn the craft, the promise of ethnography could diminish in the eyes of those who embraced its application in business in the first place.

RP: So, is this a valid concern? Should ethnographers worry that their methods have been co-opted (and their name trademarked!) by corporate researchers?

RP: Disregarding any sympathy for Plowman's concerns, can you think of any other ways to apply these methods in the design of media products or productions? Do you feel any differently about Larsen’s claim, from our first reading assignment, that there’s no such thing as “media ethnography”?

Additional Resources: