How a Design Ethnographer is not just an Ethnographer.

A design ethnographer is not an ethnographer. It is a simple mistake to make to think a design ethnographer is a regular ethnographer. I have just made this mistake myself, and I am a design ethnographer. How mortifying! Here is the rundown.

Just now,  I found an amazing primer for ethnographers in a surprising place, an online book about research writing ( it is not THAT surprising, but please humor me). Methods of Discovery: A Guide to Research Writing

Pavel Zemliansky’s guide to research writing provides a well researched and carefully constructed chapter on the “how-to” of ethnographic writing.

He clearly outlines the rhetorical (meaning action of creating an argument) process that underlies ethnography. He  not only explains the why and how of ethnography, but also the framing of ethnographic methods within a larger research construct. It is a great guide for next year’s students embarking on the Design Ethnography Masters at Dundee University. It provides reasoning and clear, easy to follow exercises to help practice your ethnographic writing skills.

BUT! I do have issue with some of his words regarding ethnographic investigations and researchers:

They need not worry that their results would not be applicable to other cultures and other research situations because they do not have to be. The goal of an ethnographer is to create a deep and credible snapshot of a culture that he or she is studying. The results of this investigation may inform and be cited by other researchers, but it will not be directly applicable to other cultures and other research projects.

I agree that upon embarking on any ethnographic project it is much better to aim for depth rather than breadth. I agree that, “the goal of an ethnographer is to create a deep and credible snapshot of a culture that he or she is studying.” It is with the last statement that I take issue and I believe this has little to do with ethnography  and even less to do with design ethnography. Primarily, I believe we are applying the fruits of lessons learned about one culture to another everyday.

The results of this investigation may inform and be cited by other researchers, but it will not be directly applicable to other cultures and other research projects.

This statement rather enraged me, but I realize that he is only speaking of regular old vanilla flavored ethnography, and he has never had the euphoric pleasure of tasting the fruits of a design ethnographer’s labors. What we do as design ethnographers is super ethnography deluxe 2.0. It is fundamentally based in the old school research method of ethnography, but it is not your mother’s ethnography.

Design Ethnographers are hybrids and as such, lead a life on the fine line between the warring factions of qualitative and quantitative; design and business. Our existence is that of pioneers in covered wagon prairie schooners crossing a vast sea of people, culture, and information. We are focused on creating cohesive stories based on the depth plunge investigations of one subsection of a culture of users or participants, and using those carefully woven stories as overlays and lenses to understand more complex phenomena.

We do so much more than simply write accounts of the meanings of a situation and add our perspectives and influences. We recreate the meanings in our translations and presentations. We are people research omnivores. We will use any tool or method that is appropriate to the quest for more information about a situation. We will do old fashioned observations, interviews, and participatory ethnography until our eyes bleed, but that’s not enough for us. We contaminate the scenes of our interactions with our fervent belief that understanding others will inevitably change the world. We want to leave our participants with something to make their lives better, even if it is only the knowledge that their story counts, really counts when they tell it to us.

We go above and beyond the call of duty for ordinary fieldworkers. We obsess over the tiniest nuances of vocabulary and about what our clients want. We mull over the differences in every intonation, presentation, and gesture because we know how slight differences in meaning or wording can indicate huge cultural shifts.

Furthermore design ethnographers combine a plethora of skills to communicate their findings, and the world demands ever more novel and engaging ways to get involved with our qualitative data. In particular my research partner Rachel and I have been tackling a challenge that many have told us can’t be done; marrying qualitative and quantitative data to tell the whole story. Not only are we hybrid design ethnographers in our own right, but as a team we are trying to prove a concept that seasoned researchers scoff at as impossible. I tell you now the revolution is coming and design ethnographers shall lead it. We will not only find a way to combine qualitative and quantitative data meaningfully, but we will illustrate why they need each other.

Beyond all that we apply insights and research cross culturally and cross genres everyday. Its the magic of how we do what we do. The information sieve that is a design ethnographer’s mind is our greatest asset. You can do field work and analysis until you turn blue but nothing has meaning until it is filtered and correlated by a curious design ethnographer.

Many people say we are in the business of formulating and asking questions. I say NO! We are so much more, we are renderists. We render  multidimensional dynamic models of the what is under our microscope, and then take our models into the world to be played with by anyone who will join us. We believe in collective intelligence and collaboration, and we are going to change the future.


2 thoughts on “How a Design Ethnographer is not just an Ethnographer.

  1. Hi, this is Pavel Zemliansky, the author of Methods of Discovery. I really enjoyed reading your analysis. You are right on–my chapter is the “vanilla” introduction to ethnography for beginning college students. I rally enjoyed learning about the ethnography of design. Thanks.

  2. Wow Pavel, I am so happy you found my little blog. Though I do rag on the one phrase you used, ” but it will not be directly applicable to other cultures and other research projects,” I do agree fervently with the rest of your writing. I found the tone of it particularly helpful in being serious and strict in the modes of practicing ethnography. Now that I have seen a little bit more action in the business context, I believe it would be really helpful to think about how to adapt your guide to an business situation. People get lax and quite cavalier with the ethnographic practices due to absurd time frames and other demands.
    I can’t help but ask you, since I have your attention, could you provide some information or sources on how to keep the integrity of ethnographic work intact within business contexts? I would just like to be pointed in the right direction.

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