Is ethnography only about "how people really live"?

24 Feb 2009|tommy

Recently I’ve come across a large number of articles touting the value and benefit of conducting ethnographic research. It’s a standing discussion in Quirk’s and a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review includes a piece from Ken Anderson on corporate ethnography and its value.

Now, I couldn’t agree more that ethnographic work is unique, valuable, and crucial to innovation. And I think a lot of Dr. Anderson and the work he and his colleagues do at Intel. But I find that the mantra of “seeing how people really live” is growing over-used. And it doesn’t really capture ethnography’s value at all!

Understanding how people really live” has been the standard line for years now. Researchers and authors all over the world tout ethnographic research as the unique method to tell us what’s “really happening.” I’ve done it myself, describing ethnography’s ability to help us encounter things that people can’t “or won’t” tell us. And this is true.

But the real power in ethnographic research isn’t just this – I’d argue that any researcher worth their salt should be adept at reading between the lines and beneath the surface to intuit what may be going unsaid. The real value of ethnography is in understanding how a huge number of variables combine to create meaning for people.

We talk a lot here about culture and the different elements that create it and make it important. Everything from a person’s words to their background and heritage come together to create meaning and significance for them. And here’s where ethnography is valuable: it helps us access the greatest number of those aspects in the shortest amount of time. By interacting with people in context, we get to see their environment, their actions, the art on their walls and refrigerators. We get to hear their words, and look for indicators of other things – tangential things – that all come together to create meaning.

This isn’t about seeing how they really live. It’s about understanding what’s really important to them and how those values affect their behavior and decisions.

Books and articles that tout the prime benefit as “seeing how people really live” give ethnography short shrift. I propose looking at the method and approach in a new light, to more deeply understand who they are rather than how they live.

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