Ethnography and quality control


Well, this is a little awkward.  Renee Hopkins Callahan at Corante/IdeaFlow is reporting on a conference that promises an “An Ethnographic Learning Journey IntoThe CPSI Culture.”  (CPSI stands for Creative Problem Solving Institute.)

“Great,” I thought, “ethnography!” It’s interesting to see what becomes of this brave little method when it leaves the groves of the academic world for the “real world.”  I have done quite a lot of ethnographic “export” myself, and in fact I am now working on a study for the Marketing Science Institute on this very topic. 

Here’s the problem: the “Immersion Session” in question, the one that will “use ethnography as a research method,” does not appear to have anyone trained in ethnography attached to it.  The leader of the session says that she has a degree in Psychology and that she is a “self-trained visual anthropologist.”  Self-trained anthropologist? Oh, be still my acid pen.

Well, that could be something for Callahan to report on.  If she sees an ethnographer, I mean.  “News flash: ethnographer found at learning journey!”

This is a widespread problem. There are lots of people claiming to do ethnography who are, um, “self trained.”   There are of no barriers to entry and no one licensing ethnographers. And the term “ethnography” is now so sought after in certain circles that there is plenty of demand.

For all I know, the CPSI “ethnographer” is smart and variously gifted enough to do a great job leading the research and creating the “immersion.”  But it is not clear to me that the term “ethnography” is properly used here.

16 thoughts on “Ethnography and quality control

  1. Sean Ryan

    It’s definately become a buzz word in the industry. I’ve done several ethnographic projects (and yes I do have formal ethnographic training….can’t be too careful these days–heh) for marketing/market research depts of major consumer products manufacturers and they are always under the impression that ethnography is something they can learn to do in a few days. Several of our clients have asked for emersion experiences where we bring them out into the field with us on a few in-home visits. Sometimes its just for validation, so they can see for themselves the types of insights that might come out of ethnography. Unfortunately the assumption many of these people have is that they will walk away with their official ethnographer “hat” or “cape” when the work is all said and done. Some clients are a little more realistic after seeing that there actually is some work and analysis involved throughout the ethnographic process, but I would say that many clients believe they can develop this capacity internally (perhaps without even employing an anthropologist or someone with a social science background).

    I remember a few years back at the AAA meetings, NAPA was talking about some sort of official certification program for ethnographers. But somehow being a card carrying ethnographer seemed a little too campy. I think its good that we’re finally getting some attention, but in the long run I think it will ultimately damage our reputation as our methodology gets watered down by all these MBAs running around claiming to be ethnographers.

    One positive (or negative depending on how you look at it) outcome I see coming out of this is more anthropological involvment in B school curricula…John Sherry at the Kellog School for one. But is this simply empowering more MBAs to do the work that we’re doing right now? Or will it open their eyes a little more to the potentials of applying anthropological knowledge to the business world? Tough call…

  2. Steve Portigal

    Count me as an unlicensed and untrained ethnographer. When asked to explain my background, I talk about my apprenticeship into the field. My formal training is in human-computer interaction (although I didn’t learn to deisgn interfaces or conduct usability tests – funny thing about academia, huh?).

    I try not to call myself an ethnographer, however, but refer to ethnography as an example of a contextual research tool (among others) that I use to develop strategic recommendations.

    If the AAA or NAPA or the CPSI or CSIS for that matter want to decide I’m not actually an ethnographer, that’d really be their problem, as far as I am concerned.

    That said, I remember the period in the 90s where every design firm purchased a video camera and added “observational research” or “design ethnography” to their menu of services.

    Is qualifying a provider of user research services any different than qualifying an accountant? I guess so, since we have a more common understanding (and legal definition of what that is) – but what about hiring a gardener or interior decorator?

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  5. gary

    From my course in anthro-linguistics at University of Texas at Dallas, I’d expect the first qualification of an ethnographer to be a stolidly anti-American anti-WesternCiv apologist for cultural atrocities. But at least it introduced me to “The Divine Banquet of the Brain.”

  6. Grant

    Sean, yes, the idea of a certification program seems a little needlessly bureaucratic, and it is certainly true that if I was given the choice between someone with real intelligence and great powers of observation AND someone who is certified as an ethnographer, I would have to choose the former. Ethnography is really easy to do badly. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, As above, good people are good people. Thanks, Grant

    Gary, you have put your finger on one of the problems here, so many anthropologists are so self righteous and politically correct that they have removed themselves from usefulness. (And they couldnt be happier about it.) This field is losing control of “ethnography” in precisely the way it lost control of the notion of “culture.” The world decided that both were too important to be left in the hands of nitwits. Thanks, Grant

  7. Michael Andrews

    This is an interesting topic.

    I don’t call myself an ethnographer (a term that doesn’t mean a thing to my clients in any event), but I do contextual research for IT. There is a tradition now 25 years old of human computer interaction (HCI) adopting techniques of ethnography and applying them to the domain of computers.

    As far as the computer domain is concerned, it takes a while for an anthropologist to get up to speed on computing issues, just as it takes a HCI researcher time to understand contextual issues.

    I think one weakness in some HCI ethnography is that is that is so descriptive that one can’t find a story in it. HCI is not hindered by the theoretical underpinnings of anthropology, which is good and bad. It is good because most clients aren’t interested in theory, it is bad because theory can help to shape insight.

    Personally, I get more theoretical inspiration from sociology than anthropology. The concept of culture is very difficult for me to pin down on a small scale, ordinary project. As far as I can understand as an outsider to anthropology, antropologists have trouble agreeing among themselves what culture is. I have blogged on this issue, and how to make the best of it.

    Someone mentioned John Sherry. I have tried to read his stuff and find it theatrical. I don’t wish to offend anyone, but I have read many ethnographic accounts by anthropologists that seem mostly concerned with demonstrating how cleaver they are. That’s where theory gets in the way.

  8. Anonymous

    Grant, thanks for taking notice of our project. Since you’re so concerned about the appearance of correctness while you are using my reports of our project to climb onto your snarky and somewhat unrelated soapbox, I’ll just point out that you spelled my name wrong on the second reference.

  9. Renee Hopkins Callahan

    Grant, thanks for taking notice of our project. Since you’re so concerned about the appearance of correctness, I’ll just point out that you spelled my name wrong on the second reference.

  10. Renee Hopkins Callahan

    Sorry — I ended up posting that twice…that’s what happens when you fire off when you’re irritated. My apologies.

  11. Grant

    Renee, thanks for dropping by and your comments. Sorry for the misspelling of your name. I will fix now (but leave the evidence of my error!) Thanks again. Best, Grant

  12. Sean Ryan

    I’m going to have to agree with you there on some part…anthropologists can get a little too preachy and lose sight of any relevance at times. But sociologists can get be a little heavy handed with the theory at times leaving the business clients scratching their heads. But I’ve also worked with a few sociologists who do some damn fine ethnographic work. Not to mystify it even further, but I think it has more to do with the mindset of the ethnographer (call it ethos–their world view, whatever you want), than it does with their actual training. And so you have folks like Steve who can do some pretty nifty ethnography without the formal training.

    As for HCI and ethnography I work in usability research at Staples and I’m anxiously awaiting an opportunity to incorporate ethnography into the usability process. I have not had a terrible amount of luck yet, but I think it will come around…I hope? Usability is much more tactical than ethnography so it is often difficult to find a project with a large enough scope that would warrant doing any ethnography.


  13. Steve Portigal

    “pretty nifty” ?! Thanks, Sean – I hope my clients have some more impactful endorsements than that.

    Note – I’m teasing Sean and we haven’t worked together anyway.

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  15. Steve Dahlberg

    Thanks for raising this discussion about our conference – CPSI 2005. This whole ethnographic project, in general, has raised LOTS to talk about – from the name of the program itself (your post above) to the items captured by this team during the conference and how their discoveries will influence our thinking about future CPSI events.

    For those readers doing ethnography work related to creativity and learning, I invite you to watch for our call for proposals in the next few months and submit a proposal for a session or program at the 52nd international Creative Problem Solving Institute to be held June 25-30 in Chicago.

    Grant’s issue about people using “ethnography” is something that some in the creativity world share about those “doing creativity work.” Some argue that if you haven’t been trained in the master’s program in creative studies in Buffalo, New York, or gone through the leadership program at the Creative Problem Solving Institute (or something similar to these training programs) that you may not be “qualified” to teach/facilitate creativity programs. They might also argue that “simply reading a book about creativity doesn’t qualify you to REALLY teach creativity.” At the other end of the spectrum, having a master’s degree in creativity guarantees nothing, either. So the use of discipline-specific language certainly is a challenge across fields. And at the end of the day, what is delivered, no matter one’s title, is what really matters.

    On a related note to this ethnography topic, I recently came into contact with Linda Yaven, a design professor from San Francisco. She is an advocate for the “documentation” process – which is based on the educational approach of Reggio Emilio in Italy. It also uses visual observation (including digital cameras) to gain insight and reflection into individual and group learning processes. It adds another dimension to this overall discussion on ethnography, learning and creativity. For more on Yaven’s work, see:

    and pages 14-15:

    Steve Dahlberg
    General Manager
    Creative Education Foundation

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