So you’d like to study ethnography at MIT

Img_2616 I am teaching a course on ethnography this month at MIT with Joshua Green, and I thought This Blog readers might be interested in what the course looks like.  Feel free to read along.  The course runs for the next 3 weeks and students present their findings January 31st.  I will be posting observations from the course over the next few weeks. 

Course Outline for Week One

IAP Qualitative Research Workshop

Joshua Green and Grant McCracken, C3, Comparative Media, MIT

Class 1:

January 16, 2008


We have chosen to set this methodology course in the demanding context of a real world study.  Students will be asked to master the ethnographic method even as they use it for a practical purpose.  Our topic is whether and how the Public Broadcasting System may embrace new media.  Specifically, can PBS use the new technologies for production, communication, interaction and networking to change what it is and how it connects with its audiences?

We say "whether" because you might decide, on the completion of your study, that PBS is perfect just as it is and that there is no "new media" option that makes compelling sense.  This is a legitimate alternative.  The other extreme is to suggest that the new media option is grounds for a reinvention of PBS, that no program should remain unchanged.  This too is a legitimate alternative.  Or you may choose something in between.

The point is that qualitative research, done well, opens up the problem-set in all directions.  We will expect you to ride ethnographic data thermals up to the intellectual jetstream, canvass the possibilities, intellectual, strategic and tactical, and return to earth with a very particular set of conclusions and recommendations. Your final assignment will be the Powerpoint/Keynote deck you present on March 31st. 

Qualitative research projects of an ethnographic kind in industry (not for profit and for profit) happen very quickly.  Many of them go 14 days start to finish.  Lucky you.  You have an extra week.  In the next three weeks, you must get from "Ok, tell me what ethnography is, again?"  to a finished presentation.  Consider this your amazing race.

We are assuming that students will make up in intelligence, imagination, enterprise and opportunism what they lack in prior acquaintance.  We are looking for bold solutions.  We are not going to be exacting about the details.  This course is not an exercise in methodological orthodoxy or processual exactitude.  Wow us with your conclusions and we will take for granted that you did your due diligence, ethnographically speaking.  (Good work is otherwise impossible.  We will hear the voice of the viewer in your recommendations.)

In this first week, you will get your introduction to the nuts and bolts of research design and ethnographic method.  You will meet your team and you will begin to think about which respondents you should be talking to, what questions you will be asking, what your intellectual and strategic horizons will be, and the schedule you will need to design to get the team to March 31st.  This is the last day of class. And it is the day on which your team will present.  We are hoping to have several distinguished judges to evaluate your work.  Our Harvard Business School judge just signed on.  We hope also to have someone from PBS.

Objective:              Ethnographic Methods, philosophies, methodologies and principle
                                   Preparing for your PBS ethnography

Readings1:            McCracken, Grant.  1988.  The Long Interview.  Thousand Oaks: Sage.    Chapters   1-3.

Readings2:            Sunderland, Patricia and Denny, Rita.  2007. Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, Chapters 1 and 3.


Step 1.  Watch 3 hours of PBS programming.  Identify the programming concepts at work here, the audiences to which PBS wishes to speak, the voice(s) in which it speaks, the tone(s) it takes, and the several ways it engages PBS viewers.  Note that we are not going to talk about one substantial part of the PBS enterprise: children’s programming.  Doing ethnographic interviews with kids is a highly specialized art within the ethnographic practice, and we cannot reasonably hope that you will master it.  So restrict yourself, please, to adult programming.

Step 2.  Contemplate the new media revolution that has taken place in the last 15 years.  Think about how television has changed, both network and cable, the rise of the internet, the emergence of new opportunities for interaction and customization, the disintermediation of markets and cultural institutions, the changing role of the expert and authority in general, the arrival of new social networks, and the ways in which these several revolutions have changed the way the viewer sees him or her self, television, knowledge, information, learning, sociality, community, imagination…you get, the idea.

Step 3. Intersect step 1 and step 2.  There will be many intersections between the PBS proposition, past, present and possible and the new media, past, present and possible.  What we will be doing for the remainder of the course is to gather the ethnographic data and perform the ethnographic analysis that tells us which of these intersections will be most compelling as a future for PBS.

Class 2:

January 17, 2008

Objective:              Ethnographic Methods, strategies and tactics
                                   PBS prep: Identify your team, your respondents, your schedule

Reading1:              McCracken, Grant.  1988.  The Long Interview .  Thousand Oaks: Sage.  Chapters 4-7.

Readings2:            Sunderland, Patricia and Denny, Rita.  2007. Doing Anthropology in Consumer    Research.  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, Chapters 4 and 5.


1) Do a 90 minute interview with a perfect stranger.  Follow the reading to perform the 4 steps of the ethnographic interview.  Tape the interview.  Listen to the interview.

2) Continue working with your team, identifying respondents, preparing the questionnaire, and making ready for your PBS research project.  You should have a full schedule in place that brings you out with a complete Powerpoint/Keynote deck ready for presentation March 31. 

3) Start your interviews.

4)  Keep thinking about the three steps of the assignment for Class 1.  This is our core question.

The image above

This is a 1930s airplane that appears  in relief on the outside of what used to be the main post office in Toronto.  The building now houses the Raptors.  (No parallels to the aerodynamic properties of this course are promised or implied. )    

4 thoughts on “So you’d like to study ethnography at MIT

  1. Joshua

    this is actually kind of ironic, as I was talking with one of my friends today regarding how exciting it would be to study anthropology at MIT, and how realistically I couldn’t expect to get in

    this is quite a remarkable workshop, I may have to try it as a private project

  2. LK

    hi grant…

    this may or may not be of interest but i recall PBS actually being one of the first major broadcasters to intelligently integrate web content with broadcast content. it was on their frontline series. during the documentary an unobtrusive slim ribbon type graphic would unfold across the screen, giving the viewer the option to “see to learn more” and then when you went to the site the featured content was related to that program (not sure how they dealt with this for reruns). the first time i saw it (i think) was during the airing of the merchants of cool with douglas rushkoff; that had to be about 5 or 6 years ago i’m guessing.

    to get a sense of the wealth of materials they have online see

  3. Pingback: Convergence Culture Consortium (C3@MIT)

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