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  • Ethnography is the immersive study of (and writing about) a relatively small (no more than a thousand or so) group of people with some shared ecologies, social organizations, developmental cycles, and and cosmology. [...] Ethnography is a long-term, immersive, participant observation; it is a text; and it is inherently interpretive and analytic. (Morgan Ames, retrieved 12:53, 4 September 2006 (MEST)).
  • Ethnography (from the Greek ἔθνος ethnos = people and γράφειν graphein = writing) refers to the genre of writing that presents qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Ethnography presents the results of a holistic research method founded on the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other.(Wikipedia, retrieved 12:53, 4 September 2006 (MEST)).

Ethnographic technique

According to the (Wikipedia, retrieved 12:53, 4 September 2006 (MEST)):

  1. Direct, first-hand observation of daily behavior. This can include participant observation.
  2. Conversation with different levels of formality. This can involve small talk to long interviews.
  3. The genealogical method. This is a set of procedures by which ethnographers discover and record connections of kinship, descent and marriage using diagrams and symbols.
  4. Detailed work with key consultants about particular areas of community life.
  5. In-depth interviewing.
  6. Discovery of local beliefs and perceptions.
  7. Problem-oriented research.
  8. Longitudinal research. This is continuous long-term study of an area or site.
  9. Team research.
  10. Case studies

The role of ethnography for HCI design

Ethnography is a popular analysis methodology in Design sciences, e.g. Human-computer interaction and user-centered design

Here is a longer quote from Morgan Ames's blog that summarized Dourish (2006) talk at CHI 2006 (retrieved DSchneider 12:53, 4 September 2006 (MEST), found by Nicola Nova's

  • Marginalization of theory: ethnography was seen as a "toolbox" of field techniques, the ethnographer as a "tape recorder." (Diana Forsythe famously said that "an ethnographer is not a tape recorder" -- an ethnographer must take an analytic stance, choose an interpretive practice.) Objectivity and subjectivity: Paul notices that many scientific/engineering students are uncomfortable with ethnography because they see interpretation as subjective, but ethnographic data isn't just "collected," it's generated from the encounter of the ethnographer and the field settings, and proceeds from a consciousness of what is or may be subjective. Interpretation and analysis are central. Doesn't mean that everything is "hopelessly" and "problematically" subjective, though.
  • Disciplinary power relations: what is implied by the insistence for implications for design? Instead, perhaps we should be asking what are the implications for theory. Why is design a natural end-point? Why does theory/analysis seem like an unreasonable end-point? Design is a privileged activity in HCI -- this shows the asymmetry between the disciplines and how much they're valued.
  • Relationship between technology and practice: the common view is that ethnography will uncover problems that design can fix. This assumes that the world is problematic and can be fixed by (technological) design. A better approach would to have a broader view of practice, including how technology is put to use (and adopted, adapted, repurposed, and appropriated), how people create new circumstances and consequences of technology use, and how technologies take on social meaning. To formulate practice as "deficient" or "needing to be fixed" presupposes a lot, and also puts design outside of the domain of the ethnographer.
  • Representation: over the last two centuries, anthropological ethnography has grown from "objective, instrumental, actionable" accounts to situated encounters. The former is now what is requested in technology and product design, though.
Finally, it's not that implications for design are bad -- they can be productive, and part of conversations between ethnographers and others. Ethnography also isn't just abstract and academic. It's just that the absence of implications for design shouldn't disqualify an ethnography -- they're a poor metric for evaluating ethnographic work.
... have to read this Dourish article



  • Paul Dourish, Implications for Design, CHI 2006 paper, PDF