Ethnography 101

Some of us at Engine are getting ready for a very intensive series of ethnographic studies for the Southwark Rise Project, set up to compare Southwark Council’s support provision with the end experience of users, and to establish a framework for developing a user-centred approach. Ethnography is the practical end of anthropology and involves immersing yourself in the environment, community, society or culture you are observing and recording very qualitative information regarding how people live their lives. It often uses film and photography to quickly document the subjects without interfering with their natural habits and asking too many questions. It’s somewhere between Lois Theroux and a human safari.

Ethnography is powerful because it offers so much qualitative detail on people, creating a compelling and personal account of people’s everyday lives. In order to capture everything in its immediacy, from the contents of someone’s fridge to a family argument, film, photography, sound recordings and even sketches are often used. This rich visual evidence adds to this power and reality when presented back.

Thankfully for those of us who are less experienced in front line ethnographic research, the studio has been sharing some advice and resources. Here’s a summary of what I (and you) may find useful when planning, carrying out and reviewing front-line ethnography.

Erick gave me a really entertaining (if a bit long) movie of Luis Arnal’s experiences as an ethnographer, reinforcing a sound set of principles and ethics with some great anecdotes which was presented at IIT last year. He had a simple illustration of the paths of conversation in an interview, probing and branching and gradually becoming more productive:

Empathy – with both participants and clients
Teamwork – briefing everyone and making participants feel on your side, create a buzz
Creativity – reacting quickly and finding a way to get people to open up
Discipline – observing the social code (Arnal covers everything from high society to the favelas)
Courage – know your rights, coping with emotionally demanding research
Social Responsibility – follow an ethical code, all work should improve people’s lives, don’t engage participants but leave written recommendations; don’t keep them
Passion – believe in the project (see Social Responsibility!)

RECOUP, the Research Consortium on Education Outcomes and Poverty provides a useful checklist to prepare you for ethnography and the process of disseminating and discussion what you’ve seen. The full manual can be downloaded here.

And finally a list of the great and the good, from beginnings of armchair anthropology based on archeaology and ‘collecting’ exotic material items to what we now see as ethnography.

Franz Boas – developed a theory of cultural relativism, rather than seeing culture as an evolutionary line
Bronislaw Malinowski – participant observation pioneer
Marcel Mauss – worked on reciprocity and gift exchange
Claude Levi-Strauss – structuralism and mythologies

I’m itching to get out into the field now!