Telling Tales from the Field

These notes were written in partial preparation for teaching a class
for Steve Portigal to undergraduates in CCS. This is the first draft.

Telling Tales From the Field: Ethnography, Design and Why Who You Are Matters

The class
In this class, I will give a very brief introduction and background to
my views on ethnographic work and its place in design – I have some
notes below to introduce you to ethnography and design work.

After a short introduction, the majority of the time in the class will
be in discussion around central topics, using the results from the
exercise (see below) you bring to the class. We will review your “tales
from the field” – considering central concepts such as “the
ethnographic eye”; participant/observer, known and unknown
investigators, degree of embeddedness, and roles; notions of “data
site”; issues of access to data sites; data recording methods;
elaboration of “units of analysis”; framing, perspective, data
extrapolation and generalization; objective/subjective and
impressionistic analysis; reflexive analysis; rhetoric; and legal,
ethical issues in conducting fieldwork.

Class Exercise

To have content for discussion, before the class I’d like you to think
about checkout lines. Please spend some time thinking about checkout
lines – I’d like you to observe at least one checkout line and come to
the class prepared to tell us what you know about checkout lines – and
how you know it. Your task in the class will be to explain to others
what it is like to be in a checkout line, and in the checkout line(s)
you have considered. We will be reading and sharing these stories and
using them to reflect on important issues in carrying out
ethnographically inspired fieldwork.

Introduction: What is Ethnography?

Ethnography as a method is historically associated with the discipline
of anthropology. Ethnography literally means “writing the culture”. In
more recent years we have increasingly heard of ethnography in design
circles as a method that is being used to inform us about the use of
existing designed objects (e.g., technologies, environments, consumer
commodities), and to inspire us about new design possibilities and how
their adoption may fit in with what people already do (their
“practices”). Many such studies are fairly short term and are focused
on deriving inspirations for products or processes that will in fact
change people’s practices.
As the term ethnography implies, traditionally ethnographies are
carried out to really reflect what is going on in a cultural setting
and typically take a long time. Thus, to acknowledge that fieldwork
ethnographies are often (but not always) fairly shallow, I refer to
fieldwork in most design contexts to be ethnographically “inspired” or

The basic method of carrying out an ethnography is to observe in a
natural setting – to watch what people do, to listen to what they say,
to observe the setting in which they do it over time, and to thus come
to some understanding of how the social order comes about and is
maintained. When people talk of “doing fieldwork” they typically mean
any observation work that takes place in the setting in which they are
studying – a field worker I talked to recently said they considered
“anything out of my office” to be field work, as they were always
watching and observing. In addition to watching, ethnographic work also
can involve carrying out informal interviews to learn about the setting
and to clarify what one has seen and heard. An ethnographer often feels
like an apprentice in a new world, and uses all the techniques
apprentices use to “get up to speed”, that is to rapidly develop an
understanding of the social setting. Depending on the purpose of the
study, the ethnographer will spend more or less time, will be more or
less involved in the day-to-day lives of the social setting and people
under study and will focus on different things. These “different
things” are what constitute the “units of analysis”. That is, I may
focus on a mobile worker, but be most interested in their use of the
mobile phone to keep in touch with colleagues and customers. To carry
out an ethnography I may follow them (“shadow them”) through their work
day, focusing on them, the situations they are in and the phone – when,
why, where and how it is used. Here, the mobile worker, the phone, the
conversations and the settings are the primary units of analysis. The
weather, what they are wearing are the secondary units of analysis
initially – but may come into more focus if, for example, they are on
foot and it rains constantly such that using the cell phone becomes
impossible. The focus of attention shifts frequently until the
ethnographer gets a real sense or impression of what things are
“constant” and what things are part of the current observed setting but
not common to other settings.

Learning to do good ethnographic work involves learning to see and
hear, and then learning how to speak about or recount what one has seen
and heard. Good ethnographic work takes time, and it takes practice to
carry out deep analyses and summarize those findings to recount the
important findings “faithfully”. The “real” work begins when the
ethnographer leaves the field site and tries to make sense of what they
have seen. And how the research is presented is at least as important
as what is presented. Issues about point of view, voice, style, and
audience have been long considered in the field of “rhetoric” and
narrative studies, and it is important that the ethnographer know that
the way in which they report findings affects what is understood by the
reader/hearer. Being able to reflect on the style of reportage and be
more aware of how we do that is essential – what we are choosing to
highlight and what we choose leave out. In multidisciplinary design
teams, the reader/hearer is often one’s colleague(s). The result of the
discussion may be a process or product change that affects people’s
activities. So, being clear as to framing of reports is very important
– reports can have major consequences in terms of how the setting is
affected should a design based on fieldwork be introduced.

This class will focus on the gathering of data and the reportage of
that data, as a way to introduce concepts that are important in
ethnographically inspired fieldwork for design.

–Lofland, J. and Lofland L. (1995) Analyzing Social Settings. A Guide
to Qualitative Observation and Analysis (3rd Edition). USA: Wadsworth
Publishing Company
–Emerson, R.M., Fretz, R.I. and Shaw, L.L. (1995) Writing Ethnographic Field Notes. London, Uk: University of Chicago Press.
–Van Maanen, J. (1988) Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography.
Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.
— Wolcott, H. F. (1999) Ethnography. A way of seeing. Oxford, Uk: Altamira Press.

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