Ethnography dilemmas

14Mar06

I came across this post – ethnography and new media – on working notes where the author has raised a lot of pertinent questions around the practice of ethnography. Here are the key ones :

1. What is ethnography?
2. What constitutes the truth in ethnography?
3. What is ethnography good for?
4. Methodological concerns

These are all issues that I keep grappling with – especially the bit about truth in ethnography is uncomfortable to think about. And some more! Here are a few of my own questions I left on that blog :

— “as a qualitative research practitioner in India (we have just “discovered” ethnography here!!), I can easily identify with some of the issues you have raised here – one of the questions I always have but can never answer satisfactorily is – how much is enough in ethnography? esp with this becoming another quick and dirty research method, “immersion” hardly ever has a chance!

and then the tricky issue of reporting – converting what you see into research insights – take your point on representation v/s construction – both are such “selective” ways of doing it – how does one capture the whole picture in ethnographic work? if that is possible at all…”—

The post also mentions triangulationmatching what’s said with what’s done and any other available data. In other words, not taking anything at face value, but corroborating what you see with what they see – and in case of user studies, also what they actually use. I had written about it here earlier.

And this is something that definitely helps, having a sense of vuja de that the fast company weblog talks about – Vuja de happens when you enter a situation you’ve been in a thousand times before, but with the sense of being there for the first time. Does that take care of atleast a part of researcher baggage? More from this piece – As French novelist Marcel Proust said, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” So if you want to find untapped innovation opportunities, watch the world around you with “fresh eyes”.

If we are talking problems in ethnography, here is one more on the problems of “high speed ethnographies” (which I have referred to earlier as quick and dirty!) that I have been planning to link to for a long time: design ethnography and the crisis of time, a post which in turn is inspired by Jan Chipchase’s lament about tour bus ethnography (link via antropologi.info)

At what point does spending a few days in a culture become nothing more than tour bus ethnography? Hop off the bus, stick a microphone in someone’s face, take a few photos and tell everyone back home what a wonderful time that had by all and boy didn’t we learn a lot.

Yes indeed. Especially the photographs bit. Photographs are indeed a great way to capture data, especially in a situation where there is limited time or the socio-cultural context is new and unfamiliar to the researcher. But can that be the essence of the entire research study? More questions…

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2 Responses to “Ethnography dilemmas”

  1. 1 Inna

    Sorry for a somewhat late response. You raise very interesting questions – questions I’m also thinking about and can’t come to any definite answer. I’m not even sure there is a definite answer. Most of what you’re asking about depends on research questions and the position of the researcher. Thus, I don’t think it’s possible to capture the whole picture because there always will be other perspectives, contexts, interpretations, etc. that can undermine / change this supposedly whole picture. What an ethnographer can (and should) do is to be aware of all these limitations and not to pretend to a complete knowledge.

  2. Inna, thanks for dropping in.

    I agree with this – “What an ethnographer can (and should) do is to be aware of all these limitations and not to pretend to a complete knowledge”. in fact, I think that is true for all qualitative research – researchers are human beings and just as prone to prejudices and subjectivities – so the best way is to not fight or ignore them but be aware of them and work within these limitations…



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