Ethnography and Ubiquitous Digital Research

February 4, 2010

Ethnographers are traditionally known for immersing themselves in the everyday lives of people and paying attention to the details and context of their activity. Anthropologists after Malinowski considered extended participant observation in the lives of the people they studied a prerequisite for analyzing culture. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth-century ethnographers began to consider their analysis increasingly as a challenge of interpreting cultural phenomena rather than explaining their variation.

With the increasing availability of the Web, researchers using computer-mediated communication, i.e. digital, devices in their projects label their work under a range of categories. I’ve discussed ethnography several times before, the first taking note of the trend toward virtual anthropology and the next talking about the significance of Tom Boellstorff’s ethnography of Second Life, followed by a couple of posts about ethnography’s relationship to empathy and globalization.

In 2003, Cheskin’s Davis Masten and Tim Plowman characterized digital ethnography as the next wave in understanding the consumer experience in Design Management Journal. To my way of thinking they were correct in asserting that, “Digital Ethno enables participants to convey the real-time richness of their own lives and environments.”

Along with any new wave in understanding people’s experience comes a range of neologisms intended to clarify the multiplicity of research options that emerge. Kozinets recently suggested that the use of ethnography in computer-mediated research activities is best described as Netnography, a neologism he dates from 1996. He argues for the use of the term, netnography, in the following way:

Netgography differs from other qualitative Internet research techniques in that it offers, under the rubric of a single term, a rigorous set of guidelines for the conduct of computer-mediated ethnography and also, importantly, its integration with other forms of cultural research (p. 15)

However, as Kozinets suggests, the 2008 survey of Intenet users done by the Annenburg Digital Futures Project found that 56% of the members of online community members meet other members of their online community face-to-face. And, as Kozinets further notes, the Annenburg research did not include social networking sites, making the figures conservative ones since, as Brian Solis recently noted, social networking combined with geo-location and augmented reality applications is bridging the online and offline interaction. Kozinets insists that this simply means research must blend ethnography and netnography to study the intermix of online and offline activity.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think Kozinets thinking on the relation between netnography and ethnography fails to persuade. Suffice it to say that, to my mind, as Web 2.0 increasingly permeates peoples’ everyday lives, the term netnography fails to sufficiently describe the way ethnography works in a consumer environment where digital devices are  ubiquitous.

As people increasingly access the Web and engage online communities on the go, the notion that this is happening on the net seems quaint. If any term is needed other than ethnography, I’d suggest digital ethnography remains the most fitting. When we consider mobility as part of a ubiquitous computing environment, defining the relationship between space and place increasingly requires analyzing social practices rather than simply distinguishing a time and location for an activity.

As Johanna Brewer and Paul Dourish observe, “space is not simply an ‘inert container’ for the places of everyday experience; rather, space itself is the outcome of particular ways of reasoning about and representing the world.” Brewer and Dourish note, for example, that research on mobile messaging used to coordinate meet-ups or other rendezvous allow for people to show-up using a proxy form of participation before they get to the physical meeting. Additionally, the recent research by Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, How Brand Community Practices Create Value from the Journal of Marketing explicitly approaches brand communities using a range of qualitative techniques, including netnographic, to study participants across several years both online and off.

My inclination regarding ethnographic methods is to endorse the point of view offered in Sunderland and Denny’s Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. They note,

…ethnography is not a method per se, but rather a collection of methods…In commercial consumer research circles, one sometimes hears various rules, on the order “it is only ethnography if there is observation,” or “video,” or “multiple meetings,” or “sufficient time,”…or…(filled in with any number of favorite and idiosyncratic rules. But what seems most accurate about ethnography as a companion mode of discovery in cultural analysis is that as a methodology it must be viewed through, and seen as permeated with, the sociocultural. (p. 50, my emphasis)

In other words, the specifics of the methodology matter less than its purposive application. Following Geertz, Sunderland and Denny contend, the methodologies employed, whether participant observation, focus groups, in-depth interviews, diaries (online or offline), village censuses, surveys, or maps, “are not ‘ethnographic’ per se, but…are made so by the intellectual framing of the task” (p.52).

The purpose of ethnographic research is as important as the methods used, as long as the sociocultural context remains in focus. For example, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers.

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Ethnography, Globalization, and Experience Design

December 2, 2009

Rosetta Stone

One of the most visited posts on this blog is titled, Empathic Research Methods and Design Strategy. Indeed, if you google or bing “empathic research”, the post pops to the top few links, or vey close, often even ahead of IDEO. My aim in that post was to add to points made by Adam Silver, a Strategist at Frog Design, noting that globalization and digitalization in the 1990s resulted in product and service interfaces with more culturally diverse and geographically distributed customers. The combination of these economic and social forces led designers to search for new methods to augment artistic intuition about form and function. Considerations of form and function also required attention to feel, emotions, features, and interactivity attuned to the needs, wants, and beliefs of users/customers. The power of ethnographic research to discern empathic insights by observing and interpreting people’s cultural activity is now widely recognized.

Recognizing the implications of globalization for design and marketing is certainly not new. The now classic book, The Design Dimension, by Christopher Lorenz, explained the crux of the point as early as 1986. Lorenz noted that,

…globalization does not mean the end of market segments, but their explosion to worldwide proportions. Far from declining, the number of market segments may actually increase…Though industrial designers frequently can – and do – substitute for the absence of marketing imagination. In most companies the most potent force for imaginative marketing and product strategy is a real partnership between marketing and design (pp. 146-147).

 The significance of Lorenz’ point came back to me recently while reading “How does our language shape the way we think?, by Lera Boroditsky, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Symbolic Systems at Stanford University. Boroditsky’s research into language and thought complements a key point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Gladwell informs us that one basic reason exists for the tendency of Chinese students to outperform others in math skills. Quite simply,

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits for about two seconds at a time. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right almost every time because—unlike English speakers—since the Chinese language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

Whereas Gladwell’s interest is in the way language and culture affect our view of talent, Boroditsky is interested in whether, and how, language shapes the contours of thought itself, the kinds of questions people who speak a language are able to ask, and the kinds of significant symbols they recognize. Boroditsky’s research looks at an old question, and controversy, in anthropology and sociolinguistics — the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

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The Fallacy of Open/Closed Culture in Social Business Design

September 22, 2009

 Think about a closed business culture. Try to visualize what it looks like. What do you see? Does it look something like a pyramid?

Now, think about an open business culture. Try to visualize it. What image comes to mind? Does it look something like a spider web turned on its side?

 These two imaginings pose similar relationships between their parts. A three dimensional pyramid flattened out is about the same shape as a spider web. It is a matter of perspective as to whether one is more open or closed than the other. When connections are made across, rather than only between, the existing nodes in a network we can start to visualize informal relationships in a way that adds value to discussions of culture. It sounds simple, at least initially.

So, how do these observations relate to culture and social business design?

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Empathic Research Methods and Design Strategy

July 20, 2008

Adam Silver, a Strategist at Frog Design, recently wrote an insightful article, “Calculated Design”, in the company’s online magazine — design mind. I want to discuss the article because it touches on several key issues relating to innovation and designing products and services for the experience of users/customers. Adam notes that as globalization and digitalization emerged in the 1990s the trend resulted in product and service interfaces with more culturally diverse and geographically distributed audiences and a fragmented market. The combination of these forces led designers to search for new methods to augment artistic intuition. Considerations of form and function also required attention to feel, features, and interactivity attuned to the needs, wants, and beliefs of specific users/customers.

As Adam observes, ethnography was one of the first new methods incorporated by design research to meet these challenges in the market. However, he thinks ethnography is, on its own, unable to provide the kind of information needed to validate product and service ideas across wide audiences. Read the rest of this entry »


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