What is ethnographic research and what are its defining characteristics?

A great interview with Gordon Milne on this podcast about what ethnography is, (and what it isn’t), and tips on how to do it. Gordon Milne is IPSOS Asia Pacific’s head of qualitative research and the podcast is part of a series of market research techniques, trends and practices. There are a couple of things mentioned in it that I completely agree with and are worth calling out, especially for those who don’t have the time to listen to the whole podcast (44mins in total).

He distinguishes between three types of qualitative research using ethnography: i) 5-7hrs of participant observation which he terns as “pure ethnography”; ii)”immersions” as 2-3hrs with participants, and ; iii) more traditional qual research incorporating ethnographic elements.

Some key points:

  • Ethnography is about seeing things and being there in the moment – not just talking about them (as it is in a question and answer format).
  • In ethnographic research you are looking for the unarticulated, and not merely describing what people report that they do.
  • Participant-led – This is such an important distinction between ethnographic research and more traditional qualitative methods such as interviews or focus groups. It’s far less about following a discussion guide and much more about being in the moment and taking cues from the research participant, such as matching the participant’s mood and energy levels. Make it a conversation, not a Q&A interview, and follow the order of their day, not them fitting to the order of your topics/questions. Be naiive – let the participant guide you.
  • Pre-field preparation – Get clear at the start about what you’re trying to achieve (i.e. the research question); recruit the right people; help prepare the participant so they know what to expect
  • “Pure ethnography” requires a trained ethnographer or a senior, experienced qualitative researcher (~15min into the interview)

What is critical thinking?

There seems to be an emerging appreciation of the skills anthropologists and other humanities/ social science types can bring to contemporary environments (examples here and here), especially those that involve complex business problems, innovation, social issues and increasing use of technology (such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and machine learning). Anthropologists are great critical thinkers – we are trained to look at things from multiple perspectives, break challenging concepts down to analyse the different components, and be aware of how our biases and experiences inform the meanings and conclusions we make. Here are a couple of short videos that explain what critical thinking skills are.

This video from Macat (an online education provider partnered with the University of Cambridge) defines critical thinking as asking the right questions to identify the meaning and significance of claims and arguments. This video from TEDEd breaks down critical thinking into 5 parts (picture below).

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For more thoughts on how anthropologists think, you might like this post on liminal thinking.

Applied anthropologist example: Martha Bird and chatbots


Let me introduce Martha Bird to you via this article in Computerworld. She has a PhD in anthropology and has worked in a range of industries including a non-profit, telco and in e-commerce. She helps match user needs across multiple markets to products and services for global brands. Right now she is a business anthropologist working on how chatbots need to function for customers of an HR product and service provider.

She says that in her role she “is always about thinking about the intersections of technologies and people or, put another way, about the human-machine relationships in cultural context“. As an anthropologist, she is building on work done to date around UX and customer journeys in the company and explains: “the user’s journey must also account for the cultural landscapes – organizational, culture, national culture, geography, tech infrastructure, gender – on which these journeys are mapped“. This is something that an anthropologist can offer.

One of the interesting things involved in her work is identifying “cultural precisions” where cultural differences need to be built into how chatbots function in order to meet user needs globally.

Full article here

What is triangulation in social research?

Triangulation in social research is a technique to increase credibility of research outcomes. Borrowed from navigational and land surveying techniques, it aims to overcome biases in single method, researchers, data sets and/or theories.

There are 4 types of triangulation:

  1. Methodological – two or more methods are used to collect data
  2. Data – two or more different data sets
  3. Researcher – two or more researchers investigate
  4. Theoretical – two or more theories approach the often described as a way of ensuring some form of ‘truth’ in research results. This is one reason to use triangulation, but another is to intentionally draw out some of the differences

As an anthropologist I think we constantly aim to reduce the influence of bias in research we do. A competent, self-aware anthropologist is very good at observing phenomena from multiple viewpoints. Of course we can’t always overcome our own biases,  so designing your research (and synthesis) with triangulation in mind can contribute to overall outcomes.

Busy-ness isn’t necessarily productive


Increasingly I am seeing time as a taboo topic. We are in an era that focusses on efficiency and productivity. To ask for more time insinuates you’re not quite on top of things, or you can’t think fast enough. You’re slower, and (gasp) less productive,  than everyone around you. But what if all this busy-ness is not a reliable sign of an intelligent, quick-thinker? Tim Kreider in this New York Times piece called “The Busy Trap” writes:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

There’s a good read about how getting ourselves out of the busy-ness has a purpose over on LinkedIn called “The Power of Stepping Away”

We have treated idleness with scorn, undervalued its healing and curative power. Yet research has shown that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain doesn’t just shut down. Instead it replenishes our attention and motivation, improves productivity, heightens creativity.

It’s a timely (pun intended) reminder that productive time doesn’t always need to align to busy time. In fact you can do some of your best or most important work when you’re consciously not being busy doing busy things.

Applied anthropology is a hybrid career

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I’m increasingly thinking that applied anthropologists are professional hybrids. Anthropology alone will not lead to a career outside of academic environments. We need to be anthropologists plus something else – such as project managers, consultants, designers or policy makers. Therefore, we need to find industries that compliment our skillsets and are in demand in order for anthropology to gain serious momentum in applied settings.

Anthropologists as liminal thinkers


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During some internet searching today I came across Marianne Cantwell’s TED talk about liminal thinkers. These are people who can have a foot in multiple worlds but quite feel like they ‘fit’ in any single place. “Liminality” is a term that describes ‘a state of inbetween-ness – you’re not quite one thing but not yet another either’. This may be a term familiar to those who have studies anthropology and heard about liminal rites of passage (such as weddings). The author Dave Gray, who has published books on liminal thinking, explains in this Medium post and this podcast with UXpod that part of its roots lie with anthropology, as well as philosophy and psychology. A few definitions Gray offers which I think are the best to explain it are:

Liminal is simply a word that means boundary or threshold and it specifically describes the experience that people feel when they’re on a boundary or a threshold, between one thing and another.

Moments or periods of transition during which the normal limits to thought, self-understanding and behavior are relaxed, opening the way to novelty and imagination, construction and destruction.

Now back to Marianne Cantwell, she uses a metaphor of continents to explain how we are told to think of being one thing, fitting in to one place and aligning ourselves to a particular profession. These ‘continents’ exist near one another, but do not overlap. The career goal for many is to find the continent where you fit, learn the customs and rise up through the ranks. But for liminal thinkers this is a ‘losing game’ because even when a continent can feel exciting and like a good fit, after a while it can become less exciting and less aligned with who you are and the search starts again for a new continent that is more ‘you‘. For those types of people, she suggests building an ‘island’ that exists near your favourite continents that you have a foot in and you bring in aspects of those continents into your own island.

Gray has a definition that is a bit more practical and aligns more with applied anthropology:

Liminal thinking is a term that I use to describe the skill or the ability that one can cultivate for getting better at these moments of transition and actually creating transitions when you might feel stuck finding your way through, out of these stuck points and into a new way of thinking about the world that can lead to much more interesting outcomes for you.

I thought it might be interesting for young anthropologists to think about themselves as liminal thinkers who don’t need to be concerned if they can’t find one continent to fit into. There aren’t many well worn career paths for anthropologists who are looking for ways to apply their qualification outside of academia and I think anthropologists are largely liminal thinkers who need to create their own pathways into industries and professions. Basically they need to build their island. This can be tough, but the great news is that according to Marianne, “we need liminal thinkers more than ever”.

Future consumer and design research trends from pioneer anthropologist

To me, Jan Chipchase is a pioneer in applying anthropological methods and thinking to business contexts. I first heard of him when he was working at Nokia years and years ago. Since then he’s been named by Fast Company as the ‘James Bond of Design Research’. He is the founder and CEO of Studio D Radiodurans a research, design and strategy consultancy which according to their website ‘provides discreet international research, design and strategy services to multinational clients’. He is due to release his third book The Fieldstudy Handbook in June 2017 which is a guide to running international field research projects.

This interview with him has some great info and perspectives including how human-centred design has evolved, which he outlines as:

Human-centered design is not static. Over time, the trajectory of it in the industry has gone from:

  • “Help us fix this” usability testing, to
  • “Help us make this” user experience design, to
  • “What should we make?” foundational research + ideation + design, to
  • “What is interesting and why?” exploratory field work (+ ideation + concepting + prototyping + design & engineering), to
  • “What are the second order effects of x?” anticipatory design (strategy, design fiction, scenario planning)

Other useful points for me on the following topics were:

Conducting research: unusual questions can reveal shaky assumptions (it’s almost about infusing childlike play as a research tactic); the skill during fieldwork is knowing when to step away from the process that has been planned in detail and allow things to play out naturally; embracing the creative diversity of research teams; he aims for a state of flow and immersion with research teams which can lead to a team being engaged for 16 hours a day without it feeling like work and also has produced some of the best and most rewarding work from team members.

Future research trends: more technology will be involved that can bring contexts closer to research teams without them being there, but he cautions that technology can only capture so much and that the researcher will need to factor in what is missing and how it impacts the approach; mining of historical data will become more prevalent to make future predictions and if the volume of data is sufficient, it may not matter whether you understand why because the required outcome—a reasonable probability of understanding of what will happen next—is possible. However, this carries a risk of offering short-term value (of things that are known and measurable) and mask longer-term risks (of things that are not yet known, and therefore not yet measurable); The reality behind the assumption that more data equates to better insight is that most of the new data is an iteration on what is measurable, and thus what is already known.