Methods for online ethnography


An article from anthropologists at Arizona State University on the types of methodological challenges of studying online environments and behaviour. The article is an interview with the research team who were investigating online channels for social support for weight loss. The interview covers a range of research challenges they came across, from collecting data to ethics and privacy, and is an interesting read and argument for the evolution of ethnography to incorporate more of online behaviour as it has become so integrated into daily life for many societies.

From one of the researchers, Professor Amber Wutich:

Ethnographic research has always been adaptable as humans themselves are in the myriad environments we inhabit. Understanding the new, social world humans experience online helps us more scientifically and definitively answer questions like, how do people construct meaning there? What sorts of cultural norms govern online behavior? How do social worlds created online differ from the spaces people physically inhabit, and how does that affect life in the “real world”?



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.

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.

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.

And that last point links to another hot topic, of whether past behaviour is a good indication of future behaviour, needs etc.

Why we need conflict for better outcomes

I’m intrigued by conflict – how we think about it, why we avoid it and how we can reframe it as a positive quality in human relationships and workplaces. I’ve come across this TED Talk today which addresses why and how conflict is a necessary thinking tool for individuals and organisations. I’ve also written on this topic before here.

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)