ArticlesJanuary 6th, 2023

Ethnography is moving on. Are you?

Ian Pollock
Ian Pollock, Senior Design Researcher
Written by Senior Design Researcher Ian Pollock, PhD.

I’m thrilled any time a project that calls for ethnographic research comes across my desk. Look, I’m an anthropologist. There’s nothing I like better than hunkering down with strangers for an extended period of time, trying out, being with, and asking foolish questions.

But I don’t often see the tools of ethnography being used to their full potential. Usually, they’re used for little, even peripheral things: character studies or local colour to spice up a dry statistical report, or scouting little details of someone’s product experience to come up with design tweaks. Worse yet, it can be a search for little behavioural levers to bring people into compliance with some system or set of rules.

Sounds like what ethnography is for? Maybe it was, in the 20th century. Thankfully, the field is moving on. Organisations that keep up will find that, on top of being the most fun research method, ethnography is an incredibly powerful driver for change.

Where ethnography came from, and where it’s going

Ethnography as we know it developed largely as a tool to support the control of colonised peoples, and power continues to dictate who gets to study whom. What funding can you apply for? What language do you use to speak and write? What institutions are backing you? What’s your gender identity, your race, your sexual orientation? These questions are still shaping who can do field ethnography, and what questions they can ask.

Scholars from Indigenous and marginalised communities have struggled for decades to turn the tables. Change is late, and slow. But it’s happening.

I want to take a moment to highlight three actions you can take to bring your methods up to date: respect refusal; protect researchers; and co-produce.

Respect refusal

It starts by admitting that we don’t have a right to access the lives and stories of others–our desire to know is not a right to know. Anyone can refuse to share their knowledge or experience, on any number of legitimate grounds. That refusal is a political act, as people demand control of the ways they are seen and presented.

This goes double for research that could put participants at risk, including the risk of reliving a traumatic experience. A consent form alone doesn’t do it. A $50 incentive payment doesn’t do it. It’s up to us, as researchers, to go the extra mile to ensure that we’re not putting participants in danger–for example, by incentivising them to engage in risky behaviour so that we’ll have a chance to observe it.

When a participant refuses to show you or talk about something, they are telling you something important: about the risks they face, their power in their community, or their idea of what you should really be focusing on. When we respect that refusal, we open the possibility of new ways of working with people, and put them at the center of attempts to solve problems in their lives.

Protect researchers

Ethnographic work is not safe for many researchers, who expose themselves to all kinds of risk of harm and abuse. (This is more true than ever in the COVID era.) Graduate students have been at the forefront of developing new ways to open up field work, so that more people, including women, queer people, people of colour, and people with disabilities can undertake fieldwork safely. And just doing the work of making an ethnographic project safe for researchers can yield insights of its own, by bringing attention to the risks that the people you want to learn from are facing on a daily basis.

All researchers deserve the same opportunities to work and explore that are afforded to researchers who are straight or white, male or able-bodied. They can also draw on the specificity of their experiences to enrich their research work. A researcher who is, for example, pregnant, or uses a wheelchair, or has firsthand experience of trauma or repression may relate to participants in unique ways.

Co-produce

The clear separation between “field” and “home” is fading away, and with it the out-dated presumption that researchers won’t be accountable to the communities with whom they study. Ethnography is tacking strongly towards co-production: thinking together, writing together, and working alongside participants to build something, or change something, that really matters to them. True co-production gives communities the power to bring your organisation into compliance with their values, goals, and expectations – rather than the other way around.

With this in mind, what could the future of ethnography and its core principles help to solve? When we relate to one another safely and with respect, we can transform the ways we respond to climate disasters, support people struggling with addiction or fleeing family violence, organise to hold our governments accountable, care for the sick or the elderly – the opportunities are endless.

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