Thursday, January 29, 2015

Reading :: Practical Ethnography

Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector
By Sam Ladner

I don't remember where I ran across the link to Sam Ladner's page on her upcoming book project, but I was intrigued. A researcher at Microsoft, Ladner wanted to reach two types of people:

  • "Social scientists who want to adapt their academic skills to the private sector, either to find a full-time job or to practice as an independent researcher; and
  • Designers and researchers already working in the private sector who may not have formal training in ethnography" (see her website)
Now this is a potentially tricky split. The two audiences are working at the same goal from very different starting points, so they have differing ideas about the goal and differing assumptions about what it takes to get there. As Ladner explains in the introduction, "In some ways, explanation [in design research] is doubly hard in private-sector ethnography. Academic ethnographers use social theory and rigorous methods to avoid the 'noticing everything' problem, but they also have the luxury of longer timelines. Private-sector ethnographers must adapt academic theory, method, and timelines to suit their research needs." But, Ladner says, we need to be able to help both sides perform ethnography in the private sector: after all, the "virtual disintegration of the academic job market" means that many of those academics need to enter the private sector, while product managers, designers, and market researchers in the private sector need to "deploy the innovative power of ethnography."

Side note: Ladner really is specifically talking about ethnography here, and she spends time describing what ethnography is, what its assumptions are, and how its methods can be adapted to short-form design-oriented studies. I initially wondered whether this book would overlap with my own book Topsight, but Topsight covers case study research, so the overlap is less than I expected.

To bring these two audiences along, Ladner uses a clear writing style and organizes her book "around the steps of a typical corporate ethnography project." She overviews ethnography, its history, and its intellectual heritage, and she also draws on select social theory, covering "concepts such as social capital, gender, economic class, and the presentation of self as tools for organizing and cohering your ethnographic research." Then she overviews the steps of a corporate ethnography, covering aspects that social science research methods books often don't cover: project management, technology and tools, client management, reporting, and deliverables.

It's that practical bent that makes the book really interesting for me. Yes, the theory section is interesting (although, I think, a little thick for people who want a how-to guide). But the practical tips on managing clients, following ethical guidelines, approaching and gaining trust of participants, gaining and keeping access, and reporting are all very useful. More than that, they're based on hard-won experience, experience that Ladner expertly uses to illustrate different issues throughout.

As an academic (although not an ethnographer), I appreciate how Ladner built a bridge between academic practices and practical corporate investigations, helping me to see how the latter requires us to adapt our skills and learn new ones. However, since I'm not an ethnographer, I am reluctant to evaluate the book as an ethnography text. Based on my readings and on conversations with ethnographers, I suspect that many academic ethnographers will not like the idea that ethnography can be done as rapidly as Ladner suggests. But I'll let them have that family fight without me.

So should you pick up Practical Ethnography? If you're planning to perform research for hire, and especially if you're one of those academically trained people who are considering leaving for the private sector, I highly recommend it. But I also recommend parts of it for qualitative researchers of all stripes who are considering how to approach participants as consumers, how to apply their work to design, and how to report their research in ways that can influence practical change.

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