Ethnography in Contemporary times


noun: eth·nog·ra·phy \ eth-ˈnä-grə-fē \

origin: 1834

the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences.

ethnography is a type of anthropology that involves studying people in a particular society or culture by observing them in their natural setting.

Our first design project (DP-I) was all about knowing ourselves, our social groups and our community better. One of the most prominent ways to do that is by the means of an Ethnographic study of the concerned group. At its heart, ethnography is the study of cultures. But what does it mean to KNOW a social group? And how do we as designers or rather ethnographers find it out? How does one's involvement in a social group affect its dynamics? How does the researcher celebrates or condemns social practices of the group in his/her writings based on his/her limited understanding of the world? What is the basis of these judgements? These are the questions that one must ask before entering the field.

Contemporary ethnographer and professor Dr. Karen O'Reilly once defined it as ‘iterative-inductive research (that evolves in design through the study), drawing on a family of methods, involving direct and sustained contact with human agents, within the context of their daily lives (and cultures), watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions, and producing a richly written account that respects the irreducibility of human experience, that acknowledges the role of theory as well as the researcher’s own role and that views humans as part object/part subject’.

History of Ethnography

The word ethnography has its origin in the 1800s, though the practice is as old as the history of colonisation. Over the years, the process and approach have changed even though the fundamentals remain the same. In the past, explorers set out to discover new civilizations spread across the globe. You must have heard of a lot of travellers and writers that visited India during various periods of time: Megasthenes (302-298 BC), Fa-Hien (405-411 AD), Marco Polo (1292-1294 AD), Ibn Batutah (1333-1347 AD) etc to name a few. When these travellers stayed in India, they wrote in great detail about the lives of Indians, our cultures, the socio-political systems, our food, etc. These texts now are a great source of information for understanding the history of our nation. Many of them were missionaries send by foreign kings to spread the knowledge of their religion among the indigenous sects of the society.

These social group totally cut-off from external/global factors were basically small 'islands' of civilizations. Untouched, raw and of course seclusive. Gaining entry into these groups required establishing trust and taking up and justifying some role in their society. The traveller or in our case the ethnographer had a first-hand record of the 'unique' culture posited in the isolated society.

This is sadly no longer possible now. In the contemporary world, there is no longer a 'unique' culture that characterises a social group; there are no longer these isolated islands in the globalised world. Though that might be the case, margins and marginalised people definitely exist. Earlier, these were margins of empires or geographical boundaries; today the margins are more conterminous with where we live and when. Hence, now as then, ethnography is the study of the marginalised.

Role of an Ethnographer

An ethnographer is a peripatetic wanderer at the margins, emphasising the common humanity and shared inter-subjectivity between the marginalised and the non-marginalised, though the former are not its intentions. Ethnography is some sense can be understood as a type of conversational practice, with dialogues constituting the required data. It is about setting out on a great adventure. The adventure is in the conversations that one hopes to have with the people one meets.

When it comes to culture, they were understood as a way of life that people had, sharing as they did a language, a history, beliefs, and rituals - shared pattern patterns of life that were spatially and temporally embedded. Culture was always geographical; a social group lived in a certain space, and thus in most cases, had a culture which was unique. Today no such unique culture seems to exist. People have a shared understanding of the world and communicate with each other in order to live. In such scenario, an idea of the researcher's own frame, his/her position (not geographically) in a psycho-social sense is most important. 

Check out the picture above. Most of us are so unaware of 'our water' that we are like the fish in the pond. Our 'water' is our understanding of our own identity, our belief systems, our social practices, the knowledge of our privileges our prejudices in which our consciousness is deeply embedded.

So much so that we select our experiences without even knowing about it. Now, this might sound very absurd to a lot of people. But we are actually experiencing the world as Plato's prisoners.

It is about the environment/ location/ situation/position that the researcher thinks they are in, that influences his/her actions. It is also about the significance and meaning that such a situation once constructed holds for a subject, the process of construction being equivalent to meaning-making. THAT is the beauty of an ethnographic encounter: it is the construct that the researcher and the subject form together, one cannot be understood without the other.

The task of an ethnographer is clear: collaborate and initiate conversations with the subject, in order to understand the construction of subject's world and how this process of construction influences his/her actions. The world is an inter-subjective and inter-social understanding, between the researcher and his/her subject. The understanding is thus, always a second-order understanding.

An ethnographic researcher always maintains a distance with his/her subject, no matter how much he/she may be accepted by the subject. The ethnographer is neither a naive believer nor a dismissive judgemental observer. There might be many issues and problems that he/she might encounter on the field; they might not be vital for his/her survival in contrast to his/her subject in such situations. The distance gives him/her the freedom to see and speak, in contrast to those embedded in such situations. The point of research is not just to record the subjects' worldview. Though that is indispensable, the researcher's fundamental responsibilty is to articulate the situation of the subject, as he/she interprets it.

Lonely men talk too much or too little
— Raymond Chandler

Likewise, it might be very difficult to get the subjects to talk; they might see absolutely no reason to talk to the ethnographer. Subjects might either be very busy or intelligent enough to see that there is nothing to be gained by talking to the researcher, and the researcher rarely is in a position to wield authority over the subjects.For example, unlike the older days, the ethnographer does not comes from an advanced civilisation in contrast to the subjects' primitive one. Also subjects may not be articulate enough, even to themselves, to the situation they find themselves in. Which means that an ethnographer can find a subject who leads the unexamined life, for various reasons.

Conversations with subjects are also about the anxieties and concerns of the subject, and if the ethnographer understands some of these concerns, the subject may be willing to share and talk. Hence, it important for him/her to stage multi-sited conversations with his subjects who differ physically or socially.

Here is a really comprehensive primer to ethnographic research by IIT Institute of Design that talk about how to strike a conversation with a person:

Research bias in participant observation

1| The Hawthorne effect is the tendency of the subjects of research to change their behaviour simply because they are being studied. This is one of the foremost challenges that an ethnographer faces when conducting field research or having an interview. It is reasonably well known that our attitude is changeable and counterfeit when we are being observed.  Some subjects might want to appear their best, when others will slacken off to create a low benchmark level. Here are some ways to mitigate the Hawthorne effect during data gathering phase:

  • Develop a rapport with subjects being observed so they feel comfortable working at a normal pace.

  • Assure subjects that the purpose of the study is to improve the process, not pass judgments.

  • If practical, gather data over a long period of time to allow subjects to settle into normal work patterns.

  • If possible (and permissible), find way to gather data that is unobtrusive so that subjects are unaware of their being studied.

  • If practical, gather data indirectly through automatic data capture or conferring with logs or other records that might be available.

2| Observers' bias:  THE LADDER OF INFERENCE:

My experience of relatively observable data and experiences

I Select data

I infer Meaning - Cultural and Personal

I Impose Meaning on other's actions

I draw Conclusions about people

I design My Actions accordingly

A good way to curb this is understanding one's frame.

Use of ethnography as a designer and future implications

We would very well like to see the world through the eyes of logic. Myself, being an engineer, a guy who spent most of his childhood in the late '90s and from a middle-class Hindu Marwadi family had been doing it for the most part of my life. So, does everyone if you think about your own identity. But there are nuances of other's life that we are not familiar to, sometimes even they themselves are not familiar with. And though these peculiarities open opportunities of design intervention in somebody's life, it also exposes us to a whole new realm of reality - some which had been invisible to us for so long, some which we took for granted, and some which are very prevalent but certainly not logical. And hence, instead of the traditional method of dealing with problems rationally, designers are to take into account the impulsive, irrational, unconventional nature of their audience and 'their realities'.

And it's not just the relationship of individuals with one another, but also their relationships with their things that constitute the world they live in. ThingTank, a Dutch collaborative initiative, does this ethnographic research with the point of view of such objects or 'things' to make them smarter in the realm of IoT (Internet of Things). There is a wonderful TED talk regarding this, which you can watch below and look at how it changes the way we perceive same mundane household objects in different ways. Watch how they track the daily interactions of users and the used from the object's perspective.

Then comes the realm of sensory ethnography. It revolves around the fact that we humans are not just affected by our visual world, but also by the sounds, smell, touch, temperature and taste around us. Our advanced biological sensory organs have the capability to pick up information from our surroundings, inform the brain, which in turn process this data and converts it into meaningful consciousness.

'the five senses do not travel along separate channels but interact to a degree that few scientists would have believed only a decade ago' - Richard E. Cytowic (Prof. of Neurology), 2010

As designers, we are particularly interested in other people's experiences. Experiences can be auditory, tactile, olfactory, etc. apart from being visual and it is a conglomeration of these experiences that shape our reality. That being said sensory ethnography is much more than just seeing and listening. It gives us a view into the dimension of the subjects life that they might not talk about but have ways of experiencing and communicating that aren't necessarily verbal. It is also more than just a textual account of the subject. Contemporary ethnography now encompasses a broader variety of media - from writings to documentaries and photographies to the new engagement with art practices. Innovative methods in sensory ethnography include walking with, eating with, sensing with the focus group.

One of such projects was done as a part of our elective course, 'Narratives of a Place: Bridging Past + Future'. Probably one of the most famous graphic designers to work in the field is Kate McClean who develops the 'smellscapes' of the cities in the world. You can check out her work here.

Autoethnography is a form of enquiry in which researchers use their own experiences to develop understanding and insights into a culture, subculture or life experience. As a method, it combines the features of life history and ethnographic research. These again can be approached through various forms of data collections like personal diary, old photos, videos, etc.

The list is not exhaustive and newer forms of ethnography emerge from time to time. In the time of internet and global connectivity, researchers look at the online interactions of users to derive insight about the menatality of public (Netnography). These are currently used in developing demographics and consumer based insights for better decision making. If in wrong hands, they might lead to data breach issues like that with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

All in all, ethnography is a powerful tool to understand the history and present and hence interpolate the future. Learning the method is beneficial but carry great responsibility and dedication along with it.


  1. Oswald, D. (2014). Handling the Hawthorne effect: The challenges surrounding a participant observer. Review of Social Studies (RoSS). Retrieved from here.

  2. Research Sage: Method Maps - Ethnography (link here)