A defense of private-sector ethnography

Below is the full text of my recent keynote at the 5th Annual Qualitative Report Conference! It was a 45 minute lecture, and the closing plenary for the conference. It was, in a sense, a preview of my book http://practicalethnography.com , which will be printed within six short weeks!

Here’s me presenting, via @techladytn



I then offered the reasons why private-sector ethnography is important.


Ethnographic research in the private sector is a critical step in creating products and services that work, that are meaningful, that answer real needs and makes real differences in people’s lives. The ethnographic method, many of you know, is more than simply a data collection method. It is, fundamentally, an epistemological position. Ethnography is about adopting the participant’s standpoint, to use Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith’s term. The participant’s standpoint transforms the ethnographer from a mere researcher to a person actively trying to empathize with another’s position in life.

It is about standing in her shoes and trying, deeply, to understand how she experiences the world. You are not studying the institutions so much as you are studying the participant’s experiences of those institutions.

This is why ethnography is important in general, but it is especially important in the private sector. Academic ethnographers have something private-sector researchers do not have: they have professional autonomy that is written into the cultural norms and sometimes even literally into employment contracts with universities. Private-sector researchers do not have this codification, neither do their colleagues who design, manage, and market products. There is nothing informally or formally encoded into private-sector practice that puts the CONSUMER first. But because ethnography has this unique epistemological position, it can shift that reality. It can make researchers, marketers, designers and product managers suddenly understand deeply the needs of consumers.

Ethnography necessarily involves empathy. Nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman defines empathy as having 4 attributes:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it
  2. To be non-judgmental about what they see
  3. To understand another’s feeling
  4. To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Imagine if every product, made by every company was built primarily on empathy. We would have products that delight us, save us from harm, cheer us, calm us, identify with us. We would have products that value what we value, whether that be our children, our environment, our communities, or our parents. Ethnography gets us closer to that world where products fit with our values, rather than simply separate us from our money.


Ethnography does more than simply embed empathy into the product design process. It also has a very practical application. I use the practical specifically, because it refers to Heideggerian metaphysics. Heidegger argued that we have two ways of being in the world. Being “theoretical” is the use of specific methodologies, of rigid procedures, of closed, reductionist and myopic ways of seeing. He argued that “being theoretical” is to adhere to a theory about the world, instead of being open to what the world can reveal to you. Once you have a rigid process whereby you perceive objects and people, you run the risk of not discovering the world as it is.

By contrast, Heidegger argued we should be “practical.” By this he means being passively open to how objects and people inter-relate. This contrasts with the specialist’s way of being, which is determining beforehand how one should perceive things and people, not to mention measure or qualify them. Being practical is recognizing that things and people are assigned to other things, and are involved with other people.

This forms the basis of Heidegger’s philosophy of objects. When an object is “ready to hand,” we are using that object in its intended way. Its purpose in the world is revealed to us. Its meaning is not constructed by us or foisted upon it. The hammer only makes sense to us, Heidegger would argue, when we use it. The hammer is not just an object, created in isolation from the people who use it, and the wood that it hammers. The hammer gets it meaning from its context.

A hammer without people or wood means nothing. It is set adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. We cannot understand such an unhinged, decontextualized object. It might as well not exist.

Certainly we know of many products that are drifting in a sea of meaninglessness. Take, for example, pretty much any product from the incredible, existentially troubling magazine Skymall.


Skymall’s products are so titillating because they are so disconnected from the practical world. They trouble the very nature of our existence because they are so fantastically contrived. Skymall is an existential torture chamber because it brings us objects that have no connection to what we actually do in the world.

Not all products are on par with those in Skymall. No, most of them are just a bit out of touch with our everyday lives. They don’t fit into our houses. They have type that’s too small. They don’t connect to our other devices. They crash our systems.

Ethnography helps us escape from this existential torture chamber of meaningless products, because by its very nature, it appreciates the practical world. Practical ethnography brings to life the objects and people already in existence. It shows product designers where their product will live, and what it must do to fit there.

Practical ethnography is being both empathetic and embedded in the everyday world.


Jon Van Maanen is a veteran ethnographer. Many of you probably know of his work, particularly if you study organizations. In his book, Tales from the Field, Van Maanen noted in 1988 that ethnography was undergoing a shift. “Shifts within ethnography occur when, for example, new faces enter the filed, novel problems are put forth, funding patterns change or…new narrative styles develop.” At the time, Van Maanen was talking about the narrative style we’ve now seen in contemporary ethnographies like Gang Leader for a Day, the controversial ethnography of an academic entering the world of crime.

I would argue that we are at another juncture. Today we are seeing new kinds of problems relating to realities of a market virtually saturated with meaningless, useless, and even harmful products and services. It for this reason that ethnography has entered the private sector, to produce practical insights to help product designers, marketers, and even policymakers to produce better products.

Here I want to tell you a bit about what I and my colleagues do at Microsoft. This picture is me doing the pre-launch check, as it were, before entering an office. This study was an ethnography of startups. We recruited 19 companies, interviewed 32 participants, conducted 62 hours of observation and took 598 photographs. We visited four separate cities, and did iterative analysis after each visit. The project’s aims were to understand the norms, practices, and beliefs of startups, and to map their technological ecosystems.

The project lasted, from start to finish, just under 3 months. That included research design, fieldwork, analysis, and sharing of the report.

The goal of this project was to inform various teams within Microsoft Office about emergent productivity practices among startups. What we found was that startups were very strategic in their technology choices, and specifically, would choose technologies with open APIs, so that they might plug new tools existing their existing set of tools.

This has specific relevant results for Microsoft Office. My findings will be considered by designers when they are making design decisions about inter-operability. This is a real impact, from a real study.


Ethnography is practiced routinely in several fields in the private sector. Marketers and market researchers are conducted ethnographic investigations to communicate more meaningfully. Ethnographers are also part of a burgeoning “third sector” of social innovation, which is the goal of innovating products and services not just for profit but also for social good. And most especially, ethnographers are working in design. This is where I work. Design ethnographers work particularly in technology, which I’ll talk about, but also in industrial design.


But the major focus of applied ethnography today, and the brand of it that I practice, is design ethnography. Designers are often intuitive ethnographers, noticing systems that are broken, or dysfunctional. This is where great design usually comes from: the kernel of discomfort a designer feels when trying to use an existing product.

But notice I say what the designer feels. Designers are no different than most human beings – they have difficulty with seeing things from other people’s perspective. Their natural inclination is to be intuitive, but not necessarily empathic. Ethnographers can and do help designers have a more systematic and practiced method of reflection and standpoint. In my own work, for example, I champion the extreme user. I work directly with designers who are building prototype technologies, but who are continually challenged to avoid designing things they just think are cool. Instead, I take them into the field with me to see how lead users are currently hacking and modding products to suit their own purposes.

Many of these extreme users are not the norm, and will never be. It’s a hard sell to suggest that the average person will hack all of her products that she buys. Hell, she doesn’t have time to do that.

But my role is to give designers a sandbox to play in. I define the design territory for them. I uncover the objects and people that already exist out there, in the world, and I show them what kinds of new products will fit there, and which ones will not.


Now I know what you’re thinking. How is this ethical? How can an interpretivist sociologist defend corporate product design? That is an excellent question. And I have an excellent answer.

First, it’s a myth to think that academic ethnography is somehow more pure than practical ethnography. Academic ethnographers have something to gain from doing their studies, namely, journal articles, books, and ultimately tenure. If that’s not personal gain, I don’t know what is.

Secondly, the market deserves to be treated as the cultural phenomenon it is. Market activity is one of the purest forms of human expression, and simply because we think it is prone to the corrupting influences of capitalism does not mean that it should be disregarded wholesale. No, market activity deserves the same lens that everything else receives, and its actors deserve to be treated not as victims of false consciousness but as authentically motivated actors, enacting the cultural activities of their time, namely, market activities.

That said, however, there are limits to how market-based ethnography should be practiced. We must actively reject the notion of deceit. All too often in market research, stakeholders believe that to reveal the company name is to “bias” the result. Given this audience, I don’t think I need to tell you that being “unbiased” is truly impossible. It is the positivist preeminence in the private sector that creates such a view. Deceit is not required for good research, and worse, it can be corrosive. If ethnographers serve only to sell more products, they are not “being practical,” but being theoretical. Their theory is about making money, not about being open to the authentic meaning and experiences of average consumers. Deceit is self-defeating, so deceit cannot be defended in the private-sector ethnography.

As I discuss in my book, we should aspire to do more than “do no harm.” We should actively try to do good. Doing good like stopping sexism in advertising. Doing good like making technology that actually serves people’s needs Doing good by designing products that are sustainable.

In a sense, you could argue that it UNETHICAL to NOT do practical ethnography. Without practical ethnography, products and services have no context, no empathy baked in, and no way of fitting into real people’s lives.

So can ethnography be ethical if its goal is to pursue profit? Yes, provided that its primary goal is to elicit empathy with people and understand the world in which the product will live. If ethnography is perfunctory and merely pays lip service to these ideals, it is not ethical. But if it does elicit empathy, and paint a holistic picture of people’s worlds, and just so happens to achieve a profit? Well that’s gravy.

How private-sector ethnography differs


There are differences in how ethnography is practiced in the private sector. Two main differences come to mind. First, the timelines in the private sector are rapid. And second, it is practiced in a context where positivism reigns supreme.

Timelines are short. Typical projects last about 6 weeks. This means there is very little room for the creative expressions of data analysis that we’ve seen here, because every moment must be accounted for and managed. Project management is the quintessential profession of today, with its emphasis on scheduling and budgeting.

But also, the private sector also has a particular “truth regime.” I use the word truth regime, it’s a Foucaultian term describing the ways in which truth claims are made. The private sector – and most universities – have scientific truth regimes. Truth is spoken by experts with the right training. It is communicated in positivist terms, and in charts, graphs, and numbers. This is probably familiar to everyone here, but in the private sector you can’t just hang out with the cool kids like we are doing today – sometimes you have to deal with the nerds and the jocks. Positivism’s cultural dominance makes the outputs of private-sector ethnography more constrained.

So culturally, the use of creative collection and analysis processes are prohibited. But even in the academic sector, it’s practically prohibited, due to our increasingly “taut” time schedules, which are architected, constrained and controlled.

Does private-sector ethnography suck?


There are real problems in private-sector ethnography. It is often practiced by those untrained ethnographers, like designers and market researchers with no background in theory much less method. This means the norms set in the private sector, well the bar is very low.

Another big shortcoming of private-sector ethnography is that it rarely results in a full text, such as book or even a monograph. This creates a real challenge from archiving and knowledge building. The praxis of ethnography can be pushed and pulled and stretched in the private sector, but it will not be the source of new theoretical grounds.

Future directions


Future directions include using it in strategic decision-making, and even corporate social responsibility. But I need you to help here.

Reach out to practical ethnographers. Consider attending EPIC (Danny Miller did this past year and it was great). Encourage your students to go to the private sector. Send them to the AnthroDesign list. Get them working with designers, and start them with the idea that if you are forthcoming, honest, and seek to do good, working in the market context is not inherently bad or evil.

See more information on my book:

Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnographic Research in The Private Sector

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