The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.
by Dave Randall and Mark Rouncefield
The concern to balance detailed documentation of events with insights into the meaning of those events is the enduring hallmark of ethnography.
(Fielding 1994: 154)
[The] immortal ordinary society ... is only discoverable. It is not imaginable. It cannot be imagined but is only actually found out, and just in any actual case. The way it is done is everything it can consist of and imagined descriptions cannot capture this detail.
(Garfinkel 1996: 7- 8)
In this chapter we attempt to describe ethnography, its evolution, and how it has been used in human computer interaction (HCI) and computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) research. We begin by discussing ethnography in general and its use in design before going on to focus on one particular variant of ethnography - ethnomethodologically informed, or inspired, ethnography - that has become commonly used as a method (though not as an analytic approach) in CSCW/HCI research. We conclude by considering some recent developments in ethnographic techniques - especially with regard to 'auto-ethnography' - and a range of problems and complexities in the use of the method in HCI that have arisen in recent years.
31.1 What is ethnography?
Ethnography is a qualitative orientation to research that emphasises the detailed observation of people in naturally occurring settings. The ethnographic approaches currently used in HCI clearly have their origins in social anthropology. The move towards naturalistic observational methods in anthropology is generally attributed to Malinowski and popularised by other anthropologists such as Boas, and, more controversially perhaps, Margaret Mead (see Freeman 1999; Shankman 2000). These early anthropologists were convinced that only through living with and experiencing 'native' life could a researcher really understand that culture and that way of life, changing the perception of anthropology from being mere 'strange tales of faraway places.' Ethnography also has carved a place within sociology (e.g., the Chicago School. See Hammersley 1990), though it has often been presented as a methodology of last resort - used for obtaining information about deviant groups and cultures - sometimes characterised as 'nuts, sluts and perverts' - that are impossible to investigate in other ways. It has been put to the service of any amount of theoretical work, including feminism, Marxism, actor network theory, activity theory, distributed cognition, symbolic interactionism, grounded theory, and so on ad nauseam. In addition, of course, although ethnography proper is associated with anthropology and sociology, 'fieldwork' can be traced just as easily through cognitive science, Swedish and German work science, and so on.
Author/Copyright holder: Unknown (pending investigation). Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Figure 31.1: 'Going native', as the ultimate form of ethnography
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Paul Dourish. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
31.2 Why use ethnography?
Perhaps the main virtue of ethnography is its ability to make visible the 'real world' sociality of a setting through detailed descriptions of the 'workaday' activities of social actors within specific contexts. Ethnography seeks to present a portrait of life as seen and understood by those who live and work within the domain concerned, what it terms an 'appreciative stance', through the direct involvement of the researcher in the setting under investigation. It is, as Fielding suggests,
a stance which emphasized seeing things from the perspective of those studied before stepping back to make a more detached assessment. .... mindful of the Native American adage that one should 'never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.'
(Fielding, 1994: 156)
(This, of course, has the added advantage (as the old joke goes) that when you do eventually come to speak your mind, you're a mile away ...and you've got his shoes...)
The intention of ethnography is to see activities as social actions embedded within a socially organised domain and accomplished in and through the day-to-day activities of participants. It is the ability of ethnography to understand a social setting as perceived by its participants (for HCI, the archetypal users) that underpins its appeal. Its chief characteristic, supposedly, is the researcher's (prolonged) immersion in the setting, and the detailed observation of circumstances, practices, conversations, and activities that comprise its 'real world' character. Having said that, and as pointed out by Randall et al. (2007), issues surrounding prolongation, detail, etc. are very much determined in practice by what it is that is being studied.
31.3 'Doing' ethnography - relying on the 'kindness of strangers'.
The aim of ethnography is to assemble an account of the way in which people manage and organise their lives, by trying to obtain an 'insider's' view. This necessitates the fieldworker becoming involved in the setting and the activities being studied, counteracting the temptation, when studying others' lives, to simply read things into them - or 'make stuff up'. This is why ethnographic investigation generally insists on approaching the investigation of a setting without any theoretical preconceptions as to what will be found, since, much to their frustration, the social world is generally not organised in ways that analysts and researchers want to find it. Moreover, things that are familiar are extremely difficult to see clearly because of their very familiarity.
In terms of the practicalities of ethnographic work, Evans-Pritchard, the famous anthropologist, wrote of how he sought some insight on how to do fieldwork from other noted anthropologists and received advice that amounted to little more than 'don't drink the water and leave the women alone'. While this still probably remains very good advice, it should also be understood that ethnography is neither an esoteric procedure requiring immense amounts of training, nor is it searching for things that are hard to find. Nor, however, is it simply 'hanging around' - or as Button and King (1992) put it, "hanging around is not the point." While much of ethnography does involve 'hanging around', this is not its point but a means of achieving the objective of uncovering the sociality of work. Much of ethnographic practice is simply about presenting oneself as a reasonable, courteous, and unthreatening human being who is interested in what people do and then shutting up, watching, and listening. Ethnography requires simple abilities, including an ability to listen, show an interest in what people do and what they have to say, and tolerate long periods of boredom. Ethnography is an immensely ordinary activity requiring ordinary, mundane skills.
The important thing about the ethnographer is not that he or she brings particularly arcane skills to the collection of data [many of those are the skills of office administration, cataloguing and classifying documents and records], but that they bring the willingness to pay attention to people's activities, to attend in detail to how people actually go about their affairs, however ordinary and otherwise unremarkable these affairs might be.
(Hughes and Sharrock 2002: 20)
31.4 What does an ethnographer do?
What an ethnographer does is what any other person in the organisation being studied is likely to do - watching, talking, sitting in meetings, learning their way around the organisation. And it is not difficult. The data is not hard to find, the fieldworker does not need to look for it, it is right there in front of him or her. And as Sacks (1984) puts it, "there is order at all points." Consequently, there is no particular need to suffer the fieldwork agonies so well described by Agar in his study of 'the professional stranger':
You arrive, tape recorder in hand, with a grin rigidly planted on your face. You probably realise that you have no idea how your grin is being interpreted, so you stop and nervously attempt a relaxed pose. Then you realise you have no idea how that is being interpreted. Soon you work yourself into the paralysis of the psychiatrist in the strip joint - she knows she can't react, but she knows she can't not react. It is little wonder that sometimes people hide in a hotel room and read mysteries.
(Sacks, 1980: 15)
For most fieldworkers - for us - these agonies, if they occur at all, are rare and short-lived, soon to be replaced by the very different agony of the 'fieldwork junkie'. Most ethnographers will soon realise that 'becoming an ethnographer' has some interesting parallels with Becker's (1953) analysis of 'becoming a marijuana user', such that Beckers' ideas of 'learning to recognise' and 'learning to appreciate' resonates with the experience of fieldwork.
In terms of how to behave, while a researcher cannot cope with every personal idiosyncracy, there are some common sense principles of conduct for the ethnographer. These principles primarily involve recognising that for those in the setting, their commitment to what goes on there is their business, their job - and the fieldworker, no matter what his or her personal inclinations are, must respect this. The point of fieldwork is to understand the social organisation of activities within the setting. This requires stringent attentiveness to what persons have to say and do, for the ethnographer, like Blanche DuBois, is generally reliant on the 'kindness of strangers'. While this does not require an exaggerated show of interest in the (often) boring details of what people do - and most working environments can turn out to be boring places - it does require avoiding prejudgements about what is of interest and what is not.
The ethnographer accesses 'what is going on' in a setting through the mundane competences he or she has developed that routinely make it possible to learn about new cultures and forms of social organisation. The apparent 'strangeness' or initial unfamiliarity of a field site has an analytic utility in helping the ethnographer reveal and document the methods by which members 'just do it' when it comes to everyday, mundane work. The initial strangeness of a setting is consequently regarded as facilitating the necessary distance required to 'make the ordinary extra-ordinary' enabling the ethnographer to render the familiar strange yet recognisable.
31.5 Collecting data
In terms of what the fieldworker collects by way of data, experience shows that this is the least of the problems of ethnography, and anyway it will be dictated not by strategic methodological considerations, but by the flow of activity within the social setting. The 'data' is often lying around in plain sight, but no one has bothered to collect it up. There is nothing special to look for, nothing to find that is hidden. Hughes and Sharrock suggest that,
another simple truth about ethnography is that, given access, you can very quickly collect far more data than you can ever possibly use: a day's work can generate several hours of audio or video tape recording. Nor is there really much meaning to the idea that some things are crucial data - ethnography is a pretty diffuse exercise with [characteristically] vague objectives, if indeed, they can be called objectives at all: often the aim is just to see and hear as much as you can, and to get as good a record of what you can see and hear as possible. In the ethnographic setting it is all data, though there is no sense to having all the data.
(Hughes and Sharrock, 2002: 20)
The ethnographer's job is to listen to the talk, watch what happens, see what people do, to write it down, tape it, record what documents can be recorded, and so on. The sorts of things that can be collected and recorded include: conversations, descriptions of activities, diagrams of places, job descriptions, memos, notices, graffiti, transcripts of meetings, war stories, and more. It is not that such materials have any intrinsic value; the material is valuable insofar as it can be made relevant or useful for what it can say about the social organisation of activities. Marilyn Strathern (2003) suggests that ethnography is "the deliberate attempt to generate more data than the investigator is aware of at the time of collection" (quoted in Dourish (n.d.: 2), but whilst we share the sense of the mass accumulation of data that often accompanies ethnographic work, there is often little 'deliberate' about the process - it just tends to happen as a consequence of immersion in the setting, everyday curiosity, and the usual researcher anxieties that manifest themselves in 'if in doubt collect stuff'.
31.6 Ethnographic analysis
Almost any fool can collect data - it's not difficult to do. The hard task is to analyse the mass of material and to find out what it all amounts to. This, evidently, very much depends on what you are there to do, who has asked you to do it, and what expectations there might be in relation to output (this is arguably more relevant in interdisciplinary contexts such as CSCW and HCI than it is in more 'purely 'sociological work.) For us, the following precepts have been useful 'aids to a sluggish imagination'.
Precept 1: Assume that the world is socially organised - and show how this orderliness is accomplished in the setting.
Precept 2: See the setting and its activities as socially organised from within - assume that the setting and its activities make sense to the participants and uncover and explicate that understanding.
Precept 3: Understand the setting and its activities in terms that members' understand and use - look at the actual activities as they actually occur during the course of the work.
Precept 4: Examine activities in all their detail.
Precept 5: Treat activities as situated - activities are not isolated events but situated within a context that informs their sense and their character.
Precept 6: Attend to the 'working division of labour' - although individuals perform activities, these are often embedded in interaction and cooperation with others. Understanding how this moment-to-moment coordination achieved is one of the tasks of analysis.
Precept 7: Tasks and activities are sequenced - our activities are, typically, sequenced if only in the highly general way that activities follow one another in some series. Thus, we get up in the morning, brush our teeth, have breakfast, get ready for work, go to work, etc. However, in the case of many activities, this sequencing has strong implications in that the sequencing is integral to the interactional sense of some activity.
Precept 8: Attend to the egological organisation of activities - it is people who do things, not organisations. Actual work is performed by a person who has to determine how his or her activities fit into his or her responsibilities and relevances, and how this will fit with that of others.
Precept 9: Don't draw a distinction between expert knowledge and practical knowledge - avoid the tendency to underrate the skills and competencies involved in even the most routine of tasks, since 'routineness' is very often the result of the experienced and practised grasp of complex skills.
Precept 10: Don't treat settings as equivalent - this is a caution against spurious and unwarranted generalisation.
Making sense of the materials collected is, of course, not a matter of making any sense or, worse, trying to find the sense of the materials as if they had only one sense. However, ethnographic research is directed toward some research objective. Its purpose is to develop an analysis and an understanding of a setting that has some relevance. While the fieldworker needs to go into a setting with as few conceptions as to what will be found there, this is a posture designed to further a research aim; in this case understanding particular aspects of everyday, routine work.
31.7 The uses of ethnography
Given the very varied research objectives that stimulate research, ethnographic methods are utilised, deployed, and adapted in a variety of ways. These ways often depend on very practical or serendipitous aspects of the research process, such as the complexities of obtaining fieldwork access. This variety of uses does not constitute an obvious research typology, such as those that are frequently produced for participant observation studies, for example, the common distinction between overt and covert observation or Gold's (1958) typology based on various identified relationships between 'observation' and 'participation'. Instead it suggests an orientation to a range of practical factors, such as available time 'in the field', and the availability and suitability of existing data. The different uses of ethnography identified by Hughes et al. 1994 include:
Re-examination of previous studies: Here previous studies are re-examined to inform initial thinking.
'Quick and dirty ' or 'lightweight' ethnography: Here brief ethnographic studies are undertaken to provide a general but informed sense of the setting.
Concurrent ethnography: This is the idea of an ongoing ethnography that adapts its focus over time. Here, design is influenced by an on-going ethnographic study taking place at the same time as systems development.
Evaluative ethnography: Here, an ethnographic study is undertaken to verify, validate, or evaluate a set of already formulated design decisions.
These categories should not be read as if they were mutually exclusive ways of using ethnography; some of the uses could be, and were, harnessed together and the differences between them should be seen as differences of emphasis rather than as sharp demarcations. Design is a matter of responding to contingencies of various kinds. Design objectives are various, and this will have a bearing on the role of ethnography. In other words, while not necessarily buying into the picture of the design process as a series of discrete, clearly delineated, and phased steps, it undoubtedly has different objectives at different stages and, accordingly, implications for how design needs to be informed by relevant information about the domain.
31.8 Ethnography and design: 'implications for design'
The value of ethnography in design is a matter of controversy (cf. Anderson 1994; Plowman et al. 1995) since there are no panaceas for the problems of design, and arguably could not be. This would entail 'design' having a universal character - which it self-evidently does not - and an entirely predictable problem-solution structure, which it evidently does not, and that is why we distinguish design from IKEA furniture assembly. We can only expect ethnography (or the sociology that may be associated with it) to have a modest utility to design, and the role of ethnography as we practise it is primarily as an 'informational input' into design, and, as such, only one source of information. The input can be of critical value insofar as it can advise the designer of actual practices of work and may clarify the role that actual practices play in the management of work; matters that may not normally be captured by other methods. In as much as a position on the role of ethnography in CSCW design has emerged, it can be expressed in its ability to make visible the everyday nature of work. As Suchman writes,
ethnographies provide both general frameworks and specific analyses of relations among work, technology and organisation. Workplace ethnographies have identified new orientations for design: for example, the creation and use of shared artifacts and the structuring of communicative practices.
(Suchman 1995: 61)
This is, in fact, a 'sociologically partisan' conception of ethnography, but it does have the advantage of focusing upon the specific and detailed organisation of activities and, thereby, upon the very activities which designers are concerned to understand, analyse, and reconstruct. It is the ability of ethnography to describe a social setting as it is perceived by those involved in the setting, (the archetypal 'users'), that underpins its appeal to designers. In particular, it offers the opportunity to reveal needs or practices of users which they may not themselves attend to because they take them so much for granted that they do not think about them. In other words, we are dealing with 'needs' which they cannot articulate because of the bureaucratic or power relationships within which they are placed or because they are simply too busy. As part of the initial process of requirements capture, ethnography is valuable in identifying the exceptions, contradictions, and contingencies of work activities which are real conditions of the work's conduct, but which will not (usually) figure in official or formal representations of that work.
The assumption is that it is for designers to draw design conclusions from the results of ethnography. The kinds of changes to design that will result from this approach are intended to have an incremental rather than a comprehensively transformative effect. There is no intrinsic design significance to the results of an ethnographic study, for such significance must be relative to the nature of the design exercise itself, to the purposes, conceptions, methods, and plans of those making the design. Ethnography should be done independently of design preconceptions, distancing itself from the preoccupations, enthusiasms, and orientations of the designer, and refraining from looking at the setting and its affairs 'through designer's eyes'. While there may be a tension between the designer's and the fieldworker's roles, this is a positive feature, something that is hardly likely to be destructive of good design, through highlighting the difference between good abstract design solutions, good practical design, and, ultimately the social and political effects of design solutions. (Dourish 1996). In this way, to paraphrase the sociologist Max Weber, we may think of ethnography as being 'design relevant' but not 'design laden'.
What seems to be a largely commonplace observation like this has proven controversial. In particular, the relationship between ethnography and design was subjected to a forensic lens by Dourish in his well-known paper, "Implications for Design" and has been robustly criticized by Crabtree et al. (2009) ('Ethnography Considered Harmful'). It is worth examining this argument. For Dourish, the relationship between ethnography and design has been under-examined. There are two consequences of this. Firstly, it has led to some naïve renderings of design implications towards the end of otherwise competent ethnographies; secondly, and this is a slightly different argument, it has led to the naïve acceptance of what we will call a 'service' relationship which ignores the potential that ethnography has for a more critical - perhaps overtly political - role. We share Dourish's view of the naïve service relationship and regard a preference for critique and political intervention benignly as well (Howard Becker's famous 1967 paper "Whose side are we on?" describes this as well as anything we have read). However, Crabtree et al.'s sometimes misunderstood position does not run counter to this. We have been at pains to emphasise ethnomethodology's rejection of analytic 'privilege'- that it cannot claim to provide accounts that are 'superior' in virtue of the professional status of practitioners. We can only claim that we do solid, detailed, empirical work that others may not be minded to do for a variety of reasons. The issue in respect of critique is, for us, whether there is any reason to believe that a professional social scientist offers better critique than anyone else. We do not think so, for to adjudicate such matters would require us to adjudicate in the first place what the grounds for critique might be, and it is precisely the case that those who disagree with us may well disagree as to what those grounds should be. Crabtree et al.'s argument is broadly predicated on the view that such accounts are not especially useful (to design), although they do say, 'we do not dispute the need for critical reflection in design or any other technical practice as that notion is ordinarily understood.' (Crabtree et al (2009): 884) They mean, however, that people other than social scientists are perfectly capable of taking a critical view. Such an argument is and always has been deeply unpopular with professional practitioners of the social sciences. To put it another way, the proper relationship for Crabtree et al. is a relationship between data and design, and good data is obtained by ethnomethodologists. For Dourish, the issue is less about data than it is about the way in which data is cast so as to serve distinctive and critical purposes. Our view, for what it is worth, is that no strong relationship between ethnography of whatever kind and design has ever been established in the workplace or elsewhere for the simple reason that this relationship is always and everywhere contingent. Other renditions of this relationship can be found in papers such as Button and Dourish (1996); Button and Dourish (1998).
Having said all this, there must be some purpose to ethnographic enquiry in HCI and CSCW for, if not, why do it? Ethnography originally became popular in HCI and CSCW in the 1980s and 1990s because of its claim to provide a method more attuned to the socially organised character of workplace settings. This 'turn to the social' in design and the interest in ethnography arose out of dissatisfaction with existing methods of informing design as offering overly abstract and simplistic analyses of social life. Ethnography with its emphasis on the in situ observation of interactions within their natural settings seemed eminently suited to bringing a social perspective to bear on system design. The 'turn to the social' recognised a new kind of end-user, a 'realtime, real-world' human being, and consequently designers turned to the social sciences to provide them with some insights, some sensitivities, to inform design. The advantage of using ethnographic methods in CSCW for studying work lies in the way it documents the real-world character and context of work and the opportunity it provides to ensure system design resonates with the circumstances of its use. In attempting to document, describe, and account for activities, ethnography seeks to provide an answer to what might be regarded as the essential CSCW and design question (Shapiro 1994), 'what to automate and what to leave to human skill and experience'.
Even though newer approaches, such as 'cultural probes' have since then come along, ethnography has remained surprisingly popular, long past the initial enthusiasm that often accompanies any new approach, to the extent that some form of ethnography or ethnographic study sometimes seems a necessary first step in any HCI/CSCW investigation. If design, as a 'satisficing activity', is more of an art than a science, dealing with messy indeterminate situations and 'wicked problems' (Rittel and Webber 1973), then before designers can solve a design problem, they need to understand some basics, such as what they are designing, what it should do, and who should use it and in what circumstances. It was argued that ethnography was the method attuned to gathering exactly this kind of relevant data. That is, there are certain kinds of things that ethnography might normally be said to provide:
Additional domain knowledge.
An overall view of complex settings which would otherwise be difficult to obtain.
Perspectives from, and practices of, a variety of stakeholders.
Some assessment of the scope and limitations of systems and products that might be envisaged.
A balanced view of the relationship between standardised processes, human skills, and how to deal with contingencies.
A fuller view of the real-world nature of the problems that need to be solved.
Detailed knowledge of the routine ways in which technologies actually get used, and what for.
A critique of 'snake oil' salesmen - i.e., those who offer simplistic technical or organisational solutions.
However, the relation between ethnography and any design ambitions has always been somewhat problematic (see for example Plowman et al. 1995). As with all radical changes in perspective, initial enthusiasm has been followed by rather more critical reflection. While ethnography may have been effective in providing a critique of systems design, it has been less adept at producing design solutions and translating ethnographic insight into good design practice. Some would argue that simply documenting and describing the grossly observable features of a setting - termed 'scenic ethnography' (Button 2000) - does not do much neither to inform us about the processual and interactive features of a setting, nor to provide design recommendations (see also Crabtree et al. ' 2009). The more cynical, amongst us (and we should probably include ourselves in that number) would suggest that simply going out and doing some observations is no panacea for the problems of design - as we have said already, but it's worth repeating (on the principle that if something is worth saying it's probably worth saying twice), there really is no silver bullet. Those researchers who have carried out ethnographic studies have long been aware of its limitations when it came to translating ethnographic findings into design recommendations or requirements and have responded to this challenge in various ways. Some have provided a series of tenets to guide the ethnographer (Sommerville et al. 1992) to look, for example, for those aspects of a setting's organization that need to be retained in any work redesign. Others (Hughes et al. 1995;Hughes et al. 1997) have talked about the value of ethnography in providing 'sensitivities' to designers - and particularly in providing some clues as to what designers should not do. Others again have seen the problem in terms of the way in which ethnographic findings have been reported or represented and have produced various approaches - such as 'the Designers' Notepad' (Hughes et al. 1995) or the use of 'patterns' (see Martin et al. 2002) - that aim to make the long discursive texts typically produced by ethnographers rather more 'designer friendly'.
Any number of idiocies (and it's definitely more than one) have emanated from commentators wishing to discuss the relationship between ethnographic data and the design process. Not least, one might imagine that some examination of what kinds of design, done by what kinds of designer, in what kinds of organizational (or other) context might be conducted before we make crass judgments about this relationship. After all, at the outset, the problem space that ethnographies were intended to address was quite narrowly defined - studies of work and organization designed to aid the design of collaborative computer systems. That is no longer true. Even a moment's thought tells us that it is absurd to hold ethnography to account for design decisions if the design space is now so vast. It is hard to think of any human (or other) context that cannot be designed for. After all, we were involved in evaluative work where we discovered that one of the main uses for a camera technology (intended to be a memory aid) was held by users to be an opportunity to see what life looked like for cats, dogs, and children (Harper et al. 2007). Such decisions are contingent, and may well be out of the hands of both ethnographers and people who might normally be thought of as the designers. Even beginning to get to grips with this issue requires us to confront some intractable problems, and so there are no general solutions to the problem of relating ethnographic enquiry to design - there are only specific problems. It will depend on the many and varied possible uses to which ethnography can be put, the kinds of design team in which the data are to be examined and used, the scale of the project in question, the relationship of ethnography to other methodologies which might be in use, and so on.
In our view, the professional demands of ethnography are exaggerated, and we are equally negative about the way in which ethnography is viewed, more or less unproblematically, as an alternative (sometimes the only) method. Rather, it is a tool in the toolbox - not only for designers but for anyone who wants to know what needs to be changed and how to go about changing it. Ethnography is always about asking questions such as, 'What kind of problem have we got?' What does the problem look like? How does it manifest itself?' before beginning to provide design solutions to the problems we identify. Similarly, at the same time, an interdisciplinary sensitivity requires us to take design seriously, understanding how designers go about solving their problems, identifying candidate solutions, and applying their technical knowledge to them. What any ethnographer (ethnomethodological or otherwise) seeks to do is establish what questions seem relevant and what might be the best ways of getting robust and reliable answers to those questions.
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Paul Dourish. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Have another look at Dourish - the implications of anthropological work for design
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Dorothy Smith. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Dorothy Smith on Institutional Ethnography
31.9 Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography: 'Welcome to the Dark Side'.
I want to encourage the sense that interesting aspects of the world, that are as yet unknown, are accessible to observation.
(Sacks 1992: 420)
... [The] immortal ordinary society ... is only discoverable. It is not imaginable. It cannot be imagined but is only actually found out, and just in any actual case. The way it is done is everything it can consist of and imagined descriptions cannot capture this detail.
(Garfinkel 1996: 7- 8)
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Wes Sharrock. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Ethnomethodology by Wes Sharrock
Ethnography is not in any sense a unitary method, but is a gloss on various and different analytic frameworks - thus there are, as we have intimated, Marxist, feminist, and postmodern ethnographies. Here, however, we provide some detail of one type of ethnography - ethnomethodologically informed ethnography - and how it can be deployed to discover some of the features of 'immortal ordinary society' or everyday work and life, and then we consider some aspects of the analytic purchase this approach brings to the understanding of 'real time real world work'. This emphasis on 'real world, real time work' stands in rather stark contrast to many sociological accounts of social life in general and (perhaps) the everyday world of work in particular. Conventional sociological accounts portray a world in which not only does "homo sociologicus' neither laugh nor cry' (Williamson 1989), but does not seem to do much that looks like work either. This appears to be a world in which the practical accomplishment of work - the skills, and competencies that workers routinely and visibly bring to their jobs - is largely absent. Consequently, although there are many sociological studies of 'work', they often seem to have very little to say about the actual work which goes on within the setting under study - about what makes this work 'bank work' or 'insurance work'. In the process, both the worker and the fashion in which work is accomplished effectively disappear into theoretical abstraction. The desire to be attentive to the work is, therefore, one of the motivations for the use of ethnomethodologically informed ethnography. In contrast to a common sociological attitude which views specific social settings as sites of generic, abstract social processes, the ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic approach is particularly focused upon the distinctiveness and the specificity of the settings under study.
There have been a number of attempts to document the characteristics of 'ethnomethodological ethnography' (Dingwall 1981) or 'ethnomethodologically inspired ethnography' (Silverman 1985). Dingwall, for example, outlines the following characteristics: accomplishing social order; specifying actors' models; suspending a moral stance; creating 'anthropological strangeness'; and depicting stocks of knowledge.
Emerson and Pollner, however, argue that:
the overlap of genealogies, concerns, and prefixes might lead one to expect a cordial relationship between ethnomethodology and ethnography... both perspectives are informed by the interpretive tradition, concerned with the lifeworld, respect the point of view of the social actor (hence 'ethno-'), and typically eschew quantitative and theoretical approaches ... despite the similarities, however, the relation has not been congenial...
(Emerson and Pollner, 2001: 118)
They go on to argue how over the years the boundaries between ethnography and ethnomethodology have become blurred, and that recent attempts to integrate ethnomethodology and ethnography (Silverman 1993; Gubrium and Holstein 1997) suggest that once pronounced differences may be dissolving into an integrated methodological sensibility. They also say, however, that ethnomethodology challenges key aspects of ethnographic theory and practice, and that it faults ethnography
for being both too involved in and too removed from the social worlds it studies, and for ignoring the problematics of its own efforts to represent such worlds" and that "self-deconstructing aspects of EM provide good reasons for EG not to embrace EM initiatives too enthusiastically .. EM insights can be used selectively to heighten sensitivity to fundamental methodological issues and to augment appreciation of the practices of both subjects of ethnography and ethnographers themselves.
(Emerson and Pollner, 2001: 118)
This section is primarily concerned with documenting the 'analytic purchase' of ethnomethodologically informed ethnography and, in consequence, its utility for describing and understanding everyday organisational activity. While an ethnographic stance arguably entails some minimum orientation of viewing the social world from the standpoint of its participants, one approach to this is the ethnomethodological one, in which members' methods for accomplishing situations in and through the use of local rationalities become the topic of enquiry. For ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic enquiry, members and their subjective orientations and experiences are central. Observation focuses on the places and circumstances where meanings and courses of action are constructed, maintained, used, and negotiated.
Their rational features consist of what members do with, what they 'make of' the accounts in the socially organized actual occasions of their use.."
(Garfinkel 1967: 2-3 )
In ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic research on work, the understanding of any work setting is derived from the study of that setting itself, rather than from any highly structured model or theory of work organisation or work processes; that is, it ties itself closely to the observed data, it is 'data-driven'. A central precept of ethnomethodological ethnography is to aim to find the orderliness of ordinary activities, an orderliness accomplished by social actors, unreflectively taken-for-granted by them and constructed with their common-sense knowledge of social order.
The purpose of ethnography is then to display the 'real world' social organisation of activities. Ethnographic studies focus on 'real world, real time' activity, following courses of action as they happen. This requires showing not just that some setting is socially organised, but to show in detail just how it is organised. The relevance of an ethnomethodologically informed perspective lies in the fact that this respecification of sociology draws attention to the way in which orderliness can be viewed, inter alia, as a feature of the sense making procedures participants use in the course of their work. In documenting how work is socially organised, research reveals facets of mundane organisation, how, for example, individuals are enabled to work because of their awareness of what constitutes their task and its linkages with other tasks - the 'egological' division of labour.
In acknowledging the 'situated' character of work, ethnography displays how even in the most apparently routine activities workers need to use their judgment and discretion in response to the various contingencies that arise. Furthermore, 'real world, real time' activity is not necessarily confined to the specific, immediate, locally bounded situation. The sense of what a person is doing here and now is dependent on how that activity is situated within a whole set of understandings about organisational processes, institutionalised patterns, and so on. The organisational context, then, is relevant to the work-in-hand, and ethnography's concern with the organisational context of work is a concern for how aspects of the organisation are relevant to and reflected in on-going everyday, routine work. The organisation is relevant to and reflected in the local work situation as a practical consideration. In consequence, the accomplishment of work tasks involves a range of tacit skills and local knowledge that may be rendered invisible by formal models of processes or procedures, often going unrecognised by the workers themselves; skills which may become visible only when routines or organisations break down and fail to deliver.
31.10 Real world, real time action - being 'lead by the phenomena'
When used from an ethnomethodological stance, ethnographic work involves a renewed and unprejudiced look at the phenomena that have frequently become obscured beneath layers of theoretical abstraction and speculation. It sets out a policy whereby
No inquiries can be excluded no matter where or when they occur, no matter how vast or how trivial their scope, organization, cost, duration, consequences ...
(Garfinkel 1967: 32)
The aim is to observe and describe the phenomena of 'everyday life' independently of the preconceptions of conventional sociological theories and methods. In this approach, observations are 'led by the phenomena', rather than by the concerns and requirements of a particular sociological theory. This means, in effect, that one takes an 'unmotivated' approach to the activities, looking just to see what people are doing, rather than seeking to identify things which are sociologically interesting . Ethnography in general recognises a great temptation when studying other people's lives to read things into them, but ethnomethodologically- informed ethnography in particular is predicated on the view that the social world is not always organised in ways that analysts and researchers want to find it, and hence resists imposing a prior analytic framework on the phenomenon.
This involves dispensing with conventional sociological preconceptions that there are numerous things people are doing which are trivial and not worth observing. These things are trivial in a sociological sense, i.e., do not matter with respect to the kinds of things sociologists think are important about a given activity. Ethnography does not seek to explain the orderliness of work activities as the result of factors external to that setting, such as 'power', but treats activities as necessary activities-in-a-social-setting proposing that members display an everyday attentiveness to the socially situated character of their own and each other's actions. The mere fact that people are doing it justifies the attention being given to it by an ethnomethodologically informed ethnographer. In this way the 'false starts', 'glitches', 'diversions', 'distractions', 'interruptions', 'digressions', which are aspects of all activities and notable features of the phenomena, not, so to speak, 'noise' to be eliminated from the data in order to reveal 'essential' or 'sociologically relevant' aspects of the data.
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Mike Lynch. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Ethnomethodology: Mike Lynch on Ethnomethodological studies of work in the sciences
In ethnomethodologically informed ethnography, the phenomena are to be studied in their character as 'phenomena of everyday life', as 'everyday' occurrences for those who are involved in the activities in question, and the investigator is, therefore, seeking to ascertain what the phenomena mean for them. Ethnography assumes that the setting and its associated activities make sense to the participants, and the interest is in descriptions of activities as understood by parties to the setting as opposed to analysts' descriptions. It is not for the investigator to decide what things are, what matters, what is important, or trivial, but to ascertain how things are judged in that way by those who are doing them and to examine the familiarity with and understanding of these matters possessed by those who must live with them. In studies of the kind that ethnomethodologically informed ethnographers make, the concern is with the depiction of 'the working sensibility' of those under study. The interest is remote from the kinds of general reflections that someone in an occupation can produce, and much more engaged with their consciousness and attention when they are 'at work': what kinds of things do they take for granted or presuppose in going about their work; what kinds of things do they routinely notice; what kinds of things are they 'on the lookout for'; how do they 'tune themselves in' to the state of being 'at work'; what are the constituents of their 'serious frame of mind'; how do they react to the things that occur within their sphere of attention; what objectives are they seeking to attain in their reactions to whatever occurs; and by what means - through what operations - will they seek to accomplish those objectives in adaptation to these unfolding circumstances. Thus, attention is focused - in a way that is otherwise almost unprecedented in sociological studies - upon the study of doing the work. The emphasis is on 'work in the raw', work as it is done, and in the ways in which it is done in actual practice, as opposed to work in idealised form.
31.11 Observing features of social organisation - 'practical action'
People who are constantly asking 'why' are like tourists who stand in front of a building, reading Baedeker, & through reading about the history of the building's construction etc. etc. are prevented from seeing it.
(Wittgenstein 1984: 40)
The features of everyday social organisation that ethnomethodologically informed ethnography brings to the study of work, technology, and organisations would 'typically' include some notion of the visibility of social organisation; an explication of the world known in common and the intractable practicality of action. This approach involves attending to the work and the accountable character of work, attempting to take work seriously - that is, as work and not as the manifestation of some grander speculative theory.
The ethnomethodologically informed orientation to ethnography begins from the point of view of the social actor acting within a socially organised environment. The presumption of a 'world known in common' is an assumption about the mutual orientation of members of society in the mundane construction of daily life and is treated as a condition of ordinary concerted action. The relevance of this to ethnography is that the multifarious ways in which the world is assumed to be 'known in common' are apt to be taken-for-granted, to be treated as things that are of such patent obviousness and familiarity that they need not be paid direct and explicit attention. But the investigator is not merely seeking to capture the standpoint and experience of the participant in the setting in respect of the things which that participant might note, explicitly comment upon or pay significant attention to; he or she is also looking to identify those things which the participant is not explicitly attending to, but is nevertheless depending upon. These are the features of the organisation of conduct within the setting that are 'seen-but-unnoticed', but which have presupposed, taken for granted status.
Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography is the study of people who are engaged in practical action. It is assumed that this is the orientation that pervades the world of everyday life. In everyday life, people give priority to getting things done, and their action is, therefore, organised with respect to the necessities of practicality, and they are engaged in doing whatever it takes to get the things done. For that reason, the purpose of observation is to identify the specific activities in which participants engage to deliver some specific end, and the character of those activities is dictated by the 'specificity of the circumstances'. The essence of practical action is the need to do whatever is to be done under just these circumstances, and therefore it involves the adaptation of the course of action to the exigencies of its circumstances. Hence, the concern of the ethnographer lies in the interplay of standardisation and specificity. The focus is on the way in which those involved in social settings seek to achieve standardisation of ways of acting, (so as to engender articulated and structured procedures for carrying out relevant types of social action), but it must, at the same time, enforce and implement these in contingent, unforeseen circumstances that may be more or less tractable to compliance with those very standardisations. This accounts for the concern with organisational plans and procedures, and with the way in which the 'idealisations' of courses of action and their circumstances must be articulated with 'actualities'. And it engenders the desire to gain (fieldwork) access to the ways in which work is done in practice, and motivates the noticing of the ways in which people achieve (or fail to achieve) conduct in accord with the standardisations that they seek to implement. This gives a reason for putting the exigency and variability of practice into a prominent position in fieldwork studies, one which would be lacking from many sociological approaches because those contingencies and variabilities would not, for that approach, be considered sociologically significant.
31.12 Attending to the lived detail of everyday work
It is every field researcher's experience that their sense of the definite character of the organization of the 'field', and their sense of the activities they witness within it, develop together over the course of their involvement in it. Starting out with only vague notions of how 'such places' conduct themselves, and in the sure knowledge that there are many things going on before them now which they cannot adequately comprehend. They develop, over the time of their inquiries, a considerably fuller sense of what the ways of the setting are and of the character of the occasions that they witness, the two going of course, hand-in-hand.
(Sharrock and Anderson 1991: 165)
In advancing ethnomethodologically informed ethnography and contrasting it with other and different approaches in sociology, our emphasis is on 'relevance', on why this approach is particularly relevant to informing ethnographic studies of work, technology, and organisations (and pretty much everything else too). Thus, it is a simple fact that many sociological approaches would not be motivated to do ethnographic studies at all, and that others who were motivated to do so would not - for their own good reasons - consider the practicalities of activities worth noticing. Another point of differentiation is that many sociological approaches are inclined to shift attention away from the activities that are the very business of the setting under investigation. As was suggested earlier, the case of studies of work is a leading example, for though there are many sociological studies 'of work', they have very little to say about the work which goes on within the setting under study.
It is a commonplace sociological attitude to view specific social settings as sites of generic, abstract 'social processes' - for example 'social control' or 'domination' or 'surveillance'. Sociology's purpose in surveying actual social settings is consequently to minimise the differences between them, to abstract from the data ways that exhibit the commonality of such processes, to make the case that these are generic. The ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic approach, in contrast, is particularly focused upon the distinctiveness and the specificity, of the setting. Though there may be abstract, general similarities between one setting and another, it is unavoidable that one in the organisation of practical conduct must come to terms with the particularities of the setting if the day-to-day affairs of the setting are to be carried out. In terms of many sociological strategies for generalisation, the fact that people are engaged in a particular kind of work is only an analytically incidental feature of what they are doing. It is only a concrete instantiation of abstract, generic, and formal processes, which means that there is little investigative motivation to attend to the practicalities of work activities and to the nature of those activities as realisations of the kind of work that they are. In contrast, the ethnomethodologically informed approach has every reason to attend to the distinct character of the work in the setting; e.g., to give priority to the fact that these persons are 'authorising a bank loan', or 'completing a standing order'. Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography directs its attentions to the activities which specifically and distinctively comprise those particular types of activity, and, thus, tries to give detailed characterisations of, and to seek to understand the particular circumstantial conditions for, carrying out those activities in actual cases. The relevance of this to our understanding of work, technology, and organisations has been, then, in the engendering of studies directed toward understanding how the work gets done, and thus to describing the detail and intricacies of working practices for their own sake.
31.13 Everyday work as accountable and cooperative activity
Ethnography is interested to understand how people make sense of mundane activities and how they make those activities 'accountable' to others. For ethnomethodologists, how people go about making sense of the social world represent mechanisms through which social structure is created, ordered, and sustained. As the social order is continually constructed and reconstructed, members, as 'practical sociologists' are involved in a constant, if taken for granted, process of analysis, so that they are able to act successfully in relation to others for everyday practical purposes. Members must be able to make the social organisation of their mundane activities visible, 'accountable', 'observable-reportable' to each other. The methods that members use to make sense of what is going on are publicly available resources for the observer. Consequently, ethnography is particularly attuned to revealing cooperative aspects of working life - how people reconfigure their arrangements in the face of contingencies and circumstances as they arise.
Social activities are 'concerted' activities involving different people - often very many people - fitting their activities together in quite complex patterns from within the activity itself. The expression 'accountable character of activities' refers to this process of concerting work to the way in which people engaged in an activity have to organise their own actions in order that other participants can see what they are doing, and can adapt to it. Participants in social actions have, therefore, to 'make visible' the identity of their actions, to enable other people to identify those actions, and to identify also their purposes and intentions in a way that they can response appropriately to them. This enables them to align their own actions, reciprocally, in the activity that they are jointly, collectively, accomplishing. So, for example, a bank robbery is a collective endeavour in which both the robber and the cashier have to recognise, and make recognisable, their respective roles. The notion of the 'accountable character of activities' emphasises the degree to which activities are organised so as to be identified, recognised, and understood as the activities that they are. The important point is that other people can see what is being done and, thus, consider how they can respond appropriately to align their own actions in the unfolding drama.
That social activities are concerted is a commonplace, if not the raison d'etre, of sociology. However, the concern to understand just how such concerting takes place (as opposed to why such concerting takes place), how people manage to make their activities fit together whilst doing those same activities, appears in the province of ethnomethodology. Its concern with the question of how concerted actions are concerted, and the associated emphasis upon the 'accountable character' of work, has combined to give studies a focus upon the ways in which the pattern of complex activities are 'made visible' to those carrying out those activities. And, simultaneously, they focus upon the ways in which people placed within some complex of action can figure out what is happening around them and how they can fit their own activities into that complex; both when the pattern of activity is a localised one, within their visual field, and the participants can directly monitor those activities which are relevant to their decision as to what to do next, and when they are engaged in patterns of distributed activities.
31.14 Cooperative working
The emphasis upon the 'accountable character of activities' explains another relevant aspect of this approach to fieldwork, the focus on cooperative work - the concerting and the articulation of activities (work) from within the activities (work). This involves an interest in how work is accomplished under distributed conditions and of the role of 'awareness', which refers to the ways in which workers can attune themselves to the state of the work process, and integrate their own activities - immediately or remotely - with those of other participants in the work process. This explication of sense making machinery has often invoked work activity as a manifest 'working division of labour' (Anderson et al 1989). Ethnography seeks to understand the organisation of work, its flow, and the division of labour from the point of view of those involved in the work. Because work settings are organised around, through, and within a division of labour, work activities are necessarily seen as interdependent. Understanding how members coordinate their work in real time, moment-by-moment and how they orient to the 'working division of labour' to make sense of what they are doing (Anderson et al 1989) is a feature of ethnographic explication. Ethnography approaches the flow of work (rather than the disembodied idealisations of 'workflow') as an accomplishment, a collective achievement. Consequently, it requires examining the actual flow of work, not some idealised version of it. Individuals perform their tasks within the context of others similarly doing their tasks, within sequences of activities, but the actual work requires individuals to determine and dispay how their work fits into their responsibilities, their relevances, and how this will fit with that of others. Anderson et al (1989) call this an 'egological' viewpoint; a view of the world of work and its organisation from the perspective of individuals cooperating and coordinating their activities with others. While individual workers have individual tasks to perform, they are also, and necessarily, individuals-as-part-of-a-collectivity, and much of their work consists in the ability to organise the distribution of individual tasks into an ongoing assemblage of activities within a 'working division of labour'. Individuals, that is, orient to their work according to 'egological' principles and their own 'horizons of relevance' but have to be attentive to the work of others in order to organise the flow of work in a coherent way. This focus has arguably provided an important analytic tool for the examination of work as lived experience, providing important clues as to both how work was accomplished and, perhaps, why work was done the way it was.
31.15 Ethnography and computer supported cooperative work (CSCW)
Within sociology, ethnography has been deployed to study an array of topics. In CSCW it has primarily focused upon the study of work and settings for which new technology is being designed with the intention of informing that design (Hughes, Randall, and Shapiro 1992; Heath and Luff 1992; Suchman 1983). Ethnography, and especially ethnomethodologically informed ethnography, has acquired some prominence (not to say notoriety) in recent years within the study of CSCW. Ethnography has gained some distinction as a fieldwork method that could contribute both to a general understanding of systems in use in a variety of contexts and to the design of distributed and shared systems (Hughes and King 1992). Efforts to incorporate ethnography into the system design process have had much to do with the (unfortunately belated) realisation, mainly among system designers, that the success of design has much to do, though in complex ways, with the social context of system use. A number of well publicised 'disasters' (The London Ambulance System, the Taurus System for the Stock Exchange, for example) suggested that traditional methods of requirements elicitation were inadequate, or in need of supplementation, by methods better designed to bring out the socially organised character of work settings.
This 'turn to the social' in design, the interest in the role of social science theories and approaches in informing design, arose out of dissatisfaction with existing methods of informing design as offering overly abstract and simplistic analyses of the nature of social life. If design, as a 'satisficing activity' is more of an art than a science, dealing with messy indeterminate situations and 'wicked problems'; then before designers can solve a design problem, they need to understand some basics - such as what they are designing, what it should do, and who should use it and in what circumstances. It was argued that methods needed to be more attuned to gathering relevant data in 'real world' environments; that is, settings in which systems were likely to be used rather than in laboratories or other artificial and remote environments. The 'turn to the social' recognised a new kind of end-user, a 'real time, real world' human being, and consequently designers turned to the social sciences to provide them with some insights, some sensitivities, to inform design. Ethnography with its emphasis on the in situ observation of interactions within their natural settings seemed eminently suited to bringing a social perspective to bear on system design.
With its emphasis on the 'real world' character of work settings, ethnography is often contrasted with what are commonly regarded as unrealistic and unsatisfactory notions about both systems and the users of systems that tend to be proffered by more traditional methods. Traditional methods of system design perhaps owe far too much to the needs of engineering, and, as a consequence, important aspects of the 'real world' of work are obscured, misrepresented or ignored. It is in this respect that 'analytic approaches', Task Analysis, or Office Automation for example, are found wanting (Shapiro 1993; Suchman 1983) representing an intrusion of the 'engineering mentality' into areas where it is inappropriate. The analytic deconstruction of work activities into ever more finely grained components removes the essential 'real world' features which make them practices within a socially organised setting. This complaint attacks the individualistic slant of the cognitivism which underlies 'analytic approaches' by acknowledging the implications of the observation that, as already suggested, work is, typically, collaborative. Though performed by individuals, the various activities that constitute work are performed within an organised environment composed of other individuals, and it is this that gives shape to the activities as 'real world' activities. Thus, the focus of ethnography is on the social practices that enable the very processes that 'analytic methods' identify, but at the same time decontextualise. It is through the social practices that ethnography seeks to identify and describe that work processes are established and are, accordingly, rooted in socially achieved sets of arrangements.
Such an approach also meshes with the growing use of information technologies within working life. As computers increasingly, and seemingly inexorably, are adopted and diffused into the world of work and organisation, there is a growing awareness that the ubiquitous nature of networked and distributed computing poses new problems for design, requiring the development and deployment of methods that analyse the collaborative and social character of work. Systems are used within populated environments that are, whatever 'technological' characteristics they may have, 'social' in character and thus the intent of CSCW to design distributed and shared systems means that this social dimension has to be taken into account. Requirements elicitation has to be informed by an analysis of the 'real world' circumstances of work and its organisation (Goguen 1993). The virtue of ethnographic approaches comes from the 'grounded' recognition that computers are enmeshed into a system of working as instruments and incorporated in highly particular ways - used, misused, modified, circumvented, rejected - into the flow of work. One of the virtues of ethnography lies in revealing these myriad usages in the context of 'real world' work settings; furthermore being
more capable than most methods of highlighting those 'human factors' which most closely pertain to system usage, factors which are not always just about good interface design but include training, ease of use in work, contexts full of contingencies which are not the remit of system design...even though design may be concerned with developing a completely new system, understanding the context, the people, the skills they possess are all important matters for designers to reflect upon...
(Button and King 1992)
The advantages of using ethnographic methods in CSCW for studying work lie in the 'sensitising' it promotes to the real world character and context of work, i.e., in the opportunity it provides to ensure system design resonates with the circumstances of its use. In attempting not only to document or describe activities but also in accounting for them, ethnography seeks to answer what might be regarded as an essential CSCW question as to what to automate and what to leave to human skill and experience. Ethnographic methods thereby assist in the delineation of work design 'problems' as a consequence of greater knowledge of the social organisation of work - the recognition that 'problems' need to be placed (and resolved) within the context of the work setting and not some abstract model of the work process.
31.16 Ethnographer at work
The main rule is that methods that rely on retrospective accounts of social order cannot reveal members' methods. The method used must preserve the details of local order production "over its course" for the analyst.
(Garfinkel 1967: 6)
the investigation of the rational properties of indexical expressions and other practical actions as contingent ongoing accomplishments of organised artful practices of everyday life.
(Garfinkel 1967: 7)
Ethnomethodology's studies make vastly more sense when understood as inspections of the ways social scenes have visible coherence to even the most casual of witnesses, the ways in which the presence of social order can be readily detected within them; with the ways social order is exposed to even the most passing of glances... and reciprocally, the ways in which within such scenes the activities of individuals can be given definite sense, trajectory and motivation relative to the 'transparently' organised properties of the scene.
(Sharrock and Button 1991: 163-164)
Ethnomethodology has consistently pointed to a yawning gap - the 'missing interactional what?' - in sociological studies of work that consists of all the missing descriptions of what occupational activities actually consist of and all the missing analyses of just how practitioners actually manage the workaday tasks which, for them, because they are workaday, are matters of mundane yet serious and pressing significance. For the ethnomethodologically informed ethnographer, there is no other place to stand in order to document, describe, and comprehend any setting than 'from the inside'. As Garfinkel argues:
"Ethnomethodologists generally use methods that require immersion in the situation being studied. They hold it as an ideal that they learn to be competent practitioners of whatever social phenomena they are studying."
(Garfinkel 2002: 6)
Immersion in the milieu is a, if not 'the', fundamental aspect of the ethnographer's work, and, in consequence, ethnographers spend considerable time developing 'unique adequacy' - learning to recognise and understand the activities and events that comprised the everyday world of work. In this fashion, the daily, mundane business of work, the conversations, asides, and acronyms become intelligible.
In getting to grips with and 'getting the hang of', the life of everyday work, researchers will necessarily learn various aspects of the practices and activities they are investigating - in some minimal sense actually how to do them - whatever 'them' happens to be, quilting, selling antiques, making bank loans, and so on. In that sense, ethnography presents the 'worm's eye' view of the world - since, generally, there are few conventionally 'important people' in everyday work. As P.J. O'Rourke (1989) reminds us, conventionally important people didn't get where they are by telling researchers the truth - nor should we ever fall for the sociologist's delusion - a variant of the 'Network Anchor-Creature self-conceit' that lets them, "believe Mikhail Gorbachev will suddenly take them aside and say, "Strictly between you and me, on Wednesday we invade Finland." (O'Rourke 1989:12. In some ways this is a necessary feature of ethnomethodologically informed ethnography, since arriving at an understanding of the social order from within requires documenting the 'worm's eye' view - producing thick descriptions of everyday activities, the materials used, the reasoning deployed, etc. - the 'shopwork' and 'shoptalk' (Garfinkel 2002). The ethnography (and perhaps the skill), then, consists in observing and describing how everyday work is achieved, how people observably and reportably act together to produce the objective, orderly, 'reality of social facts'. As Lemert suggests : " ethnomethodology imposes the obligation to study the utterly practical methods by which notoriously ordinary people compose the rational grounds of their social orderings." (Garfinkel 2002: xi). Whatever the arguments surrounding analytic approaches to the study of work, the primary challenge would appear to be to develop some vulgar competence in the field.
Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography requires looking at how people conduct their work in real settings, interested in exactly how work is socially organised in that setting. This means looking at the actual working division of labour as routinely and ordinarily manifested in the persons' meaningful orientation to their work, not work as some idealised conception - "the focus is on embodied, endogenous, witnessable practices." (Garfinkel 1967: 7). Despite some heroic conceptions of the ethnographer, derived largely from social anthropology, the work is fundamentally dull and boring - like work is for most people. The overwhelming emphasis of routine ethnographic work - describing the mundane features of everyday work - comes right up against the fact that work for most people has a generally dull if not unpleasant quality:
For most employees work has a generally unpleasant quality. If there is little Calvinist compulsion to work among propertyless factory workers and file clerks, there is also little Renaissance exuberance in the work of the insurance clerk, freight handler or department store saleslady ... Such joy as creative work may carry is more and more limited to a small minority.
(Mills 1953: 219)
The thankless task of the ethnographer is simply to report in adequate detail how people go about doing what they construe as the things to be done. As such, ethnography is very much a practical activity; the fieldwork material - collected using a field notebook and a tape-recorder - is not dictated by strategic methodological considerations, but by the flow of activity within the setting. It simply involves recording what anyone is doing, moment by moment. Evidently, this does not demand any special or arcane skills for obtaining access and information - just everyday politeness - 'do you mind if I watch you work?'; 'what did you do then?', and so on. Despite concerns about contamination of data, Hawthorne effects etc. by and large, in this kind of setting, people have to get on with their work - and this is exactly what they tend to do. As Hughes et al. (2000) note, despite the apparent lack of method, the fieldworker cannot really fail, for even a few days of fieldwork is likely to produce an abundance if not an excess of material, of 'data'. The practical (and not to be underestimated) exercise, then, becomes one of gathering the accumulated materials and assembling them into a reasonable account of the work in the setting as a 'real world, real time' set of arrangements.
Like every other ethnographer 'immersed' in a setting, it will probably be your experience that your understanding of that setting, and what was going on within it, will develop gradually over the course of the fieldwork. Like everyone else, you probably have some vague notions of how 'work' gets done in your particular setting - how quilts are made, how aircrafts are controlled in the sky, how banking is carried on etc. - but equally there will be many things which you do not adequately comprehend. And so you will develop, over the course of the ethnography, a fuller, more informed sense of what the ways of work are and of the character of everyday work in a particular setting.
31.17 Questioning the 'method': some problems of ethnography
Ethnography is not a method without problems, many of which have been well documented (Randall et al. 1994) generally focusing on the standard concerns of 'getting in, staying in, getting out' as well as issues of access and 'gatekeeping', reliability, validity and generalisation, and so on. Ethnography is not, and, indeed, does not claim to be, a methodological panacea; though (perhaps fortunately) many of the critiques are directed at sociological, as opposed to ethnomethodological, variants of ethnography.
In practical terms, and historically, ethnography has generally been limited to small scale, well defined, and usually quite confined contexts, well suited to the observational techniques employed. Consequently, problems can arise with the method's application to large scale, highly distributed organisations. Similarly, in small scale settings there tends to be a clear focus of attention for the participants, who are typically few in number, and there is a relatively clearly visible differentiation of tasks at one work site. Scaling such inquiries up to the organisational level or to processes distributed in time and space is a much more daunting prospect.
In a similar vein, historically ethnography has been a 'prolonged activity', and whilst 'quick and dirty' approaches have been developed, the time scales involved in ethnographic research are often unrealistic in a commercial setting where the pressure is typically for 'results yesterday'. Moving out of the research setting into a more commercial one also raises different sets of ethical responsibilities as well as making access to sites more vulnerable to the contingencies of the commercial and industrial world. Ethnography insists that its inquiries should be conducted in a non-disruptive and non-interventionist manner - principles that can be compromised given that much of the motivation for introducing IT into the workplace is to reorganise work and, sometimes as part of this, to displace or deskill labour.
Since the 1970s, and particularly in recent years, the use of ethnography as a legitimate and viable research method has been challenged on various grounds - in particular that it privileges a white, western, male 'gaze'.
The questions were political, epistemological and methodological; who gets to say what about whom, and why? What are the interests and motivations behind alleged ethnographic 'realism?
(Edles 2002: 145)
From within anthropology, ethnography has been accused of promoting a colonialist attitude (Said 1978) telling us more about the researchers, and their (usually his) attitudes, than the cultures they purport to describe. Within sociology, this kind of attack and charge - in this case of 'androcentricity' - has been endlessly repeated by various feminist writers (Reinharz 1992; Clough 1992), who suggest that ethnographies have mainly been conducted by males and are about males ignoring the role of women in the social setting. Clough (1992) for example suggests that an 'Oedipal logic' pervades traditional, realist ethnography, an ethnography that is effectively saturated with 'unconscious desire' - the desire to 'probe and penetrate' the world.
From within the ethnographic establishment, Hammersley (1990) has argued that the tendency to treat ethnographic description as involving simple reproduction of the phenomena described is misleading and mythical. He stresses that such description is always selective. Consequently, and following the 'reflexive turn', he suggests that the relevances and values that structure any ethnographic description must be made explicit. While it may be the case that ethnography retains an incoherent conception of its own goals and may frequently be a vehicle for ideology, such problems can be accepted without abandoning ethnography or its claims to represent phenomena - what he terms "subtle realism".
31.18 The ethnographic critique of ethnography
While ethnography has always been subject to criticism from quantitative sociologists, as Brewer (1994) notes, it has recently come under attack from sociologists sympathetic to the method - the ethnographic critique of ethnography. This critique questions the reliability of ethnographic descriptions, and shows ethnographic texts to be artefacts, skilfully manufactured in order to construct their persuasive force. Continuing this line of argument, the postmodern critique of ethnography questions its claims to 'neutral realism', arguing that in writing ethnography, the researcher does not merely uncover or detail reality, but creates it in the interpretive process of creating the text, since 'reality' does not exist to be discovered. The 'textuality' debate has historical roots in philosophy and critical theory, but has recently culminated in the 'ethnographies as texts' movement and a lack of confidence in cultural description, what Marcus and Fischer (1986) refer to as a "crisis of representation" and Hammersley (1992) as a "crisis of fragmentation" in the ethnographic tradition. Clifford and Marcus, for example, argues that ethnographic writing is determined contextually, rhetorically, institutionally, generically, and historically, and that these "govern the inscription of coherent ethnographic fictions" (Clifford and Marcus, 1986: 6). In this view, the notion of a 'naturalist' ethnography that merely describes 'the facts of the matter' should instead be regarded as, "an insidious discursive strategy whose underlying purpose is to assert authority, dominate, and maintain privilege." (Edles 2002: 151) The reaction against 'naturalistic ethnography' - 'postmodern ethnography' - involves a mixture of literary styles, fiction, and poetry as part of faithfully representing the lived qualities of the domain. This response may also be seen as a reflexive device, collapsing the distinction between 'object' and 'subject' thereby facilitating ways of ensuring that authors write themselves into the text. This 'self-reflexive turn' takes a number of guises but often appears to take a confessional form whereby researchers document their own actions, attitudes, and prejudices and consider how this might have impacted on the setting they investigate.
This postmodern, constructivist challenge to naturalistic or 'naïve' ethnography and the subsequent demands for 'reflexive' ethnography, with a more self-critical and sceptical orientation has been challenged by those who conduct ethnomethodologically informed ethnographies (Sharrock 1995; Slack 2000).
The fact which has impacted upon both anthropologists and sociologists is that ethnography is, in important respects, perhaps even in essence ... writing, and, as such is presumptively ...exposed to deconstruction, to having its hidden agenda revealed, to its constituent texts being revealed to be self-defeating compositions.
Dicks et al (2005) suggest that recent writing on ethnography has focused on making it more attuned to reflecting complexity - in the form of contingency, multi-vocality, intertextuality, hybridity, and so on. They identify two aspects of 'post-paradigm' ethnographic enquiry in particular, the demarcation of ethnography's object of study and its mode of presentation, as areas of debate.
The category of ethnography, a well- established approach to social research in anthropology and some schools of sociology .. has been undergoing a continual process of diversification and fragmentation over the past 20 or so years. This has given rise to a variety of standpoints. It is now possible to identify an almost carnivalesque range of approaches under the ethnographic umbrella
(Dicks et al 2005: 27)
In documenting the 'retreat of the author' and the development of a range of textual strategies, Dicks et al argue that ethnography is riddled with radical doubt.
Throughout these various standpoints runs a discursive turn, treating as central but problematic the relations of language, knowledge and power. Many of these perspectives indeed give rise to analyses that render ethnography itself - at least in any conventional mode - highly problematic, if not all-but-impossible.
(Dicks et al 2005: 27).
At the same time there has been the questioning of the category of 'the field', with its notion of easily identifiable spatial, geographical, and cultural boundaries.
31.19 Constructivist challenges
As suggested earlier, postmodern constructivist challenges can be located within sociology's longstanding and notorious tradition of 'debunking', from which ethnomethodology fundamentally dissents. Constructivists seek to dispute the 'common sense' understandings that members of society have, often amounting to the bizarre suggestion that members of society really do not know what they are doing (and require a sociologist to tell them). The task constructivism sets itself is, of course, to challenge members' understandings, to show how they are wrong and present alternative, and authoritative, conceptions of both the way things are and how they got to be that way. These studies claim to show that what appears to members as common sense or obvious, for example that death or disability is a physical and biological event, is nothing of the kind but instead interpretative constructions, that can, therefore, be constructed differently, so that death or disability becomes a 'social construction'. (Grint and Woolgar 1992; Shakespeare 1993). Sharrock, following Bittner, views this development as part of the reaction against the concept of 'objectivity'.
The reaction against 'objectivity' ...was to move in a 'subjectivist' direction, to denounce all notions of objectivity, and to purport to root social phenomena in and to explore the dimensions of subjectivity. These tendencies were, in effect, to deny the existence of social reality, to make social reality a matter of individual determination - it was up to individuals to define social reality as they will.
(Sharrock 1995: 13)
The result of this move, however, has been a shift away from a careful concern with the research setting and its members to a focus on the researcher and the research act itself - and the subsequent endless 'navel gazing', 'confessional tales', and piss-poor attempts at poetry (or jazz).
The constructivist view contrasts, then, with ethnomethodology's approach of indifference that attempts neither to undermine nor to support the everyday realities to which the members subscribe, but to investigate, describe, and understand them. As Sharrock argues:
Bittner, arguing on behalf of ethnomethodology, sought to distance it from just those tendencies, and to do so by arguing that the retreat from 'objectivity' as defined by those in the positivist traditions should not be toward 'subjectivity' but toward 'realism' - not realism, in the metaphysical sense, of asserting the existence of an external reality, but 'realism' in the phenomenological sense of faithfulness to the portrayal of its subject matter, a devotion to capturing society as it is actually experienced 'from within.'
(Sharrock 1995: 15)
Bittner suggests that fieldwork strategies that have focused on detailing the experiences of the researcher are inclined to perpetuate this impoverishment in the portrayal of members' experience and represent a move away from a faithful description and rendering of the experience of members. At the same, time such ethnographies neglect the differences in the nature of the experiences of fieldworker and member. The supposition that 'social reality' is somehow grasped through the elaboration of the fieldworker's own awareness fundamentally misrepresents the very nature of the fieldworker's experience and motivation - as merely a 'visitor' that can return to a previous life. In this way, phenomena, the everyday occurrences in the setting, are divested of their massive sense of reality to those who routinely and necessarily inhabit that setting. Bittner's argument, that the ethnographic turn to 'subjectivity' involves increasing, almost exclusive, emphasis on the fieldworker's experience and point of view has been readily confirmed by the growing chorus for 'reflexivity' in sociology in general and ethnography in particular. (May and Perry 2010; Woolgar and Ashmore 1988). However, the emphasis on the fieldworker's standpoint as the focus for consideration of how social reality is engendered tends to overlook the extent to which the fieldworker's point of view is a peculiar one. While ethnographers may attempt to sensitise themselves to members' points of view, as Sharrock reminds us:
the fieldworker's occupation of that point of view is a temporary matter, .. The fieldworker does not, however, characteristically occupy the point of view ...The fieldworker simulates certain aspects of that view, but adopts it only for the purposes of the research, and as one which is freely taken up and from which it is equally possible readily to withdraw.
(Sharrock 1995: 12)
In contrast, for members their 'native' point of view is not something to which they have a contingent relationship, one that they may freely take up, abandon, or exchange. In the setting of a bank, or air traffic control (or anywhere else) for example, the 'native point of view' is their life, something they have to take very seriously and not something they can 'play' with or relate to on a 'take it or leave it' basis. In a bank, the ways in which matters appear, for instance, to a bank manager - for example in terms of loans, overdrafts, repayments and so on - are mandatory for the manager and for others organisationally involved in the situation - these are the objective and (legally) binding ways of bank work. As a highly distributed organisation, the bank is reliant on the manager (and all its officials) acting in particular ways - indeed it can be a disciplinary matter if he fails to act accordingly. Bank personnel as a general rule cannot, except in their dreams (and often not then), playfully adopt a different point of view just to see what would happen, and the idea that things 'could be otherwise' is a possibility too childish for them to entertain. The playfulness of postmodernity rarely features as part of everyday work inside a bank, or most other commercial organisations.
As Gould et al. (1974) note, there are particular problems in ethnography's claim to describe events as they are seen or experienced by social actors. Asking people to explain what they are doing turns members into informants (Sacks 1992) and produces a 'perspective of action' (Gould et al. 1974) whereby settings are made meaningful to outsiders rather than a 'perspective in action' where meaning unfolds in naturally occurring interaction. Furthermore, there are some difficulties involved in seeking to understand the actor's perspective.
They treat as a 'perspective' what actors on most occasions view as the way the world is. The field worker, then, does not produce a description from the actor's point of view, but a description of the actor's point of view from the point of view of a sociological observer. This is true even if the observer seeks to empathise closely with actors' concerns and meanings. As a consequence, field-work descriptions tend to depict social life as perceived events and meanings, ignoring of distorting the lived reality of actor's worlds.
(Emerson 1981: 357)
The emphasis in recent ethnographic writing on the 'reflexive' experience of the fieldworker, in that the fieldworker's history, attitudes, sexuality, etc. impacts on his or her perception of the setting leads to an under-estimate of the extent to which the experience of those under study possesses traits of depth and stability. In these circumstances, notions that 'it could have been - it could be - otherwise' are sociological fantasies. However, to critique constructionism is not a recommendation for accepting accounts at face value. Ethnomethodologically informed ethnographers choose instead to adopt a stance of 'indifference' to such questions, so issues of questioning or supporting an account do not arise. Thereby issues of truth and falsity and the endless debates of objectivity/subjectivity, the possibility of value neutrality, the researcher-researched relationship, and more are avoided. When considered from the viewpoint of sociological research, 'social reality' is clearly not the same thing as 'social reality for the purposes of everyday life'. As previously suggested, the actor cannot, under the auspices of the natural attitude, systematically adopt the sceptical stance found under the auspices of the theoretical attitude - we accept, rather than systematically doubt, everyday appearances.
However, this concern with the 'native's' point of view', with the difficulties of uncovering, displaying, and understanding a setting and way of life that is different, if not alien to the researcher, can also produce some unfortunate arguments about both how ethnographic research can be done and who is entitled to do it. The argument begins by suggesting, often quite rightly, that particular people's experience of research on them has often been less than happy. It is suggested that conventional ethnographic methods ignore the thoughts, feelings, and views of those they are researching - such as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and so on - thereby becoming one further aspect of disadvantage. (Dartington et al. 1981; Miller and Gwynne 1972)
Disabled people have come to see research as a violation of their experience, as irrelevant to their needs and as failing to improve their material circumstances and quality of life.
(Oliver 1992: 105)
What is required, so the argument goes, are empathic research methods, deployed by those sympathetic to and experienced in the particular setting because, and here comes the extra twist, the researchers are themselves 'members' - disabled, women, people from an ethnic minority. So, the argument seems to shift from one about methods to one about who is warranted or entitled or qualified to conduct research. Again, it has to be acknowledged that this is hardly a unique argument but draws, for example, on long standing issues in feminist research and the critique of 'malestream' sociology. This includes disputes about not just what is investigated, but how research is conducted; arguments about 'objectivity', 'subjectivity' etc.; involvement of the 'subject ' in research; 'rape models', and so on.
Fortunately, ethnomethodologically informed ethnography avoids these debates by refusing to buy into many of the dichotomies of traditional social science - objective/subjective; structure/agency; etc. - that create many of these problems in the first place. In our view, the production of valid and useful ethnographic accounts relies initially on the satisfaction of the unique adequacy requirement. This insists that the researcher develops a vulgar competence in the setting itself in order to understand life as practitioners themselves comprehend and practice it and to be able to use the language of the setting to describe the setting. As Garfinkel and Weider put it:
for analysts to recognize, or identify, or follow the development of, or describe phenomena of order in local production of coherent detail the analyst must be vulgarly competent in the local production and reflexively natural accountability of the phenomena of order he [or she] is 'studying'.
(Garfinkel and Weider 1992: 182)
As is sometimes argued, the issue is one of 'probativeness' (Garfinkel and Weider 1992) or of descriptive adequacy. In this case, at least understanding culture requires little more than a mundane competence in the practices of the domain such that the researcher can deliver an account that is intelligible to competent members. This is far from arguing that anyone who is not a bank worker (scientist, disabled, woman) is unable to write about, analyse, discuss, theorise, etc. these matters. 'This crap', as Jeff Coulter once said, 'has got to stop' (Crabtree 2000).
In 'On the Demise of the Native', Sharrock and Anderson (1982) point to some of the other problems of this kind of argument and approach. The argument behind the claim to exclusive access to a research setting confuses experience with understanding since it suggests that unless researchers possess the same 'frameworks of meaning' or experience, they cannot appreciate the everyday reality of members, and their research is correspondingly flawed. But this position - that particular members share a 'culture' that is different and inaccessible to others - is not only ludicrous but less a finding of research than an a priori principle. It is an assumption, not a discovery. Furthermore, the idea of a bank 'culture', of a shared set of meanings and understandings should be the endpoint of the analysis, i.e., the end product of serious and sustained enquiry, and not what enquiry is simplistically predicated upon. Essentially, the problem is posed as that of understanding an 'alien' culture. In this view, culture is all encompassing and people are regarded as empty vessels into which culture is somehow poured, and, in consequence, people end up both doing and knowing the same things. The ethnographer cannot understand this culture because s/he is not part of it. However, if we suspend this a priori status and make serious enquiries into that culture, we may well discover that what appear to be, or are represented as, massive cultural differences are, in fact, no more than variations in the ways some things are carried out. Understanding 'bank culture' or 'football culture' is not akin to the problem that Wittgenstein famously referred to when he stated, "if a lion could speak, we couldn't understand him" (Wittgenstein 1958: 223), but simply different ways of doing 'the same old thing'. For Wittgenstein, what we know and how we communicate is a function of our 'form of life' and thus understanding is embedded in our 'culture'. We understand because in our daily lives we live by routines - have cups of tea, use the computer, and so boringly on. Furthermore, if as Sharrock and Anderson (1982) suggest, the task of research is to demonstrate how culture and shared understanding is achieved, then the 'native' - in this case the worker - as well as the researcher should be regarded as enquirers into culture. In this circumstance, 'what is going on' becomes a problem for the native as well as the researcher, and the methods by which understanding is achieved are the focus of research.
.the stance that treats the native as an expert in his culture, knowing what he is up to and unproblematically recounting that to the researcher, may not be of much use. If we begin by positing that natives and researchers have to discover what is going on - what events and activities mean - then we can treat meaning as an achievable phenomenon and understanding as a risky business. It is these contingencies and risks that natives and field workers have to deal with.
(Sharrock and Anderson 1982:135)
31.20 Ethnography and reflexivity
Coffey (1999) argues that 'the self', and ethnographic subjectivity, as a pervasive feature of ethnographic enquiry have been ignored in the presentation of ethnography as an objective naturalistic form of research. Her focus is on the interaction between the researcher and the researched and how, "fieldwork shapes and constructs identities, intimate relations, an emotional self, and a physical self". Her argument, and it's an increasingly popular one, is that only by focusing on the researcher can the dualities that shape research and sociology be overcome. The ethnomethodological take on reflexivity is, not surprisingly, rather different. The fact that the term 'reflexivity' appears in Garfinkel's earlier formulations of ethnomethodology does not indicate any affinity between this use and its contemporary employment in talk of, for example, 'reflexive ethnography'. For ethnomethodologists, the notion of 'reflexivity' is best outlined in Garfinkel's classic description of accountability:
In exactly the ways that a setting is organised, it consists of members' methods for making evident that setting's ways as clear, coherent, planful, consistent, chosen, knowable, uniform, reproducible connections, - i.e., rational connections. In exactly the way that persons are members to organised affairs, they are engaged in serious and practical work of detecting, demonstrating, persuading through displays in the ordinary occasions of their interactions the appearances of consistent, clear, chosen, planful arrangements. In exactly the ways in which a setting is organised, it consists of methods whereby its members are provided with accounts of the setting as countable, storyable, proverbial, comparable, picturable, representable - i.e. accountable events.
(Garfinkel 1967: 34)
For ethnomethodologists, fashionable concerns with 'reflexivity' are an irrelevance since our interest is fixated on production problems and the ways practices are produced and reproduced. The fixation is on visible orderliness, and our observations identify and describe 'grossly observable' phenomena - available to just about anyone. While for many sociologists the issue of 'reflexivity' is endlessly fascinating, inviting all kinds of what fundamentally amounts to 'navel gazing', for ethnomethodologists the reflexivity issue is entirely different since the emphasis is not on reflexivity of actors but reflexivity of accounts.
Slack (2000) argues that debates on reflexivity have "missed the need to ground their claims in the life world of society members". Slack makes the important distinction between what he terms 'essential' and 'stipulative' reflexivities. He suggests that stipulative reflexivity, "a sociological achievement",(Slack 2000: 1.2) has been the main concern of sociological researchers concerned to remedy members' versions of everyday life by attention to the analyst's perspective; "what counts as reflexivity is an achievement of the sociologist for sociology." (ibid) Such an approach is based on a 'correspondence' epistemology - whereby 'reflexivity' permits or facilitates correct views of the social world. What such versions fail to recognise is that, in contrast the ethnomethodological approach to reflexivity - essential reflexivity - attends to members' reflexivity and is grounded in members' observable-reportable natural language practical actions. This emphasis, grounded in a 'coherence' epistemology, argues that there is no need for a sociological re-description, and that "the only way out of the postmodernist, structurational and textual maze is to attend to the practical essential reflexivity of society members." (ibid)
To briefly conclude this argument, the ethnomethodological endeavour lies in describing how members (not researchers or sociologists) manage to produce and recognise contextually relevant structures of social action. The warrant for ethnomethodologically informed ethnography is that of 'probativeness' or 'faithfulness to the phenomena' - that the description of the situated organisation of that activity in its detail makes that real worldly activity mutually intelligible.
31.21 Is ethnography a 'method' at all?
Our answer to this is simple and unequivocal. No. This bears unpacking. Firstly, 'method' can be understood as entailing stepwise, logically related and ordered procedures, and ethnography clearly does not. It is not science, experiments are not conducted, variables are not controlled, and hypothesis testing (for the most part) is not done. More importantly, from our point of view, the emphasis on method is what has given rise to the immense and rather tedious literature we refer to above. Professional sociologists, let us not forget, have a vested interest in persuading others of their methodological expertise. Once the principles associated with ethnomethodology are grasped, however, all of the problems of 'reflexivity' and so on, simply disappear. If we accept that we inhabit a known-in-common world, in which basic principles of social interaction are recognised by (almost) everyone; where misunderstandings can be repaired; and where we can continue to interact even when we do not share ideological commitments, then neither sociologists nor anyone else have a privileged picture of 'what the world is like'. In turn, this means that method, in and of itself, is really not that important. We aim to collect data in as reasonable a fashion as we can, using whatever material is to be found and - because we have no claims to methodological purity - are careful to limit our analytic claims about the world to what we have seen and can reasonably infer in much the way we describe above with our 'precepts'.
31.22 Moving the method on: developments in 'ethnographic' approaches
Our comments about 'method' can be construed as somewhat cynical, but they are not. In fact, they open the way - methodologically speaking - to any number of different analytic approaches. This includes, for brief mention, the fashionable themes of auto-ethnography, virtual ethnography, 'postmodern' ethnography, meta-ethnography, and multi-sited ethnography, as well as any number of developments in 'method' associated with qualitative work of this kind, including 'living labs', 'cognitive walkthroughs', online interviewing, textual analysis, etc. etc.
There is a strong sense in which ethnography has become both accepted and successful by the employment of ethnographers and anthropologists by companies like Microsoft, Nokia, Xerox, etc.
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Gerry Katz. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Ethnography or observational research
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Bob Moore. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Ethnomethodology: Yahoo Research - Bob Moore
Author/Copyright holder: Unknown (pending investigation). Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Motorola research: assisted shopping
At the same time, 'ethnographic' approaches in CSCW and HCI have begun to change as computing itself has changed to an interest in pervasive and ubiquitous computing, and the interest in technology has changed from a simple interest in productivity and profit to a range of more nebulous concerns such as fun and enjoyment and empathy and community, etc. The settings in which technology is deployed are increasingly sensitive and personal. Consequently, traditional, ethnographic, observational approaches have been supplemented by various forms of 'auto-ethnography' and devices such as 'technology probes' and 'cultural probes' (Gaver et al. 1996) and 'blogs' (Nardi et al. 2004; Graham et al. 2009).
Author/Copyright holder: Courtesy of Bill Gaver. Copyright terms and licence: Unknown (pending investigation). See section "Exceptions" in the copyright terms below.
Auto-ethnography has generated an enormous amount of comment, both approving and otherwise. Wrapped up in it are postmodern concerns with reflexivity and political objectives and objectification. Hence:
Autoethnography is . . . research, writing and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural and social. This form usually features concrete action, emotion, embodiment, self-consciousness, and introspection.
(Ellis 2004: xix)
Autoethnography is . . . a self-narrative that critiques the situatedness of self and others in social context.
(Spry 2001: 710)
Autoethnographic texts . . . democratize the representational sphere of culture by locating the particular experiences of individuals in tension with dominant expressions of discursive power.
(Neumann 1996: 189)
Autoethnography is a blurred genre . . . a response to the call . . . it is setting a scene, telling a story, weaving intricate connections between life and art . . . making a text present . . . refusing categorization . . . believing that words matter and writing toward the moment when the point of creating autoethnographic texts is to change the world.
(Jones 2005: 765)
It thus might entail personal narrative and experience; poetry, novelistic accounts, and politics. It addresses some obvious themes; that ethnography is never wholly 'innocent'; it can be used for 'standpoint' purposes (and has been, most notably in the context of disability studies); and it recognizes the essential reflexivity between ethnographer and his/her subject. But then, as Atkinson points out:
The list of ethnographic projects that draw on a personal commitment or accident is a long one and does need to be extended ad nauseam. There is, therefore, no need to rely exclusively on postmodernist rationales to justify such auto/biographical bases for ethnographic work. The ethnographer's identity and the subject matter of her or his chosen research site(s) have long been implicated in one another, and it is not a new development in the field of the social sciences.
(Atkinson 2006: 401)
In passing, a nice (though journalistic) example of auto-ethnography of a kind is Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with my Sister (2002).
One can say similar things about the other fashionable themes. There may well be some practical issues around how to study online behaviour (these are discussed inter alia by Hine 2000; Geiger and Ribes 2011), but they are not different in kind. Ethnographers have always had to contend with communication at a distance; with interrupted observation; with textual or documentary analysis, etc. The problems become unarguably more pronounced in certain circumstances, but they remain the problems of understanding interactional processes.
Much the same can be said of themes such as the 'multi-sited'. George Marcus's "Ethnography Through Thick and Thin" is the canonical text here. Marcus is an anthropologist who has been at the forefront of thinking about the nature of ethnography, the way in which ethnographic materials are presented or conveyed, and what 'usages' ethnography can be put to for some time. He asserts the view that ethnography needs to be understood as always being driven by particular analytic foci. In particular, he wants to challenge the 'realist' views of traditional anthropology (and the Chicago school sociology) by arguing that the future lies in interdisciplinarity. The point he is trying to make (we suggest) is that,
anthropologists have historically conducted their trade individually and this is one of the reasons for the decline in their authority.
interdisciplinarity will produce new analytic 'tropes' (themes or ideas).
Surprise, surprise, we broadly agree (thus far). The move to multi-sited ethnography, according to Marcus, is predicated on a number of factors, of which three seem particularly important:
Empirical changes in the world, notably in the global scope of capitalism and the technologies and artefacts that accompany it.
New forms of interdisciplinarity, and a concomitant crisis in the 'disciplines'.
The necessity for methodological responses that move beyond an apparent gap between the investigation of local detail and the theoretical concern with 'system' or 'structure'.
These general problems reflect significant changes in the modern/postmodern world. The development of new information and communication technologies which provide very rapid information flow; the rise of the 'global marketplace'; the globalisation of 'culture'; and the rise of new categories of homeless 'nomads' in which new 'structures of feeling', identities, or sensibilities become prevalent, have all in some way problematised the single site. Multi-sited ethnography, it is argued, might provide a response to these changes and theproblems they cause in a number of different ways, including prompting a new form of political and moral engagement, innovative methodological treatments, and a more sophisticated relationship between the construal of data and our understanding of the relevance of theory. Marcus outlines a so-called 'multi-sited' approach to ethnography. This represents, he thinks, a return to comparative ethnography, but in a different way:
comparison emerges from putting questions to an emergent object of study whose contours, sites and relationships are not known beforehand, but are themselves a contribution of making an account which has different, complexly connected real-world sites of investigation .... In the form of juxtapositions of phenomena that have conventionally appeared to be 'worlds apart.
Marcus is careful to distinguish two modes through which, "... ethnographic research was embedding itself within the context of an historic and contemporary world system of capitalist political economy." Roughly, these modes correspond firstly to a procedure whereby single site ethnographic work which by other means contextualises the work in the world system. That is, data is collected locally to exemplify, 'fill in', or paint a portrait of a more global theoretical purpose. Less commonly, a 'postmodern' ethnography which moves out from single sites and which 'acknowledges macrotheoretical theories and narratives of the world system but does not rely on them for the contextual architecture framing a set of subjects' (Marcus 1998: 80), is developing. Methodologically, "this mobile ethnography takes unexpected trajectories in tracing a cultural formation across and within multiple sites of activity that destabilizes the distinction, say, between 'lifeworld' and 'system' ..." (Marcus 1998: 80).
That is, multi-sited ethnography is in principle more than simply a methodological development. It plays with the dominant problematic of the social sciences. It is a problematic which is, indeed, as old as the social sciences and which has to do with the relation between structure and agency, and thus between data and theory - conceived in this instance as that of local and contextual detail, collected through some broadly 'qualitative' methods, and more or less 'grand' theoretical narratives. Moreover, a central feature of the problematic remains as it always was: the contest between 'scientific', 'positivist', and 'realist' modes of enquiry and the 'critical' form. In the latter, of course, theory is to be predominantly judged on critical value - the ability to critique and challenge the assumptions of 'normality' and the 'natural' that might otherwise be associated with, for instance, a global capitalist system.
The most important feature of this argument is that the problems of interdisciplinary engagement are not problems of method. Multi-sitedness implies an eclectic approach to 'method', and thus cannot (in any simplistic way) be about remedying the failure of other 'methods'. Nor are they problems of substantive disciplinary specific concerns because the contemporary crisis in those concerns is precisely what leads Marcus to interdisciplinarity. The 'multi-sited' view of interdisciplinarity, then, leads us to reflect on problems of empirical relevance, of conceptual orientation, and of the role of comparison.
Randall et al. have argued that these choices require "a particular open-mindedness about method, a thoughtful selection of concerns, and an artful refinement of disciplinary ... sensibilities." (Randall et al 2005: 82) Our point is tangential to this: debates about these matters are considerably less important than professional interests would have us believe. Since ethnomethodology is fundamentally anti-realist in its convictions, and shares something of Feyerabend's antipathy to method (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Feyerabend), all of these things can be fitted, though not all equally well, to its precepts. The standard is plausibility. When we tell a story about how people in some context organise their work activities, the information they rely on, and the things they are attentive to, we are not suggesting that we have dealt with all aspects of their world; that we have ordered them in importance; got everything right; couldn't have described things differently; or have been scrupulously 'objective'. What we are saying is that ethnography of the kind we practise is a simple thing, despite the protestations of professionals. We present our data in relation to our themes, open them for inspection so anyone can make observations about the degree to which they are useful, valid, truthful, or comprehensive, and say nothing at all about the things we haven't seen or cannot infer through ordinary common sense means. Let the sociologists talk among themselves.
Anderson, Robert J., Hughes, John A. and Sharrock, Wes W. (1989): Working for Profit: The Social Organisation of Calculation in an Entrepreneurial Firm. Aldershot, United Kingdom, Avebury
Ashmore, Malcolm and Woolgar, Steve (1988): The next Step: An introduction to the reflexive project. In: Woolgar, Steve (ed.). "Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge". London, United Kingdom: Sage Publicationspp. 1-11
Freeman, Derek (1999): The Fateful Hoaxing Of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis Of Her Samoan Research.Boulder,USA, Westview Press
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Garfinkel, Harold (1967): Studies in Ethnomethodology. London, United Kingdom, Polity Press
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