Doing Ethnographies

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Building good systems takes a lot of mental effort, and oftentimes requires input from people across a variety of disciplines and levels of insight into the problems they seek to address. But the most valuable work we do is often challenging. Running a heatmap study on your landing page and using the results to optimize it is a lot easier than building a whole system for contextualizing it. But if you do the former, how do you really know if the conclusions you draw are valid?

And that brings us to one of the main benefits of ethnographic research:.

What is Ethnography and how does it work?

And by humanizing the people we study, well, it also makes us more human. Rick Damaso, the Lead Researcher at Key Lime Interactive, says a good ethnographic research has three superpowers : empathy, listening, and curiosity. A good place to start is learning more about ethnographies. A good place to start is defining the people you seek to understand, the data gathering resources you have available to you, but remember not to get so attached to your plan that your research becomes set in stone.

Am I doing ethnography?

What assumptions do you have about the situation, the people you seek to understand, or the results you expect to find? We may not always be able to fully identify our biases, but starting from that point puts us in a great place as ethnographers to listen and practice empathy and curiosity.

Understanding the ethnographic processes gives us valuable tools to use in every aspect of user experience research. Sign in. Get started. UX Collective. The importance of ethnographic research in product design.


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AJ Burt Follow. So, what is an ethnography?

Further Reading

Ethnographic research is not qualitative research. Ethnographic research is field based. Ethnographic research humanizes the researcher. Empathy: Ethnographic research asks you, over and over again, to put yourselves in the shoes of someone else. Communication is another fundamental aspect of what it means to be a social animal, and ethnographic research trains us to be good listeners by being attentive to the details of what people say. Curiosity: A curious mind makes for a great UX researcher as well as a great ethnographer. Without curiosity, how can you think outside of the box enough to imagine how things might be difference?

Curiosity is one of the key skills to being able to formulate tests and experiments.

From ethnographers to tourists and back again

So, how do you get started doing ethnographic research? UX Collective We believe designers are thinkers as much as they are makers. UX Collective Follow. We believe designers are thinkers as much as they are makers. See responses 1. Discover Medium. Make Medium yours.

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Become a member. About Help Legal. Thus, the research context is extremely fluid and so informal ethnographic methods always seemed the most appropriate way to get a better understanding of the perspectives of ordinary people, both locals and tourists. He began making ethnographic reflections of the games in and has continued every year to collect historical details, brief interviews with key players and field notes and diaries apart from in when he was travelling abroad.

In spite of his explanations, these positional shifts were most often far from being smooth, straightforward, or long lasting. During the game it was easy for Scott to stop and chat to people who are following proceedings. Similarly, in the pubs and bars, people are in expectant mood, appearing free from normal social constraints and thus open and friendly.

In these circumstances it is not clear how people would position Scott since the research at these points of interaction was covert, fleeting and sporadic and he was likely to appear as just another visitor to the games. It was not necessary or incumbent on him to reveal his position as researcher in these contexts. A great many of the encounters made during the research would include these interactions.

But this created a series of tensions for him in how he felt he was being positioned by his old friends and local acquaintances and led to an adjustment in how he positioned himself in some interaction circumstances. Albeit this fruitful dynamic was generated only in certain occasion, and often only for a certain lapse of time, it led in few cases to a further opening up, disclosure of interests, and reformulation of relationships, and to the establishment of particular friendships characterized by feelings of reciprocal trust and mutuality.

More formal networks of old friends made around the universal availability of mobile phones, who reliably establish contact prior to the game which formalises and adds structure to an intended free-flowing attempt to engage with as wide a range of people as possible. This limits the amount of independence felt and impacts upon the available time to produce further probing reflections.

But also, Scott is aware that potentially at least he is being positioned by them, as Scott, the person they knew from school, or the husband or the father or the friend of someone, or the researcher, or lecturer, or the guy that used to work in the local bar. First of all, as a foreigner, Valerio was granted a far more advantageous proximity to other tourists that most Cubans could have, since he had easy access to tourism installations and had not to worry about police questionings or accusations of jineterismo while engaging with other foreigners.

More generally, this raises the issue of the reciprocity circulating in the relationships between ethnographer and informants. Their focus is on the game not on the researcher, the frame conditions, make it almost impossible to follow some lines of inquiry but open up other, more fluid and flexible means of interpretation and reflection. Similarly, in these circumstances there are endless possible fleeting encounters some of which could lead to fruitful conversations but these are limited to the context of watching the game which is always on the move.


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  6. In these circumstances it was easy to ask questions about these people, who they were and where they were from and what they thought about the game and some other aspects of their being here at the game. This led to similar benefits emerging out of a sense of reciprocity with research informants. Initially since they could all share certain tacit knowledge and understandings about the game and the issues surrounding how it has impacted on them as people and our perceptions of the town and the community identity, the conversations were free from any feelings of obligation, but subsequently, over the years, there are different relationships emerging and a risk in being positioned as an annoyance.


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    6. Scott feels as though there is little he is bringing to them in terms of reciprocity which marks these interactions as different that those of Valerio, where pecuniary or other resources can mitigate to formalise the relationships better. Many of the relationships Valerio had with Cubans who lived in close contact with the world of jineterismo were ridden with this ambiguity. Among these: the fact of practicing other languages; of learning new things and mastering new topics for discussion and therefore also crafting new resources that would be useful when dealing with other tourists ; or the use of tourists to facilitate access and relationships with other tourists.

      Researching the world of jineterismo , Valerio could also perceive factionalisms and a sense of competitiveness in the struggle to get tourists and establish exclusive relationships with them. Whose side should he have taken? These were among the challenges and competing obligations he had to face while doing ethnography among and between potentially conflicting actors. As such, he is someone whom should be interested in the family news, go and visit some friends, meet a new wife or girlfriend and take part in distracted chit-chat, or other extra-familial social obligations which means that there are times when there are more limited opportunities for actually engaging directly with the game and the research.

      As such he feels he is not developing a balanced view of the broad constituency of possible informants as much as he could. Some of these issues relate to the challenges of doing research in highly mobile fields of study. In spite of the very different nature of the two sites, a festival and an international tourism destination, it was possible to highlight similarities both in the ways the researchers approached encounters and in the positioning challenges of participant observation.

      Both contexts threw open both opportunities and limitations for different interactions, opening up possibilities for chance encounters and meaningful observations and interactions. They shaped access to respondents and relationships between researchers and participants. The ease with which access to and encounters with people could be achieved from our taken-for-granted positions and resources, also imposed limitations in terms of depth and the qualities of the interactions made. The situated nature of human interaction meant that we were always aware of the extra-ordinariness of the space and time within which our interactions took place, and were careful to make too bold knowledge claims on this basis.

      In these cases, it was noted that the researchers were shifting between different situated encounters in mobile spatial and social arrangements, taking up salient roles in different situations, each giving access to different views, perspectives, and knowledge. In some interactions covert positioning was inevitable, and in both cases in different contexts a more open position was called for, which created further challenges. Some of these issues arose out of a relational positioning of ourselves as insiders or outsiders. As noted in the analysis, some of these positionings were fruitful and allowed for deeper insights.

      However there are also challenges. Again, what seems important here is to be able to grasp the relational processes of positioning which inform the qualities of ethnographic relationships and thereby generate specific practices and discourses. After all, who ever heard of studying Western tourists? In our case, we both felt the awkwardness and insecurity of engaging ambiguously with our informants, as we struggled to find suitable occasions to reframe and reaffirm our positions as ethnographers. By relating with the subjects of our investigation, we mobilize categories and try to shape layers of new identifications, which in turn may give rise to tensions and generate frictions with previously assumed and taken for granted categorizations.

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      In the different cases each researcher was able to identify mutual benefits from certain interaction contexts, whether that was knowledge of the game or cash and gifts in Cuba. These reciprocal arrangements also highlighted some competing obligations which created difficulties in other contexts. These issues can lead us into the terrain of advocacy in ethnographic research on tourism, something which is increasingly complicated in these research contexts where there is no clearly bounded group with a clearly defined agenda, nor any common line of action.

      As we both tried to shift roles, redefine relationships, and negotiate interstitial positionings, we felt we were being anchored in well established frames of action, which also informed the expectations placed on us. Thus, in both contexts the researchers felt competing obligations towards the informants and the various protagonists involved in the research process, and obligations to the research itself. Instead of downplaying or avoiding these varied and interrelated positioning challenges, we consider that by accounting for them, and by unpacking their rationales, we can fruitfully contribute to further our understanding both of tourism and the practice of ethnography.

      Argyriadis , Kali, Desacatos, 18, pp. Bakhtin , Mikhail, Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press. Berg , Mette L. Focaal ,43, pp. Bruner , Edward M. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Cabezas , Amalia L. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society , 29 4 , pp. Causey , Andrew, Allcock, and Edward M. Bruner eds , International Tourism. Identity and Change , pp. London: Sage. Fernandez , Nadine T. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

      Forsey , Martin, Goodman , Roger, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Goffman , Erving, The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday. Grills , Scott, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. Hume , Lynne and Jane Mulcock eds , Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation.

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