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Ethnography in Other Academic Pursuits

I was lurking and then participating in a comment-area discussion on Rashmi Sinha’s blog this week. Dr. Sinha blogs about about technology and cognition (she has a background in cognitive psychology) and maintains a fantastic website with course outlines and teaching materials related to qualitative methods (among other things).

The post that caught my eye is titled: ‘If it’s ethnography, it’s gotta be right …’. The post is reflections on a recent conference called ‘Conference for Designing for User eXperience’ or DUX. In the post, Dr. Sinha describes a general pleasure with which everyone at the conference discussed and approved of conducting ethnographic research related to technology design. Dr. Sinha is critical of the lack of critique of the methods and writes:

… it did strike me that no one (I did miss /get distracted during a few presentations) ever talks about when ethnographic research lead them astray, or a product concept that does not generalize, or ideas that do not validate. If its ethnography, its gotta be right!

It’s an interesting comment when considering qualitative methods more generally and one which I reacted to in the comments suggesting that anthropologists have been highly critical of ethnographic subjectivities. Frankly, I was caught off guard by the comment because so many of my students (and non-anthropology friends) find that qualitative research is not as rigourous as quantitative methods … it is harder to prove that it is right.

A lengthy discussion of ‘what is ethnography’ has developed after her post. It is worth reading with an eye to how other disciplines characterize and use ethnographic research.

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2 Comments

  1. Charu wrote:

    Tad, I have said this earlier on your blog I know 🙂 but ethnography is no longer in the domain of anthropologists alone. When I read Rashmi Sinha’s post, I did not think it was to do with the subjectivities of the method but about the fact that the method is used at all without the rigor that it carries otherwise. if that was what was meant, then I guess it simply suffers from the same problem that qualitative research in general does, that of being “person” led – issue with reliability more than validity?
    (am rambling here but have left a comment on Sinha’s post too which you may want to read. thanks.)

    Tuesday, November 22, 2005 at 5:18 am | Permalink
  2. Charu, Your points are well taken, and I may have been reacting more to the comments on Sinha’s post than her post itself. I think both questions (or observations) are interesting: ethnography is subjective and there is frequently a concern about the rigour of its application.

    Likewise, I accept that ethnography is being used in many other disciplines and is being applied in all sorts of ways — that is fascinating to me too! By mentioning Sinha’s post here, I was hoping to extend the conversation that she started in large part because I am naive about the ways in which non-anthropologists practice ethnography. I am not trying to defend the boundaries of anthropology as much as I am trying to learn how these methods are being used more widely … perhaps with the benefits of informing my students better and learning new techniques that I can apply in my anthropology.

    Thank you for continuing the conversation …

    Tuesday, November 22, 2005 at 2:45 pm | Permalink