Revisiting ethnography - A conversation between Sue Bell and Charlie Cochrane

Why steam came out of Charlie’s ears

Suzanne and I recently took part in a NewMR webinar event ‘New but not Tech’. We were talking about sense making, and about how people make sense of their experiences. Someone asked if that meant that sense making was an ethnographic technique, and I said:

“No, because in sense making what we are interested in is what is going on in people’s heads.”

With steam coming out of his ears, ethnographer Charlie Cochrane of Jump the Fence posed this question in response:

“Is your understanding that ethnography would not include asking people about what went on in their heads?”

We didn’t have time to debate this during the webinar, so Charlie (whom I like and admire, I should say) chatted about it over email with me. With Charlie’s permission, I have summarised our conversation here. I thought it would be interesting to other people who like me typically equated ‘ethnography’ with observation. Below is a short excerpt of our discussion of the question ‘Is ethnography a conversation or an observation?’


"Is my understanding that ethnography would not include asking people about what went on in their heads? Yes it kind of is. I think that a conversational interview even if it is 'in situ' and includes some observation is 'an interview', whereas I think of 'ethnography' as primarily observation of an event as it happens. It’s also the creation of a visual record, with some questioning by the ethnographer about the behaviour “  


I would fundamentally disagree that ethnography would not include enquiring what went on in people’s heads. I’m guessing that your point of view may stem from a common misconception about ethnography that comes from people trying to differentiate ethnography from qualitative research by referencing the toolkits. So people notice that ethnography involves observation and they say, 'OK now I understand what makes ethnography different from qual. Ethnography is all about observation.'

But this is a misconception based on reducing ethnography to a methodology. At a more fundamental level of the philosophy behind it, ethnography, more than any other research method, prioritises the idea of achieving empathy with research participants. This may be achieved via observation but very often involves talking with people to understand them better. So yes conversation or interviews are very much part and parcel of ethnography. So in a commonly used definition of ethnography…

“In its most characteristic form it involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people's lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions - in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research.” * 

So it’s pretty eclectic in terms of what tools you can use. If one thinks of ethnography in terms of trying to create empathy, then you can see how enquiring about state of mind would be something that ethnographers would be very interested in.”

I was surprised by this

Defining ethnography as creating empathy was new to me, though I could see Charlie’s point. My question was though - surely qualitative interviewers create empathy too? It is certainly what we do here. I also wanted to dig a bit deeper in to what it means to ‘participate in someone's life’. So, in classic qual researcher style, in my next email to Charlie I created some scenarios to test out this idea. I asked Charlie which of these were ‘ethnography’ in his opinion.


SCENARIO 1.  A researcher goes to someone's house for a conversational interview, where the researcher aims to understand and empathise with the other person’s point of view – to step in their shoes. In my eyes, this is qualitative research not ethnography. 

It turned out that Charlie agreed. Merely doing an interview in home doesn’t really qualify this as being particularly ethnographic.


SCENARIO 2.  A researcher goes shopping with someone and talks to them about their experiences as well. The researcher is ‘participating in someone one’s life’ - but what if the shopping part took 10 minutes and the talking took an hour? Is it all ethnography? 


"I would describe this as ’a bit more ethnographic’. Maybe if it was shopping for a small item, the shopping only takes 10 minutes. Then I’d be looking to contextualise that shopping experience within other relevant parts of the person’s life."


"OK. You can be a bit ethnographic. I like that."


SCENARIO 3.  What about ...when people take part in an online community where they complete tasks that I set them. Surely they are participating in my life since I have set the tasks? I am calling the shots here. Can that be ethnography?


"I don’t see it like this. Online methodologies can be an important part of ethnography to my mind, though like all methods, they have their limitations. ”


"In my mind, it depends how naturalistic the tasks are. If we are asking people to do what they would usually do – like clean the bathroom or order take away, that’s OK to call it ethnography, but is asking them to create a photo collage ethnography, or a qualitative projective technique?"


"Probably more the latter.”


SCENARIO 4. What about when participants create video/photo record/journals which they upload? For me, the researcher is not really ‘participating’ here either, but it seems like ethnography because of one of my other preconceptions is that I always imagine ethnographers with a camera so I think photo and video journals must be ethnography.


"I’m always suspicious of presenting this as ‘ethnographic’ on its own. Nick Agafonoff calls these kinds of materials 'trace evidence’ to distinguish them from ethnography ‘proper’. Without the opportunity to talk through this kind of artefact with the participant and discuss what it means to them, one is very likely to misinterpret this. 

The camera thing. Definitely ethnography values the visual. There is a whole sub-genre of visual ethnography (which I suppose recognises that there is non-visual ethnography. I wouldn’t say a camera is always essential even though I’m a big fan (still and/or video).


I 100% agree with you on this one.

Yes, guilty as charged.

I had put ethnography into a corner called ‘observation’, and left it there. Revisiting ethnography, I remind myself that:

  • Ethnography is more than observation. Use it when we want to create empathy with research participants, by being part of their lives even for a short while.
  • Online qualitative can lay claim to being partly ethnographic if the tasks are naturalistic. If we are asking to create photo collages, we should be honest with ourselves and describe tasks like this as projective techniques.

So, at the end of all this, Charlie and I decided we should work together more. So let’s see what happens!





Tags: Ethnography