Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]

Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new years with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Suck?” In Part 1, she proceeded to dissect this divisive question with a cultural analysis of academics critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate forms of ethnography. Her post incited a lot of great discussions and surfaced many tensions that have long been difficult to articulate in both communities. 

In this second post of  her three part installment, Sam extends the cultural analysis from her first piece and offers methods that are more fitting for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In her final post, Sam will discuss how to maintain reflexivity in the both the private and academic settings.

Sam points out that research output can be compromised regardless if the ethnography is working in corporate or academic settings. What methods do you use to avoids compromising research in private-sector ethnography or academic setting ethnography? Please share in the comments!

A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography

“The fact that there is no such thing as a perfect anti-sepsis does not mean that one might as well do brain surgery in a sewer.”

— Robert Solow

Robert Solow was an economist, but he could tell anthropologists a thing or two about how to deal with real constraints on the research process. Solow became famous for the “Solow Residual,” or contribution to productivity growth that remains “unexplained” even after careful, empirical analysis. Solow asserted that this unexplained residual was due to technological change.

Is it possible that Solow was wrong? Certainly. Economic growth during that period was accompanied by several other significant shifts, including but not limited to a rise in homeownership, more women entering the workforce, and the elimination of “separate but equal” education systems. Solow could have been wrong in so many ways, but the relevant question is not whether he was right, but whether he contributed insight to an empirically observed phenomenon.

This anecdote is a roundabout way of addressing the question: is rapid ethnography possible? Of course it’s possible. Will it provide us with unequivocal evidence of a given social phenomenon? Will it provide as deep insight as traditional ethnography? Will it be “perfect”?  No, no and definitely no. But, again, the relevant question here is whether it will give us meaningful insight into an empirically observed phenomenon.

How do we ensure this result? Like Solow, we must aspire to have a “sterile operating room,” as it were, by eliminating whatever potentially “contaminating” conditions we encounter. The major “contaminators” corporate ethnographers face isn’t so much a lack of time (see my earlier post) but a lack of theoretical context and a lack of systematic method. When researchers add a robust theoretical framework to their corporate ethnography, short time horizons can be mitigated. By adopting a rigourous, systematic practice, corporate ethnographers can also improve the chances of producing insightful results.

Putting Theory Where It Belongs: In Our Research!

On Day 1 of my research methods classes, I tell my students that research without theory is not research at all, but merely “asking people things” or “noticing things.” These are both useful skills, to be sure, but they mean little without the explication of theory. We must situate your questions within established theories in order to cohere our results.

Academic researchers, of course, take this to the extreme, and tend to reject any research that has not paid sufficient homage to a given set of literature. But I’m with sociologist Herbert Blumer when he says, “Let us renounce the practice of taking in each other’s washing” (Blumer, 1954). By this he means, talking about theory alone is not enough – we must engage with the existing social world through a robust empirical research agenda.

So let us not be slaves to our theory and our theorists. But we must read them. We must know them. And above all, we see our results through their eyes. Corporate ethnographies of social networks are not meaningful unless they understand “the strength of weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973). Studies of luxury brands are meaningless unless they illustrate the concept of distinction (Bourdieu, 1984). Research into consumer packaged goods are empty without a robust understanding of gender performativity (Butler, 1990). Corporate ethnographers will eliminate the “laundry list syndrome” if they refer to theory. This practice of theory also has a happy coincidence of  shortening your time in the field and analysis.

Systematic Practice

We can also improve the “sterility” of our research if we aspire, as much as possible, to follow established and systematic research methods. All too often, qualitative research of all types appears to be simply “asking people things,” but in reality, it involves specific steps. For in-depth interviewing, I typically use Miles and Huberman’s (Miles & Huberman, 1994) techniques for visualizing data, as noted below, there offer 15 different ways of summarizing qualitative data.

Types of Qualitative Displays: Click for Full Size

For ethnography in particular, corporate researchers will be delighted to learn that some academics have heard their call to speed up the techniques of ethnography. Rapid assessment (S. C. M. Scrimshaw, Carballo, Ramos, & Blair, 1991; S. Scrimshaw & Hurtado, 1987) emerged out of health research, and is designed to tightly target a given sample of people, and barrage that sample with a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques (yes, ethnographers do quantitative research too). The idea behind rapid assessment is to triangulate by asking the same question in many different ways with a very specific sample. Corporate ethnographers can adapt this method by including surveys and focus groups in the research design, and by carefully assessing the recruitment criteria.

By including theory and adopting systematic approaches, we can improve corporate ethnography. We may never “take in each other’s washing” to the degree that academics would consider sufficient, but we will – at the very least – not be conducting surgery in a sewer.

How can we be sure we are not in a sewer? In my next post, I’ll discuss ways for corporate and academic ethnographers to practice reflexivity, and to ensure that they are continually aspiring to improve their work.


Blumer, H. (1954). What’s Wrong with Social Theory? American Sociological Review, 19(1), 3-10.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of The Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.

Miles, M., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Scrimshaw, S. C. M., Carballo, M., Ramos, L., & Blair, B. A. (1991). The AIDS Rapid Anthropological Assessment Procedures: A Tool for Health Education Planning and Evaluation. Health Education & Behavior, 18(1), 111-123. doi:10.1177/109019819101800111

Scrimshaw, S., & Hurtado, E. (1987). Rapid assessment procedures for nutrition and primary health care: anthropological approaches to improving programme effectiveness. United Nations University. Retrieved from


8 Responses to “Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]”

  1. January 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    Admittedly, I haven’t yet read Miles & Huberman, but the list of 15 techniques doesn’t get me thinking about compelling, captivating visuals. Visual / information design has matured so much in the past 20 years. Are there really just 2 types (network and table style)? I’ll try to reserve some judgement but my firm uses at least 2 others on a daily basis to communicate qualitative findings that I don’t think fit those. I’d challenge this group to think more broadly about the tools available for sharing data and insights – who says it has to even on paper? Videos? Environments? I think following “established and systematic research methods” isn’t going to do much to improve sterility, if that’s one issue. That sounds a bit like saying we need to make sure we keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it. There is so much accessible creative inspiration out there – let’s broaden our perspective beyond traditional practice to really captivate people with our findings!

  2. Sam Ladner
    January 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    Hi Taylor,

    You are right — these are not captivating visuals. But they aren’t designed to be “client facing” deliverables. They’re actually more for internal analysis. Think of soft systems analysis, for example, which tends to yield very messy and incomprehensible visuals. These aren’t for “show” so much as for thinking.

    I completely agree that we can think more broadly in terms of the final output. I personally use audio slide shows, personas, mental models, conceptual models that are custom designed, etc, etc. I don’t do a lot of video, but that’s mostly because I don’t have a great camera.

    And if you’re wondering, yes, Miles and Huberman’s book comes from a time before we had a lot of off-the-shelf visualization tools.

  3. September 16, 2012 at 2:43 am #

    Sweet blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thank you

  4. sweetjk
    August 1, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    I found this series of posts on Ethnography really clarifying. As a some-times corporate ethnographer I often question the validity of my own findings and those of me team. We are self conscious of the effect of tight deadlines and impatient clients. These posts give some great advice for how to maintain quality (of insights and of engagement) in the face of constraints. Thank you!


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