What’s the matter with Ethnography?

Robert PottsRobert Potts is a filmmaker, lecturer, designer, and PhD candidate at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training who takes special interest in a diverse range of subjects including shared narratives, urbanism, and ‘joined up’ thinking. Rob’s doctoral research revolves around an ethnographic study at Hyperisland, a unique type of design school.

Editors note: Ethnographic praxis in 2016 has long since transcended the work of the gentlemen anthropologists from yesteryear. As a designer, artist, filmmaker, ethnographer and lecturer – not to mention PhD candidate – Rob’s work ‘joins up thinking’. In this piece Rob takes us on a journey that shows us how Rob’s unique ability to join up threads of thought informs both his ethnographic practice, and how it may influence the future of ethnography. What can we learn from films like Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’? How does the act of ‘making things’ (i.e. turning concepts in material matter) allow for the development of richer insights? How do intensely emotional experiences (losing a child to cancer, for instance) provide designers and ethnographers with raw materials from which ethnographic nous can be applied, leveraged, and articulated in unique forms? Taking us on a journey via a ‘documentary of the imagination’, through the critically acclaimed video game ‘That Dragon, Cancer’, to Rob’s experience as a filmmaker embedded in research projects, this piece explores how matter embodies what matters, for the future of ethnography.

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here!”  and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

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Or we could ask; what is the matter of ethnography? Or; what matters to ethnography?

We all are motivated by purpose; to make things matter. I followed an unorthodox path in discovering the value of ethnography, a path that revealed some intriguing connections along the way. ‘Matter’, of course, has two meanings. A substance of which some specific object is made or a concern, a situation, or even a question. The meanings entwine, physical matter makes up what matters to us most. I want to share how ethnography matters to me and how matter matters to ethnography, and why that should matter to the Ethnography Matters readership.

During my tenure as a PhD researcher at HighWire, ethnographic practice has become central to my work. My research blends several streams. I observe groups of experts collaborating in organisations, usually in creative or technology contexts. I also embed in interdisciplinary research projects as a filmmaker (Coincidentally, we even made a film about Dark Matter). In collaboration with other researchers contributing to this blog series I use ethnography to understand innovation. We use ethnographically derived methods to develop technology strategy and new methods to explore potential futures. Our experiments blend design methods. Our purpose is to do ethnography with, rather than on, people. Three relevant EPIC papers that Joseph, Dhruv and I have co-authored are here (Shared Ethnography for Shared Cities)here (Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography) and here (Operationalizing Design Fiction with Anticipatory Ethnography).

My parallel practice as ethnographer and filmmaker embedded in research projects highlights to me the ways in which we interpret and encode insight. Film seeks to tell an inside story. It also opens us to how people interact through their emotions, expression and creativity. Using ethnography one day and film production methods the next, I can’t help but notice how these practices connect and mutually inform one another. Gathering and interpreting insight involves structuring narratives; opening windows into how people make sense of activity. Editing and coding are both interpretive activities that seek to organise experience into a coherent flow. These narratives aren’t always linear, sometimes they feel like networks. Insights need to be embodied, they need a place to be, usually they are written down; reading matter…


The inimitable David Bowie; the anxiety of writing exemplified. Excerpt from “Lazarus” by David Bowie.

Observing creative collaboration and innovation in action, its clear that sharing insight makes collaboration work; this is enacting an innate organising process. This ad-hoc activity is important in crossing boundaries, and believe me: the ways people see the world can be irreconcilably different. Through stories, we experience one anothers’ lives. This matters in all sorts of ways.

Blending methods into bespoke assemblages and utilising unorthodox platforms as vessels for sharing perspectives provides a powerful method for interpreting and articulating insight. We should interrogate how our community of practice exchanges insight and how it can adapt new modes. This issue is ripe for discussion and I sense this ground is fecund for innovation, particularly as ethnography adapts to new contexts. I shall discuss some poignant examples, but first, let’s unpack ethnography a bit. Ethnography, etymologically, means ‘writing about people’. The literary soul of ethnography is inscribed in the very word. David Fetterman describing ethnography acknowledges this and usefully, his description allows us to unravel some core assumptions and the implied organising concepts;

‘Ethnography is about telling a credible, rigorous, and authentic story. Ethnography gives voice to people in their own local context, typically relying on verbatim quotations and “thick description” of events. The story is told through the eyes of local people as they pursue their daily lives in their own communities. The ethnographer adopts a cultural lens to interpret observed behaviour, ensuring that the behaviours are placed in a culturally relevant and meaningful context. The ethnographer is focused on the predictable, daily patterns of human thought and behaviour. Ethnography is both a research method and a product, typically a written text’. (Fetterman 2010) (my emphasis).

Clifford Geertz borrows the concept of ‘thick description’ from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. For Geertz, between ‘thin description’ of what people do and a ‘thick description‘ of their acts, lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures, a network. Alfred North Whitehead asks us to think about things not just as isolated objects but as concrescence of processes; as a nexus of experience. The richness of human interaction makes ethnography endlessly fascinating but also endless because it is so deeply situated. Exchange of insight and consensus can become problematic. Despite this, ethnography has incredible utility and growing applicability in diverse contexts. Designing requires us to distill insight into the perspectives of users and collaborators to respond intelligently to a task. The desire to garner insight is usually driven by necessity to develop coherent concepts about a given situation. However, Ryle warned us to not equate thinking with using language. Language is an abstraction from experience, and the action of experience cannot be inscribed into language without losing meaning. Other modalities can bear different traces of experience.


Diagram capturing the process of learning new places. Building familiarity and noticing connections is a core source of interpretive insight. From ‘The Image of the City’ by Kevin Lynch (1960)

The above diagram (from Lynch 1960) models one such process, this abstracts the process of getting to know a new place. We learn spatially, moving from isolated pieces, to prominent landmarks, to favourite routes and then finally build a flexible, intuitive relationship to place. Learning through experience is also embodied, social, and connective; different technologies of expression are important for ethnography to embrace both practically and theoretically. People make things and use stories to organise their world: little scraps of paper, scrawled maps, little models. Even the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) began as scrap of paper. The conceptual step that gave us nuclear power, the A-bomb, PET medical scanning and the LHC were all seeded by a humble scrawl. These sketches are fragments of insight into richer inner worlds: they’re traces that signify experience, held outside long enough to matter. Meaning is codified in what we make of matter, articulating the opulence of our inner perspectives. Making things is central to how humans make sense of situations. These things are the matter of ethnography, they turn what matters into matter.

This post takes issue with these basic assumptions and asks if there is room for innovation in how we gather, code and share insight? Orthodox ethnographic practice remains entangled with its linguistic roots, as outputs are usually captured, codified and shared into written text. In an age of networked knowledge and expansive democratization of modes of articulation, the role of different modes (of insight capture, coding and sharing) is foregrounded. It seems important to unpack the strategies we decide to use. At its core, ethnography is concerned with creating interpretive descriptions of cultures and producing insight. How are artefacts important to ethnography and what are the potentials of artefacts as outputs themselves?

Filmmaking processes naturally require the filmmaker to intuitively build interpretive insight. The production process of documentary filmmaking requires grasping multiple different perspectives in parallel. Action, and all its nuance, is inscribed on film. All sorts of embodied information is captured: gesture, emotion, context. They all leave traces. People understand the language of film, whether they are literate or not. They can participate in making insightful interpretations with little training. Moreover, filmmaking processes are founded on interpretative, embodied and cognitive activity. Planning, production and editing are about interpreting lived experience. The action of mining observations to codify into written notes or recorded interviews bears an uncanny relationship to the process of producing a film.

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Gene Hackman making sense of mysterious conversation from multiple sources in Roman Polanski’s film, edited by Walter Murch. Excerpt from The Conversation (1974).

Film editing in particular has deep cognitive similarities to interpretive coding strategies commonly used by ethnographers. Seminal film editor Walter Murch explores this notion in depth. Editing and coding both concern finding activity patterns to make sense of action. He edited a seminal film all about it. Distilling coherent insight and making coherent narrative patterns share common aims. As Geertz used the action of blinking as an example of the richness of human activity, Murch found that his editing relied on gesture as signifiers of tacit insight, venturing that this was tantamount to an embodied mental syntax. Filmmaking and ethnographic endeavors often share processes and aims; they are uncannily similar.

The work of filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, notably ‘The Act of Killing, epitomises filmmaking and anthropology’s intersecting lineage. The film concerns the Indonesian killings of 1965–66 and the actions of local gangsters-turned-death-squad, responsible for the executions of thousands of ethnic Chinese. The protagonists recount and enact their experience of the killings, committing their perspectives (as a defence) to film, they enact their attitudes to the victims for the audience. As the narrative progresses and rapport is built between the protagonists and the filmmakers, they re-enact the murders in the style of their favourite film genres; Gangster, Western, Musical.

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Herman Koto, Gangster and Paramilitary Leader having a moment making ‘The Act of Killing’ directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

They become part of the filmmaking process, acting upon and shaping what is recorded. As real experiences are dramatised, fiction overtakes the form. Oppenheimer refers to this as a ‘documentary of the imagination’. Only when Anwar, one of the protagonists, takes on the role of a victim does the timbre change; he cannot continue. Participating in the reenactment sees doubt emerge in his mind, and elicits a shameful reflection. This emotional narrative is translated into the language of film. The camera is insinuated into a process of self-realisation. Ethnographers often categorise their approaches as emic (an insider account) or etic (an outsider’s interpretation). Film combines the emic and etic perspective, blending them into an artefact that not only communicates effectively to an audience, but embodies a co-produced parallel truth. The documentary process blurs the lines between fiction and reality to arrive at a deeper interpretation of events.

Oppenheimer’s work has its roots in the work of anthropologist Jean Rouch whose shared ethnography relied fundamentally on feedback. Rouch used narrative techniques simply to impose structure on the huge amounts of information and he explored blending perspectives to create a truth together: “A new method of research for ‘sharing’ with the people who, before, were only the objects of study”. Shared anthropology encourages participants to engage in telling their own story, changing their status from the entities to be observed into active stakeholders of their own interpretations.

Harnessing the emotional, empathic realm for intelligent strategy is poorly understood yet its impacts are profound. Research demonstrates how the design of the award winning Maggie’s Cancer Treatment Centre was driven by ethnographic insight. Signage was removed to encourage regular interpersonal interaction and erode the formality of hospital environments. Simple codes like ‘distance from a kettle’ became central to an integrated design because a cup of tea acts as totemic interaction signifying comfort. The human ‘insider’ story leads to change in design decisions that blend functional with emotional considerations. Critical contexts like Maggie’s demand ways to acknowledge profound emotional experiences. When integral to design decisions ethnography becomes a potent tool because it accesses the empathic and emotional realm. When integral to design process, ethnography becomes a potent tool because it accesses the empathic, emotional realm that underpins decision-making. Profound emotional experience can also stimulate an instinct to impart insight.

I was deeply moved by the story of two parents who found a unique way to share their very traumatic experiences. Ryan and Amy Green developed a video game comprising of vignettes of experience of caring for their dying son, Joel.

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A poignent scene from the video game ‘That Dragon, Cancer’ showing its subject Joel (Numinous Games).

They created the video game, ‘That Dragon, Cancer’ to share their experience (an accompanying documentary film explores this further). In response to their situation they intuitively created an environment where a user could ‘put on’ their emotions. Harrowing, often poignant, and sometimes elated they create a ‘cathedral’ of memory and shared interaction. This media object forms a nexus of close interactions with a personality, it blends the inside and outside and becomes a shared experience, it becomes a conduit for empathic insight. This form constitutes the telling of a credible and rigorous story from the perspective of people, capturing patterns in a culturally relevant context, but not as a written text. The ‘worlding’ that film and video games accomplish is too significant to ignore. It signifies an opening, a sea-change in the interpretation and exchange of insight. As ethnographic practice grows and changes, encountering new challenges, realising the potentials of different types of ethnographic matter cannot be underestimated. We are experimenting with different vessels for insight that blend different interactions; in this one, you can dive deeply into the narrative or just float along on top.

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Product of embedded film-making. Interactive Story Artefact for the Catalyst Project built by Ourus. Click to explore further.

Oppenheimer’s documentary, Maggie’s Cancer Treatment Centre, and ‘That Dragon, Cancer’ are each poignant examples of how ethnography can shape what we make of what matters most, fostering the empathetic core of ethnography and pushing the envelopes of practice. The strategies described in each example can be productively adapted by ethnography, giving new responsiveness to design interactions based on what matters to people.

So, building acumen in capturing insight about how cultural patterns emerge and take on situated meaning is the ethnographer’s stock in trade: the argument follows that this is also a space for innovation. Different modes of communicating insight using artefacts can perform an important role in bearing insight as people intuitively engage in the shared cultural practice of making things to articulate and interpret their own perspective. Most importantly though, these artefacts are most effective when they are made together. This resonates with the idea that ‘everyone is an ethnographer’; tuning into an innate interpretive capacity that is natural to all people, ethnography gives us an opposable thumb to helps us to grasp and manipulate situations. After all, artefacts and articulating are relevant to our actions. Matter and what we do with it, matters. We can harness this innate interpretive ability to strengthen the veracity and resonance of our insights.

Harnessing the potential of creative endeavours, filmmaking and physical making, affords powerful opportunities to ethnographers: providing more appropriate tools for making sense of and sharing insight. These creative approaches reveal a new interpretation of the purpose of ‘design ethnography’ to extend and augment the capacity of common methods of exchange in the ethnographic industry beyond the written text. By doing so we enriching how we build and share insight, opening new directions for practice. The artefacts we create act as bridges connecting communities of practice. They produce knowledge that is thick and mobile. We can adapt these methods to gather and share insight, involve participants, and enable lasting impact for the knowledge we codify. Making what matters gives us a parallel focus; blending matters into matter.

Investigating how matter can embody what matters, from my point of view, is ‘thick’ with possibility for making an insightful future that matters.

This article is part the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition. Read other articles in this edition and check out past posts. Like what you’re reading? Ethnography Matters is a volunteer run site with no advertising. We’re happy to keep it that way, but we need your help. We don’t need your donations, we just want you to spread the word. Tweet about articles you like, share them with your colleagues, or become a contributor. Also join us our Slack to have deeper discussions about the readings and/or to connect with others who use applied ethnography. Help us bring ethnography to a wider audience.

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