Why doing ethnography is like walking around in other people’s shoes

by Rachelle Annechino and Heather Ford

Ethnographers must walk in sneakers before they can wear heels by experiencing the everyday in the context that they are studying (pic: CC0)

“Ethnography is the eye of the needle through which the threads of the imagination must pass… Experience and the everyday are the bread and butter of ethnography, but they are also the grounds whereupon and the stake for how grander theories must test and justify themselves. They should not be self-referenced imaginings but grounded imaginings.” (from the Forward to The Ethnographic Imagination, Willis)

So you’re interested in technology research and you’ve heard about this thing called ‘ethnography’ but what is it exactly? What does it mean to be an ethnographer? What makes ethnography special? We take a look at why ethnography is like walking around in other people’s shoes.

These are Heather’s ethnographers’ shoes. Green, hardy, useful for going to and also for walking away. If ethnography is a ‘science of the contextual’, it is essential for the ethnographer to be present in the community or context that she studies. Once inside (and sometimes in order to get inside) she might remove her shoes and don another’s. Whether it’s traveling to a physical place or gaining entry into a network (Burrell, 2009) people in the community will see that she’s wearing the shoes they wear but will notice that she is somehow different from them. Her shoes are not walked in enough, aren’t scuffed enough, don’t have the characteristic mud stains from the last flood. And so the ethnographer is separate but still participating; still there with them; still there experiencing how their everyday lives determines how they interact with technology, what they say, who they say it to and why they say it.
An old aphorism advises us to never judge a person until we have walked a mile in his/her shoes. Some ethnographers might say: “A mile is not long enough! Go live in the person’s community, play together, work together, eat meals together, and yes, wear the shoes, for a year at least. You still won’t really know someone else’s experience, but hopefully you’ll have something meaningful or useful to say about it anyway.”

If an ethnographer can’t get inside someone else’s head, maybe s/he can at least get into someone else’s shoes. Since ethnography thrives on both insider and outsider perspectives, it’s sometimes for the best if the shoes don’t entirely fit. Trying on someone else’s experience like a pair of shoes can help us to realize what gets taken for granted within different contexts, why some practices are comfortable or uncomfortable, and how we might interact differently with people and artifacts while wearing these shoes, or these shoes, or these shoes.

Of course, some shoes will be so ill-fitting that we won’t even be able to get them on our feet – and we might never be able to entirely let go of our preconceived notions about what a particular kind of shoe signifies, whether because they are so unfamiliar to us or so familiar. Ideally, an ethnographer engages in “a willing suspension of belief” in the “commonsense world” (Traweek), but also recognizes and accounts for the fact that ideals are infrequently realized.

When we are paying close attention and opening ourselves to others’ experiences, we will almost always be surprised in some way, and we will almost always have to rethink our initial judgments. We will also have uniquely valuable information for understanding people and their practices as they are grounded in lived experience.

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