“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.
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.