Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference


TTricia Wang his month’s theme features a series of posts from EPIC 2103  (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference)and is edited by Ethnography Matters co-founder, Tricia Wang (@triciawang), who gave the opening keynote at EPIC, “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript).

Most ethnography conferences are largely academic affairs and have been ongoing for years. The American Anthropological Association is in its 113th year; the Ethnography in Education Research Forum, its 35th; the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, its 26th; and the Chicago Ethnography Conference, its 16th. In contrast to conferences that are mostly academic in nature from the speakers to the attendees and content, one relatively new conference focuses on the work ethnographers do within organizations: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference), which was held most recently in London from September 15-18, 2013 (draft proceedings of papers & program).

Before attending an ethnographic conference, there is a critical question that must be answered: Why go to an ethnography conference? This is not a trick question. It is something that I have asked myself a number of times. In fact, I had honestly been unsure of the value of such conferences. That is, until I attended EPIC 2013. Let me elaborate…

Consider the hypothetical in which you are a superhero. You would likely want to hang out with a team with different super powers(a la X-Men or Justice League), not a team comprised of clones of yourself. So for most of my career, I didn’t prioritize going to ethnographic industry events. That said, I have attended my fair share of academic conferences such as HCI, CHI, CSCW, and ASA. By and large, I haven’t been overly impressed; the academic rigor of presentations wasn’t always coupled with inspiration and the events could be incredibly sleep-inducing (except for the fun meet ups afterwards where everyone becomes human!). I generally prefer conferences that challenge me to think about the unfamiliar, which shouldn’t be surprising to hear from an ethnographer.

But I can now testify that I have attended my first ethnography industry gathering and I found it very inspirational, indeed!

In September 2013, I traveled to London to attend and speak at EPIC 2013. It was an honor to deliver the conference-opening keynote lecture entitled “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript). While there was some variability in the quality of the presentations, the ones that were high quality were beyond inspirational. Equally brain-exploding were the fantastic hallway conversations with other accomplished ethnographers.

EPIC is a gathering where academic ethnographers and corporate ethnographers mingle as equals. In its sixth year, EPIC “promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings.” EPIC started out with folks who were working at large tech companies such as IBM, Xerox Parc, Intel, and Microsoft, but it has now evolved into a conference that welcomes attendees working in boutique research firms, design studios, and consulting agencies.

There is no other conference in our field that is so interdisciplinary in attendance and ideas. I met attendees who deal with ethnography in every context, including marketing, strategy, design, research, and academia. Simply put, this is the conference to go to if you wish to learn how to make products, services, and organizations that truly serve people.

To capture the memorable presentations, interesting conversations, and useful workshops from EPIC 2013, Ethnography Matters will present a series of guest posts from presenters and attendees of the conference.

We are going to start the series off with Drew Smith’s  personal reflection “I’m Coming Out: Four Awkward Conversations for Commercial Ethnographers ” and will conclude with a condensed version of Ken Anderson’s talk, From Design Ethnography to Ecological Ethnography. In between these two posts, we will have an interview with my fellow keynote speaker, Danny Miller, in which he talks about his new global social media research project.

Also featured will be interviews that I have done with Beatriz Arantes from Steelcase, Alicia Dudek from Deloitte Consulting, and Lisa Reichelt from UK’s Government Digital Services. Additionally, we will have two posts that elaborate on the workshops at EPIC from Andrew Harder and Hannah Scurfield (What we buy when we buy design research) and Mike Gotta from Gartner (Mobile Apps & Sensors: Emerging Opportunities For Ethnographic Research).  Service Designer, Jake Garber, from Innovation Unit will tell us about how they used ethnography to reform social services for families in the UK. Dan Lockton shares his team’s research on using inclusive design to re-imagine energy consumption. We also invited PhD student Mario Campana to share findings from his research on local currency. Brittany Fiore-Silfvast will expand on her and Gina Neff’s talk on data valences. Mary Yoko will recap her team’s huge organizational ethnographic project that delivered strategic recommendations for global supermarket chain, Tesco. Christina Wasson writes up a detailed case study of her research on MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). Lastly, Lionel Ochs from Méthos recounts their ethnographic design work that transformed an entire bus transportation system.

By the end of the month, you will have experienced an outstanding and very representative roundup of the energy and ideas from EPIC. [1] 

To close this post, I will attempt to answer the question I posed in the beginning: why go to an ethnography conference? After attending EPIC, I came up a few answers.

  • Historical memory: As with any field, you need to know your practice’s history. Before attending EPIC, I had already learned so much about how ethnographic research in businesses has changed over the years through discussions with Elizabeth Churchill, danah boyd, Jim Hollan, and Barry Brown, I’ve. But at EPIC I had the opportunity to meet some of the ethnography trailblazers that I have been hearing about for years, such as Brigitte Jordan, Tracey Lovejoy, Melissa Cefkin, Ken Anderson, and Genevieve Bell.
  • Community: The wonderful thing about working as an ethnographer in the era of blogs and social media is that there are online communities in which we can share and learn from and with each other. Ethnographers need these communities because we are often the only ones in a given organization with ethnographic skills. While I love advising clients on how to develop people-centered businesses, sometimes it gets lonely being embedded in large institutions that are unfamiliar with ethnographic approaches. Being at EPIC reinforced the feeling that I am part of a larger community. It was invigorating to meet the founders of two communities that are central to ethnographers: AnthroDesign’s Natalie Hanson and Putting People First’s Mark Vanderbeeken (Experientia). Here at Ethnography Matters we’ve also built a community over the last two years. It was so much fun to meet past guest contributors Sam Ladner (Does Corporate Ethnography Suck?), Mike Gotta (Can Ethnography Save Enterprise Social Networking?), and Alicia Dudek  (Plant Wars Players’ Patterns).
  • Face-to-face meetings: It’s so lovely to have EPIC remind me that meeting people face-to-face is invaluable. As with many relationships, professional relationships also become deeper with ongoing (non-virtual) interactions. For me, EPIC was just another way to meet people that I might not otherwise meet because of distance.  I also got to meet many of the people that I have met online that have become core to my thinking.

I am very happy that my first EPIC was so inspiring! Heinrich Schwarz tweeted that this was the best one do date and I can only imagine how awesome EPIC 2014 will be in New York City (September 7-10 at Fordham University). I hope to see you there! And since it is my home base, I hope to do some entertaining and take you all to the edges of NYC!

Additional reactions and summaries of EPIC from other attendees:


Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:


[1] Not everyone I invited could participate this month. For example, Abby Margolis’s talk on the Personal Data Economy is missing, but she will be a guest contributor in an upcoming Ethnography Matters theme on Thick Data and Big Data later this year. The line up also does not includes Becky Rowe’s presentation on ESRO’s amazing work on juvenile prison system.

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