Everybody’s an Ethnographer!

Dhruv Sharma has a background in anthropology, has worked in various countries as an ethnographer, and also holds a master’s degree in design ethnography from Dundee University. His doctoral research is concerned with radical digital interventions designed to address issues of loneliness among the elderly. As the title of this piece may suggest, he believes that Everybody is an Ethnographer!

Editors note: Dhruv’s delightful post takes us on a journey that begins with a shape shifting monkey jumping over the ocean on a rescue mission. We segue via the wonderful term ‘lemon difficult’ (derived from twisting the strange English colloquialism ‘easy peazy lemon squeezy’). Finally, Dhruv explains how evolutionary factors have endowed our whole species with a tacit interpretive ability. If everybody is an ethnographer, then perhaps the future role of professional ethnographers is to play a supportive role as facilitator: is our future to act as the opposable thumb to the fingers of humanity?

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.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?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here! and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

Mythology of the ethnographic hero

In the Hindu Mythological story of Ramayana, the evil king Raavana had abducted Lord Rama’s wife Sita. When Rama and his army of monkeys (Vanaras) found out where she was being held captive, they wanted to send someone to find her to check if she was doing okay and to reassure her that Lord Rama and his army were on their way to rescue her. The only problem was that she was located on a remote island. Lord Rama et al. had no means of crossing the ocean to reach her.

There comes a point in the story when Rama and his army have reached the edge of the sea and are wondering if they’ll ever be able to send a messenger across. In the absence of any other means of getting there, they need someone who can leap across the ocean to land safely on the island and still have enough energy left in them to leap back after finding Sita. According to the story, Hanuman (the Hindu Monkey God) was frustrated at the group’s inability to find a way to get there. Unaware of the part he would ultimately play, and the extraordinary abilities that he would have to draw upon, Hanuman was destined to fulfil a crucial role. In the meantime though, he sat depressed in a corner.

Hanuman was born with supernatural powers, including the ability to alter his body size at will and take giant leaps. However, as a child, he was very mischievous and while playing he would often cause disruption to religious rituals. When it became impossible to control and discipline young Hanuman, one sage put a curse on him making him forget the abilities and super powers that he possessed. The curse would only be lifted when Hanuman’s powers were the only viable option. In the aforementioned scene of Ramayana, Hanuman keeps suggesting that he is not able to cross the ocean, but through constant convincing, reassurance and cheering by his peers, he finally realises his potential, the curse is lifted, and he emerges as the hero. Hanuman had the innate ability to perform the task but needed help, support, encouragement and reassurance to lift the curse and to put his abilities into practice.

Cover art from Amar Chitra Katha, a series of graphic novels depicting stories from Indian Mythology.

Although I am a bit nervous about not doing justice to the authentic version of this great mythological epic, my highly abridged version serves as an analogy of my experience within the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training which I will discuss in due course. I came to HighWire with what others have called an embarrassment of anthropological riches: 5 years training as an anthropologist (BSc. Hons. & MSc. Hons.), industry experience managing projects and working as an ethnographer within one of India’s leading design consultation firms, and a Master’s in Design Ethnography with Dr. Catriona Macaulay’s gang of design ethnographers.

Later, at HighWire, I had the opportunity to work alongside researchers from very diverse backgrounds such as Philosophy, Fine Arts, Computer Sciences, Design, Management, etc. and I couldn’t help but ‘observe’ how they went about solving complex research problems. Actually, as many of you are well aware of, a guilty pleasure that we ethnographers love to indulge in is constantly observing and interpreting our own context: the workplace, the cinema, a restaurant, public transport, or wherever else we may find themselves. In all honesty, this is a good way of keeping our ethnographic machinery well lubricated, apart from serving the far more crucial function of personal amusement.  At any rate, my casual ethnography of the HighWirees led me to make an important observation: their work seemed to contain elements of ethnography entirely independently of their academic or professional background and separately from an ‘intent’ to use ethnography.

Now, depending on whether you treat ethnography as a method or a methodology, or if you want to get academic about it – ‘depending on your epistemological stance’ – the ethnographic approach can be broadly divided into two activities: observing and interpreting. I noticed elements of both observation and interpretation in isolation as well as together in the work of my peers. Weisner has pointed out that because all research activity is situated within a specific context, it is ethnographic by default:

“All studies have an implicit comparative frame of reference of some sort – a meaning in a context relevant to some cultural place, whether for the purpose of cultural comparison or not. In this sense, all studies have an ‘ethnographic’ component embedded in them, even if ethnography was not done” (1996 p. 316).

I noticed that many HighWirees were using the intangible and hard-to-explain process of filtering their personal experiences acquired over time in order to devise innovative solutions to research problems. To someone who is familiar with working in a design environment, this intangible process has come to be known as ‘design thinking’, ‘creative thinking’ or ‘innovation’ – pick your buzzword of the moment. While some researchers did it consciously, others seemed to be doing it unknowingly, subconsciously, drawing on some kind of latent knowledge. Some of my HighWire colleagues had been trained in design or in ethnography (or their bastard child, design ethnography – a phrase I use to keep the purists happy). On the other hand, everyone else was doing it too, even without any relevant training. They were doing ethnography entirely ‘naturally’. This distinction is captured by Harry Wolcott when he draws parallels between an ethnographer’s work and “behaviour in which all humans engage all the time, except that the ethnographer, acting in the role of ethnographer, does so more self-consciously, more systematically […] in professional as well as personal pursuits” (1999, p. 180).

During my collaborations with colleagues at HighWire, I – without wanting it – acquired the role of an ‘ethnographic soundboard’. I have sense-checked research objectives, provided feedback on fieldwork plans, ensured approaches were as ‘subjectively objective’ as they possibly could be, stressed the ‘emic’ point of view, and participated in interpreting observations. I am not professing to be the Ethnographic Guru of HighWire – I am not – but I did find myself helping out, supporting, encouraging, and reassuring my colleagues: giving them security about how they generated their ethnographic insights. Basically, I was doing the same job that Hanuman’s peers had to do in order to make him realise his innate abilities and lift the curse.

The Leap

Like all ethnographers, I am interested in stories (fact, fiction, mythology… you name it).  To me, Hanuman’s journey is an ethnographer’s delight. For instance, upon reaching the island where Sita has been kept, Hanuman reduces his size to that of a fly (sound familiar?) so as to observe Raavana’s place and its people (which he burns down later on, but that’s not the point!)

Based on the realisation that everybody possesses some ethnographic capability, either observational or interpretive, I was keen to explore how this intrinsic research acumen could be externalised and put to use, not just by researchers in universities and design departments of large corporate organisations, but by everybody – quite literally! At HighWire, I found perfect partners in Robert Potts and Joseph Lindley who are also interested in stories and how (design) ethnography adapts to both uncovering them and also tell those stories. We thought it would be interesting to test the limits of ethnography, and of ethnographers, by trying to tap into individuals’ intrinsic interpretive capabilities. I’ll admit that at the time it appeared to be ‘lemon difficult’ (for reference see video).

A clip from the 2009 film ‘In the Loop’.

In our ethnographic study, we engaged with the residents of Lancaster to tell us how they ‘perceived’ and ‘experienced’ the city in which they lived. We figured out early on that we wouldn’t get far by conducting surveys, doing interviews or engaging in passive observations. In order to understand what a ‘shared’ view of their city looks like, we created an interactive and inclusive tool that allowed people to express their experience of living in Lancaster. The details of the study, and our tool have been published in our recent EPIC paper: ‘Shared Ethnography of Shared Cities’ (Potts et al., 2015). Our tool facilitated not just data collection by the residents but also a high-level synthesis of their perceptions of the city.

Ethnographic interpretation is a product of continuous synthesis and analysis of field observations. As suggested in the previous post, rather than doing ethnography on Lancaster’s dwellers, we found that we generated richer insights by doing an ethnography with them. This key conceptual leap meant that we not only managed to utilise people’s data collection abilities but we also scratched the surface of their natural interpretive aptitude. The insights that we gathered from our participants, the residents of Lancaster, were based on a synthesis of them and their surroundings.

The Hero’s Crisis

So if everybody is an ethnographer, whether they realise it or not, what do the enlightened ones do, if anything at all? I would like to clarify in plain simple words here that I am in no way suggesting that because everybody is an ethnographer that there is no requirement for professional ethnographers!

As humans, we are naturally very good at making sense of our world. Being constantly aware of ourselves and making sense of our context is hardwired into our brains. In fact, this ability has played a crucial part in our evolution. In the words of primatologist Frans de Waal, “Self-awareness affects how we deal with others. Around the time children first recognize themselves in a mirror – at between eighteen and twenty-four months of age – they also develop helping geared to the needs of others. Their development parallels the transformation during our evolution: self-recognition and the higher forms of empathy emerged together in the branch leading to humans and apes” (de Waal, 2006).

In it’s simplest form, empathy can be described as the ability to be affected by the state of another individual or being. Empathy is not unique to humans, but we appear to be more capable of recognising it, articulating it, willfully employing it, and even investigating it further. Our characteristic ability of being able to identify, recognise and be affected by the state of another being combined with the opposable thumb are crucial capacities that have led to our evolutionary survival and success as a species. Whilst the opposable thumb allowed us to make and utilise tools that ensured we could feed and defend ourselves; interpreting animal behaviour, for instance, allowed us to decide whether to attack or flee or negotiate. By pointing out the evolutionary significance of our ability to interpret the context we find ourselves situated in, I am trying to argue that, 1. people are naturally good at being ethnographers (observing and interpreting), and 2. because they do this all the time, it is seemingly obvious behaviour to them.

The opposable thumb gave us the ‘power grip’ and the ‘precision grip’ allowing us to grab and throw things as well as use tools with precision.

Perhaps uncovering this latent, but extremely valuable faculty should gain more importance in the ethnographic discourse. In my opinion, the role of an expert ethnographer is changing. The way I see it, ethnography was centred on individuals or armchair anthropologists until Malinwoski came along and shifted the focus from personalities and towards ‘people’ themselves. Over the last few decades, ethnographers have begun to occupy a central role in design processes, design investigations, and design departments (Human Centred Design, eh?)

I would argue that the focus should move from ethnographers, back onto ethnography and that in the future ethnographers can play the role of facilitators and capacity builders. It should become their responsibility to build methods, tools and techniques that operationalize peoples’ natural interpretive abilities to help in improving design choices. Ethnographers’ role should be in supporting what people inherently have – somewhat akin to the role of an ‘opposable thumb’ that Cefkin attributes to ethnographers (2010). Opposable thumbs support the other fingers of the hand and give us the ability to grip an object and perform fine manipulations on them. After all, whose role was critical to reaching Sita: Hanuman’s or those that made him see his potential?


Cefkin, M. 2010. Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations, Berghahn Books.

De Waal, F. B. M. 2006. Our Inner Ape: The Best and Worst of Human Nature, Granta.

Potts, R., Sharma, D. & Lindley, J. 2015. Shared Ethnography for Shared Cities. EPIC 2015: Building Bridges. Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Weisner, T.S., 1996. Why ethnography should be the most important method in the study of human development. Ethnography and human development: Context and meaning in social inquiry, pp.305-324.

Wolcott, H.F., 1999. Ethnography: A way of seeing. Rowman Altamira.

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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One Response to “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!”

  1. February 18, 2016 at 11:19 am #

    This is hardly related to the content of your post, Dhruv, but I just saw Hanuman pop up in the media: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/18/hindu-god-hanuman-court-summons-bihar-india?CMP=twt_gu

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