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What is Ethnography?
"We are all watchers - of television, of clocks, of traffic - but few of us are observers. Everyone is looking; not many are seeing." Peter M. Leschak.
Ethnography is a stem of anthropology, and in some cases sociology, dealing with human cultures and their scientific descriptions. It is a form of "data collection" involving a number of various methods, including studies of ethnic groups and their formations, studies into their resettlement, group structures and social, spiritual and material welfare and culture. Data collection is a term used to help make decisions about important issues, to pass the information collected onto others and to ultimately develop a wider understanding about a specific topic. Ethnographers use methods such as participant observation, questionnaires and interviews for data collection. Data collection usually takes place early on in an improvement project, and is often formalised through a data collection plan which often contains the following activity.
- Pre collection activity – Agree goals, target data, definitions, methods
- Collection – data collection
- Present Findings – usually involves some form of sorting analysis and/or presentation.
The aim of ethnography is to explore different cultures through writing, observing, analysing and learning. By exploring the different aspects of a specific group in great detail, we can gain a wider understanding of the world in which we live, and when combined with design, we have the opportunity to improve quality of life for a vast amount of people. Norwegian ethnographer, Thor Heyerdahl once said, "One learns more from listening than speaking. And both the wind and the people who continue to live close to nature still have much to tell us which we cannot hear within university walls. ", capturing perfectly the importance of exploration, observation and how necessary it is for us to develop new techniques to learn as much as we can about the world's diverse cultures and groups.
Thor Heyerdahl (October 6, 1914, Larvik, Norway – April 18, 2002, Colla Micheri, Italy)
A Brief History of Ethnography
Ethnography was first recognised and defined in the early 1900s by Bronisław Kasper Malinowski's fieldwork among Trobriand Islanders in 1914. Malinowski was born in Krakow, Poland in 1884 and is widely considered to be one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century. "He was the first to use participant observation to generate specific anthropological knowledge." Malinowski was the first anthropologist to distinguish the methodology of fieldwork. He adopted the use of charts, tables, interviews and observed everday actions to understand different societies and ethnic groups. "Through the acquisition of an outstanding education and many years of fieldwork, he became a very influential British anthropologist and the founder of Functionalism." Functionalism is a broad perspective in sociology and anthropology with the intention of portraying society as a "structure with interrelated parts. Functionalism addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely norms, customs, traditions and institutions."
"There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at once, any savage races lacking in either the scientific attitude, or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them." Malinowski (1954)
Malinowski's study of the Trobriant Islanders of New Guinea in the southwest Pacific was his first field study and the beginning of the development of Ethnography. As is common in Ethnography, Malinowski approached his studies of the native's behaviour with a "holistic approach". Ethnography approaches are "holistic" in that they are "founded on the idea that humans are best understood in the fullest possible context, including: the place where they live, the improvements they've made to that place, how they are making a living and providing food, housing, energy and water for themselves, what their marriage customs are, what language(s) they speak and so on." He examined social interactions such as the annual Kula Ring Exchange, which he found involved "magic, religion, kinship and trade". Malinowski is also well known for discovering evidence that "discredits Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex in the lives of the Trobianders, by providing that individual psychology depends on cultural context." He states that "the functional view of culture lays down the principle that in every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfills some vital function, has some task to accomplish, represents an indispensable part with a working whole" (Kardiner 1961).
Ethnography in relation to Design
"What people say is not what they do." Ethnography and Design are closely linked in that by delving deeper into all aspects of human culture, design can reveal a wider understanding of people and how we make sense of the world. Good design can help connect, inspire, entertain and provoke. As designers, we use some form of ethnography in everything we design. Designers show an understanding of the relationship between "what they produce and the meaning their product has for others." We have to examine and observe people in their own environments in order to successfully design for them. "A designer should care about ethnography because it can help produce more compelling, innovative design that really connects with users - in a way that creates delight." Darrel Rhea. Designing can be improved by paying more attention to whom we are designing for, by gaining a true understanding of the target audience, and by considering the environment and habitat in which they live. How can we expect to design for a world we know nothing about?
Kardiner and Preble, (1961) They Studied Man
http://www.leanyourcompany.com Establishing a data collection plan.
Malinowski, B, (1954), Magic, Science and Religion
Malinowski, B, (1915) The Trobriand Island
Malinowski, B, (1922) The Scientific Theory of Culture