Guide Doing Design Ethnography: 0 (Human–Computer Interaction Series)

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The theoretical and methodological apparatus of the social sciences distort the social and cultural world as lived in and understood by ordinary members, whose common-sense understandings shape the actual milieu into which systems are placed and used. They argue that systems design can be appropriately grounded in the social through the ordinary methods that members use to order their actions and interactions.

This work is written for post-graduate students and researchers alike, as well as design practitioners who have an interest in bringing the social to bear on design in a systematic rather than a piecemeal way. JavaScript is currently disabled, this site works much better if you enable JavaScript in your browser. Computer Science HCI. Buy eBook. Buy Hardcover. Buy Softcover. FAQ Policy. Show all. Table of contents 8 chapters Table of contents 8 chapters Introduction Button, Graham et al. And it is not difficult. The data is not hard to find, the fieldworker does not need to look for it, it is right there in front of him or her.

And as Sacks puts it, "there is order at all points. For most fieldworkers - for us - these agonies, if they occur at all, are rare and short-lived, soon to be replaced by the very different agony of the 'fieldwork junkie'. Most ethnographers will soon realise that 'becoming an ethnographer' has some interesting parallels with Becker's analysis of 'becoming a marijuana user', such that Beckers' ideas of 'learning to recognise' and 'learning to appreciate' resonates with the experience of fieldwork. In terms of how to behave, while a researcher cannot cope with every personal idiosyncracy, there are some common sense principles of conduct for the ethnographer.

These principles primarily involve recognising that for those in the setting, their commitment to what goes on there is their business, their job - and the fieldworker, no matter what his or her personal inclinations are, must respect this. The point of fieldwork is to understand the social organisation of activities within the setting. This requires stringent attentiveness to what persons have to say and do, for the ethnographer, like Blanche DuBois, is generally reliant on the 'kindness of strangers'.

While this does not require an exaggerated show of interest in the often boring details of what people do - and most working environments can turn out to be boring places - it does require avoiding prejudgements about what is of interest and what is not. The ethnographer accesses 'what is going on' in a setting through the mundane competences he or she has developed that routinely make it possible to learn about new cultures and forms of social organisation.

The apparent 'strangeness' or initial unfamiliarity of a field site has an analytic utility in helping the ethnographer reveal and document the methods by which members 'just do it' when it comes to everyday, mundane work. The initial strangeness of a setting is consequently regarded as facilitating the necessary distance required to 'make the ordinary extra-ordinary' enabling the ethnographer to render the familiar strange yet recognisable.

In terms of what the fieldworker collects by way of data, experience shows that this is the least of the problems of ethnography, and anyway it will be dictated not by strategic methodological considerations, but by the flow of activity within the social setting. The 'data' is often lying around in plain sight, but no one has bothered to collect it up. There is nothing special to look for, nothing to find that is hidden. Hughes and Sharrock suggest that,. The ethnographer's job is to listen to the talk, watch what happens, see what people do, to write it down, tape it, record what documents can be recorded, and so on.

The sorts of things that can be collected and recorded include: conversations, descriptions of activities, diagrams of places, job descriptions, memos, notices, graffiti, transcripts of meetings, war stories, and more. It is not that such materials have any intrinsic value; the material is valuable insofar as it can be made relevant or useful for what it can say about the social organisation of activities. Marilyn Strathern suggests that ethnography is "the deliberate attempt to generate more data than the investigator is aware of at the time of collection" quoted in Dourish n. Almost any fool can collect data - it's not difficult to do.

The hard task is to analyse the mass of material and to find out what it all amounts to. This, evidently, very much depends on what you are there to do, who has asked you to do it, and what expectations there might be in relation to output this is arguably more relevant in interdisciplinary contexts such as CSCW and HCI than it is in more 'purely 'sociological work. For us, the following precepts have been useful 'aids to a sluggish imagination'.

Making sense of the materials collected is, of course, not a matter of making any sense or, worse, trying to find the sense of the materials as if they had only one sense. However, ethnographic research is directed toward some research objective. Its purpose is to develop an analysis and an understanding of a setting that has some relevance. While the fieldworker needs to go into a setting with as few conceptions as to what will be found there, this is a posture designed to further a research aim; in this case understanding particular aspects of everyday, routine work.

Given the very varied research objectives that stimulate research, ethnographic methods are utilised, deployed, and adapted in a variety of ways. These ways often depend on very practical or serendipitous aspects of the research process, such as the complexities of obtaining fieldwork access. This variety of uses does not constitute an obvious research typology, such as those that are frequently produced for participant observation studies, for example, the common distinction between overt and covert observation or Gold's typology based on various identified relationships between 'observation' and 'participation'.

Instead it suggests an orientation to a range of practical factors, such as available time 'in the field', and the availability and suitability of existing data. The different uses of ethnography identified by Hughes et al. These categories should not be read as if they were mutually exclusive ways of using ethnography; some of the uses could be, and were, harnessed together and the differences between them should be seen as differences of emphasis rather than as sharp demarcations.

Deconstructing Ethnography

Design is a matter of responding to contingencies of various kinds. Design objectives are various, and this will have a bearing on the role of ethnography. In other words, while not necessarily buying into the picture of the design process as a series of discrete, clearly delineated, and phased steps, it undoubtedly has different objectives at different stages and, accordingly, implications for how design needs to be informed by relevant information about the domain.

The value of ethnography in design is a matter of controversy cf. Anderson ; Plowman et al. This would entail 'design' having a universal character - which it self-evidently does not - and an entirely predictable problem-solution structure, which it evidently does not, and that is why we distinguish design from IKEA furniture assembly. We can only expect ethnography or the sociology that may be associated with it to have a modest utility to design, and the role of ethnography as we practise it is primarily as an 'informational input' into design, and, as such, only one source of information.

The input can be of critical value insofar as it can advise the designer of actual practices of work and may clarify the role that actual practices play in the management of work; matters that may not normally be captured by other methods. In as much as a position on the role of ethnography in CSCW design has emerged, it can be expressed in its ability to make visible the everyday nature of work. As Suchman writes,. This is, in fact, a 'sociologically partisan' conception of ethnography, but it does have the advantage of focusing upon the specific and detailed organisation of activities and, thereby, upon the very activities which designers are concerned to understand, analyse, and reconstruct.

It is the ability of ethnography to describe a social setting as it is perceived by those involved in the setting, the archetypal 'users' , that underpins its appeal to designers. In particular, it offers the opportunity to reveal needs or practices of users which they may not themselves attend to because they take them so much for granted that they do not think about them.

In other words, we are dealing with 'needs' which they cannot articulate because of the bureaucratic or power relationships within which they are placed or because they are simply too busy. As part of the initial process of requirements capture, ethnography is valuable in identifying the exceptions, contradictions, and contingencies of work activities which are real conditions of the work's conduct, but which will not usually figure in official or formal representations of that work.

The assumption is that it is for designers to draw design conclusions from the results of ethnography. The kinds of changes to design that will result from this approach are intended to have an incremental rather than a comprehensively transformative effect. There is no intrinsic design significance to the results of an ethnographic study, for such significance must be relative to the nature of the design exercise itself, to the purposes, conceptions, methods, and plans of those making the design.

Ethnography should be done independently of design preconceptions, distancing itself from the preoccupations, enthusiasms, and orientations of the designer, and refraining from looking at the setting and its affairs 'through designer's eyes'. While there may be a tension between the designer's and the fieldworker's roles, this is a positive feature, something that is hardly likely to be destructive of good design , through highlighting the difference between good abstract design solutions, good practical design, and, ultimately the social and political effects of design solutions.

Dourish In this way, to paraphrase the sociologist Max Weber, we may think of ethnography as being 'design relevant' but not 'design laden'. What seems to be a largely commonplace observation like this has proven controversial. In particular, the relationship between ethnography and design was subjected to a forensic lens by Dourish in his well-known paper, "Implications for Design" and has been robustly criticized by Crabtree et al. It is worth examining this argument. For Dourish, the relationship between ethnography and design has been under-examined. There are two consequences of this.

However, Crabtree et al. We have been at pains to emphasise ethnomethodology's rejection of analytic 'privilege'- that it cannot claim to provide accounts that are 'superior' in virtue of the professional status of practitioners. We can only claim that we do solid, detailed, empirical work that others may not be minded to do for a variety of reasons. The issue in respect of critique is, for us, whether there is any reason to believe that a professional social scientist offers better critique than anyone else.

We do not think so, for to adjudicate such matters would require us to adjudicate in the first place what the grounds for critique might be, and it is precisely the case that those who disagree with us may well disagree as to what those grounds should be. Crabtree et al. Such an argument is and always has been deeply unpopular with professional practitioners of the social sciences. To put it another way, the proper relationship for Crabtree et al.

For Dourish, the issue is less about data than it is about the way in which data is cast so as to serve distinctive and critical purposes. Our view, for what it is worth, is that no strong relationship between ethnography of whatever kind and design has ever been established in the workplace or elsewhere for the simple reason that this relationship is always and everywhere contingent.


  • The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.;
  • Doing Design Ethnography.
  • Doing Design Ethnography: 0 (Human-Computer Interaction.
  • Ethnography | The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed..
  • Doing Design Ethnography?
  • Winds Rising (Windriders Saga Book 1).

Other renditions of this relationship can be found in papers such as Button and Dourish ; Button and Dourish Ethnography originally became popular in HCI and CSCW in the s and s because of its claim to provide a method more attuned to the socially organised character of workplace settings.

This 'turn to the social' in design and the interest in ethnography arose out of dissatisfaction with existing methods of informing design as offering overly abstract and simplistic analyses of social life. Ethnography with its emphasis on the in situ observation of interactions within their natural settings seemed eminently suited to bringing a social perspective to bear on system design. The 'turn to the social' recognised a new kind of end-user, a 'realtime, real-world' human being, and consequently designers turned to the social sciences to provide them with some insights, some sensitivities, to inform design.

The advantage of using ethnographic methods in CSCW for studying work lies in the way it documents the real-world character and context of work and the opportunity it provides to ensure system design resonates with the circumstances of its use. In attempting to document, describe, and account for activities, ethnography seeks to provide an answer to what might be regarded as the essential CSCW and design question Shapiro , 'what to automate and what to leave to human skill and experience'.

If design, as a 'satisficing activity', is more of an art than a science, dealing with messy indeterminate situations and 'wicked problems' Rittel and Webber , then before designers can solve a design problem, they need to understand some basics, such as what they are designing, what it should do, and who should use it and in what circumstances. It was argued that ethnography was the method attuned to gathering exactly this kind of relevant data. That is, there are certain kinds of things that ethnography might normally be said to provide:.

However, the relation between ethnography and any design ambitions has always been somewhat problematic see for example Plowman et al. As with all radical changes in perspective, initial enthusiasm has been followed by rather more critical reflection. While ethnography may have been effective in providing a critique of systems design, it has been less adept at producing design solutions and translating ethnographic insight into good design practice.

Some would argue that simply documenting and describing the grossly observable features of a setting - termed 'scenic ethnography' Button - does not do much neither to inform us about the processual and interactive features of a setting, nor to provide design recommendations see also Crabtree et al. The more cynical, amongst us and we should probably include ourselves in that number would suggest that simply going out and doing some observations is no panacea for the problems of design - as we have said already, but it's worth repeating on the principle that if something is worth saying it's probably worth saying twice , there really is no silver bullet.

Those researchers who have carried out ethnographic studies have long been aware of its limitations when it came to translating ethnographic findings into design recommendations or requirements and have responded to this challenge in various ways. Some have provided a series of tenets to guide the ethnographer Sommerville et al. Others Hughes et al. Others again have seen the problem in terms of the way in which ethnographic findings have been reported or represented and have produced various approaches - such as 'the Designers' Notepad' Hughes et al.

Any number of idiocies and it's definitely more than one have emanated from commentators wishing to discuss the relationship between ethnographic data and the design process. Not least, one might imagine that some examination of what kinds of design, done by what kinds of designer, in what kinds of organizational or other context might be conducted before we make crass judgments about this relationship.

After all, at the outset, the problem space that ethnographies were intended to address was quite narrowly defined - studies of work and organization designed to aid the design of collaborative computer systems. That is no longer true. Even a moment's thought tells us that it is absurd to hold ethnography to account for design decisions if the design space is now so vast. It is hard to think of any human or other context that cannot be designed for. After all, we were involved in evaluative work where we discovered that one of the main uses for a camera technology intended to be a memory aid was held by users to be an opportunity to see what life looked like for cats, dogs, and children Harper et al.

Such decisions are contingent, and may well be out of the hands of both ethnographers and people who might normally be thought of as the designers. Even beginning to get to grips with this issue requires us to confront some intractable problems, and so there are no general solutions to the problem of relating ethnographic enquiry to design - there are only specific problems. It will depend on the many and varied possible uses to which ethnography can be put, the kinds of design team in which the data are to be examined and used, the scale of the project in question, the relationship of ethnography to other methodologies which might be in use, and so on.

In our view, the professional demands of ethnography are exaggerated, and we are equally negative about the way in which ethnography is viewed, more or less unproblematically, as an alternative sometimes the only method. Rather, it is a tool in the toolbox - not only for designers but for anyone who wants to know what needs to be changed and how to go about changing it. Ethnography is always about asking questions such as, 'What kind of problem have we got? How does it manifest itself?

Similarly, at the same time, an interdisciplinary sensitivity requires us to take design seriously, understanding how designers go about solving their problems, identifying candidate solutions, and applying their technical knowledge to them. What any ethnographer ethnomethodological or otherwise seeks to do is establish what questions seem relevant and what might be the best ways of getting robust and reliable answers to those questions. Have another look at Dourish - the implications of anthropological work for design.

Ethnography is not in any sense a unitary method, but is a gloss on various and different analytic frameworks - thus there are, as we have intimated, Marxist, feminist, and postmodern ethnographies. Here, however, we provide some detail of one type of ethnography - ethnomethodologically informed ethnography - and how it can be deployed to discover some of the features of 'immortal ordinary society' or everyday work and life, and then we consider some aspects of the analytic purchase this approach brings to the understanding of 'real time real world work'.

This emphasis on 'real world, real time work' stands in rather stark contrast to many sociological accounts of social life in general and perhaps the everyday world of work in particular. Conventional sociological accounts portray a world in which not only does "homo sociologicus' neither laugh nor cry' Williamson , but does not seem to do much that looks like work either. This appears to be a world in which the practical accomplishment of work - the skills, and competencies that workers routinely and visibly bring to their jobs - is largely absent.

Consequently, although there are many sociological studies of 'work', they often seem to have very little to say about the actual work which goes on within the setting under study - about what makes this work 'bank work' or 'insurance work'. In the process, both the worker and the fashion in which work is accomplished effectively disappear into theoretical abstraction. The desire to be attentive to the work is, therefore, one of the motivations for the use of ethnomethodologically informed ethnography.

In contrast to a common sociological attitude which views specific social settings as sites of generic, abstract social processes, the ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic approach is particularly focused upon the distinctiveness and the specificity of the settings under study. There have been a number of attempts to document the characteristics of 'ethnomethodological ethnography' Dingwall or 'ethnomethodologically inspired ethnography' Silverman Dingwall, for example, outlines the following characteristics: accomplishing social order; specifying actors' models; suspending a moral stance; creating 'anthropological strangeness'; and depicting stocks of knowledge.

They go on to argue how over the years the boundaries between ethnography and ethnomethodology have become blurred, and that recent attempts to integrate ethnomethodology and ethnography Silverman ; Gubrium and Holstein suggest that once pronounced differences may be dissolving into an integrated methodological sensibility. They also say, however, that ethnomethodology challenges key aspects of ethnographic theory and practice, and that it faults ethnography.

This section is primarily concerned with documenting the 'analytic purchase' of ethnomethodologically informed ethnography and, in consequence, its utility for describing and understanding everyday organisational activity. While an ethnographic stance arguably entails some minimum orientation of viewing the social world from the standpoint of its participants, one approach to this is the ethnomethodological one, in which members' methods for accomplishing situations in and through the use of local rationalities become the topic of enquiry.

For ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic enquiry, members and their subjective orientations and experiences are central. Observation focuses on the places and circumstances where meanings and courses of action are constructed, maintained, used, and negotiated. In ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic research on work, the understanding of any work setting is derived from the study of that setting itself, rather than from any highly structured model or theory of work organisation or work processes; that is, it ties itself closely to the observed data, it is 'data-driven'.

A central precept of ethnomethodological ethnography is to aim to find the orderliness of ordinary activities, an orderliness accomplished by social actors, unreflectively taken-for-granted by them and constructed with their common-sense knowledge of social order. The purpose of ethnography is then to display the 'real world' social organisation of activities. Ethnographic studies focus on 'real world, real time' activity, following courses of action as they happen.

This requires showing not just that some setting is socially organised, but to show in detail just how it is organised. The relevance of an ethnomethodologically informed perspective lies in the fact that this respecification of sociology draws attention to the way in which orderliness can be viewed, inter alia , as a feature of the sense making procedures participants use in the course of their work. In documenting how work is socially organised, research reveals facets of mundane organisation, how, for example, individuals are enabled to work because of their awareness of what constitutes their task and its linkages with other tasks - the 'egological' division of labour.

In acknowledging the 'situated' character of work, ethnography displays how even in the most apparently routine activities workers need to use their judgment and discretion in response to the various contingencies that arise. Furthermore, 'real world, real time' activity is not necessarily confined to the specific, immediate, locally bounded situation.

The sense of what a person is doing here and now is dependent on how that activity is situated within a whole set of understandings about organisational processes, institutionalised patterns, and so on. The organisational context, then, is relevant to the work-in-hand, and ethnography's concern with the organisational context of work is a concern for how aspects of the organisation are relevant to and reflected in on-going everyday, routine work.

The organisation is relevant to and reflected in the local work situation as a practical consideration. In consequence, the accomplishment of work tasks involves a range of tacit skills and local knowledge that may be rendered invisible by formal models of processes or procedures, often going unrecognised by the workers themselves; skills which may become visible only when routines or organisations break down and fail to deliver.

When used from an ethnomethodological stance, ethnographic work involves a renewed and unprejudiced look at the phenomena that have frequently become obscured beneath layers of theoretical abstraction and speculation. It sets out a policy whereby.

31. Ethnography

The aim is to observe and describe the phenomena of 'everyday life' independently of the preconceptions of conventional sociological theories and methods. In this approach, observations are 'led by the phenomena', rather than by the concerns and requirements of a particular sociological theory. This means, in effect, that one takes an 'unmotivated' approach to the activities, looking just to see what people are doing, rather than seeking to identify things which are sociologically interesting.

Ethnography in general recognises a great temptation when studying other people's lives to read things into them, but ethnomethodologically- informed ethnography in particular is predicated on the view that the social world is not always organised in ways that analysts and researchers want to find it, and hence resists imposing a prior analytic framework on the phenomenon. This involves dispensing with conventional sociological preconceptions that there are numerous things people are doing which are trivial and not worth observing. These things are trivial in a sociological sense, i.

Ethnography does not seek to explain the orderliness of work activities as the result of factors external to that setting, such as 'power', but treats activities as necessary activities-in-a-social-setting proposing that members display an everyday attentiveness to the socially situated character of their own and each other's actions. The mere fact that people are doing it justifies the attention being given to it by an ethnomethodologically informed ethnographer. In this way the 'false starts', 'glitches', 'diversions', 'distractions', 'interruptions', 'digressions', which are aspects of all activities and notable features of the phenomena, not, so to speak, 'noise' to be eliminated from the data in order to reveal 'essential' or 'sociologically relevant' aspects of the data.

Ethnomethodology: Mike Lynch on Ethnomethodological studies of work in the sciences. In ethnomethodologically informed ethnography, the phenomena are to be studied in their character as 'phenomena of everyday life', as 'everyday' occurrences for those who are involved in the activities in question, and the investigator is, therefore, seeking to ascertain what the phenomena mean for them.

Ethnography assumes that the setting and its associated activities make sense to the participants, and the interest is in descriptions of activities as understood by parties to the setting as opposed to analysts' descriptions. It is not for the investigator to decide what things are, what matters, what is important, or trivial, but to ascertain how things are judged in that way by those who are doing them and to examine the familiarity with and understanding of these matters possessed by those who must live with them. In studies of the kind that ethnomethodologically informed ethnographers make, the concern is with the depiction of 'the working sensibility' of those under study.

The interest is remote from the kinds of general reflections that someone in an occupation can produce, and much more engaged with their consciousness and attention when they are 'at work': what kinds of things do they take for granted or presuppose in going about their work; what kinds of things do they routinely notice; what kinds of things are they 'on the lookout for'; how do they 'tune themselves in' to the state of being 'at work'; what are the constituents of their 'serious frame of mind'; how do they react to the things that occur within their sphere of attention; what objectives are they seeking to attain in their reactions to whatever occurs; and by what means - through what operations - will they seek to accomplish those objectives in adaptation to these unfolding circumstances.

Thus, attention is focused - in a way that is otherwise almost unprecedented in sociological studies - upon the study of doing the work. The emphasis is on 'work in the raw', work as it is done, and in the ways in which it is done in actual practice , as opposed to work in idealised form. The features of everyday social organisation that ethnomethodologically informed ethnography brings to the study of work, technology, and organisations would 'typically' include some notion of the visibility of social organisation; an explication of the world known in common and the intractable practicality of action.

This approach involves attending to the work and the accountable character of work, attempting to take work seriously - that is, as work and not as the manifestation of some grander speculative theory. The ethnomethodologically informed orientation to ethnography begins from the point of view of the social actor acting within a socially organised environment. The presumption of a 'world known in common' is an assumption about the mutual orientation of members of society in the mundane construction of daily life and is treated as a condition of ordinary concerted action.

The relevance of this to ethnography is that the multifarious ways in which the world is assumed to be 'known in common' are apt to be taken-for-granted, to be treated as things that are of such patent obviousness and familiarity that they need not be paid direct and explicit attention. But the investigator is not merely seeking to capture the standpoint and experience of the participant in the setting in respect of the things which that participant might note, explicitly comment upon or pay significant attention to; he or she is also looking to identify those things which the participant is not explicitly attending to, but is nevertheless depending upon.

These are the features of the organisation of conduct within the setting that are 'seen-but-unnoticed', but which have presupposed, taken for granted status. Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography is the study of people who are engaged in practical action.

Towards a Social Methodology for Ubiquitous Computing and Interactive Systems Design

It is assumed that this is the orientation that pervades the world of everyday life. In everyday life, people give priority to getting things done, and their action is, therefore, organised with respect to the necessities of practicality, and they are engaged in doing whatever it takes to get the things done. For that reason, the purpose of observation is to identify the specific activities in which participants engage to deliver some specific end, and the character of those activities is dictated by the 'specificity of the circumstances'.

The essence of practical action is the need to do whatever is to be done under just these circumstances, and therefore it involves the adaptation of the course of action to the exigencies of its circumstances. Hence, the concern of the ethnographer lies in the interplay of standardisation and specificity. The focus is on the way in which those involved in social settings seek to achieve standardisation of ways of acting, so as to engender articulated and structured procedures for carrying out relevant types of social action , but it must, at the same time, enforce and implement these in contingent, unforeseen circumstances that may be more or less tractable to compliance with those very standardisations.

This accounts for the concern with organisational plans and procedures, and with the way in which the 'idealisations' of courses of action and their circumstances must be articulated with 'actualities'. And it engenders the desire to gain fieldwork access to the ways in which work is done in practice , and motivates the noticing of the ways in which people achieve or fail to achieve conduct in accord with the standardisations that they seek to implement.

This gives a reason for putting the exigency and variability of practice into a prominent position in fieldwork studies, one which would be lacking from many sociological approaches because those contingencies and variabilities would not, for that approach, be considered sociologically significant. In advancing ethnomethodologically informed ethnography and contrasting it with other and different approaches in sociology, our emphasis is on 'relevance', on why this approach is particularly relevant to informing ethnographic studies of work, technology, and organisations and pretty much everything else too.

Thus, it is a simple fact that many sociological approaches would not be motivated to do ethnographic studies at all, and that others who were motivated to do so would not - for their own good reasons - consider the practicalities of activities worth noticing. Another point of differentiation is that many sociological approaches are inclined to shift attention away from the activities that are the very business of the setting under investigation.

As was suggested earlier, the case of studies of work is a leading example, for though there are many sociological studies 'of work', they have very little to say about the work which goes on within the setting under study. It is a commonplace sociological attitude to view specific social settings as sites of generic, abstract 'social processes' - for example 'social control' or 'domination' or 'surveillance'.

Sociology's purpose in surveying actual social settings is consequently to minimise the differences between them, to abstract from the data ways that exhibit the commonality of such processes, to make the case that these are generic. The ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic approach, in contrast, is particularly focused upon the distinctiveness and the specificity, of the setting.

Though there may be abstract, general similarities between one setting and another, it is unavoidable that one in the organisation of practical conduct must come to terms with the particularities of the setting if the day-to-day affairs of the setting are to be carried out. In terms of many sociological strategies for generalisation, the fact that people are engaged in a particular kind of work is only an analytically incidental feature of what they are doing. It is only a concrete instantiation of abstract, generic, and formal processes, which means that there is little investigative motivation to attend to the practicalities of work activities and to the nature of those activities as realisations of the kind of work that they are.

In contrast, the ethnomethodologically informed approach has every reason to attend to the distinct character of the work in the setting; e. Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography directs its attentions to the activities which specifically and distinctively comprise those particular types of activity, and, thus, tries to give detailed characterisations of, and to seek to understand the particular circumstantial conditions for, carrying out those activities in actual cases.

The relevance of this to our understanding of work, technology, and organisations has been, then, in the engendering of studies directed toward understanding how the work gets done, and thus to describing the detail and intricacies of working practices for their own sake. Ethnography is interested to understand how people make sense of mundane activities and how they make those activities 'accountable' to others.

For ethnomethodologists, how people go about making sense of the social world represent mechanisms through which social structure is created, ordered, and sustained. As the social order is continually constructed and reconstructed, members, as 'practical sociologists' are involved in a constant, if taken for granted, process of analysis, so that they are able to act successfully in relation to others for everyday practical purposes. Members must be able to make the social organisation of their mundane activities visible, 'accountable', 'observable-reportable' to each other.

The methods that members use to make sense of what is going on are publicly available resources for the observer. Consequently, ethnography is particularly attuned to revealing cooperative aspects of working life - how people reconfigure their arrangements in the face of contingencies and circumstances as they arise.

Social activities are 'concerted' activities involving different people - often very many people - fitting their activities together in quite complex patterns from within the activity itself. The expression 'accountable character of activities' refers to this process of concerting work to the way in which people engaged in an activity have to organise their own actions in order that other participants can see what they are doing, and can adapt to it.

Participants in social actions have, therefore, to 'make visible' the identity of their actions, to enable other people to identify those actions, and to identify also their purposes and intentions in a way that they can response appropriately to them. This enables them to align their own actions, reciprocally, in the activity that they are jointly, collectively, accomplishing. So, for example, a bank robbery is a collective endeavour in which both the robber and the cashier have to recognise, and make recognisable, their respective roles. The notion of the 'accountable character of activities' emphasises the degree to which activities are organised so as to be identified, recognised, and understood as the activities that they are.

The important point is that other people can see what is being done and, thus, consider how they can respond appropriately to align their own actions in the unfolding drama. That social activities are concerted is a commonplace, if not the raison d'etre , of sociology. However, the concern to understand just how such concerting takes place as opposed to why such concerting takes place , how people manage to make their activities fit together whilst doing those same activities, appears in the province of ethnomethodology.

Its concern with the question of how concerted actions are concerted, and the associated emphasis upon the 'accountable character' of work, has combined to give studies a focus upon the ways in which the pattern of complex activities are 'made visible' to those carrying out those activities. And, simultaneously, they focus upon the ways in which people placed within some complex of action can figure out what is happening around them and how they can fit their own activities into that complex; both when the pattern of activity is a localised one, within their visual field, and the participants can directly monitor those activities which are relevant to their decision as to what to do next, and when they are engaged in patterns of distributed activities.

The emphasis upon the 'accountable character of activities' explains another relevant aspect of this approach to fieldwork, the focus on cooperative work - the concerting and the articulation of activities work from within the activities work. This involves an interest in how work is accomplished under distributed conditions and of the role of 'awareness', which refers to the ways in which workers can attune themselves to the state of the work process, and integrate their own activities - immediately or remotely - with those of other participants in the work process.

This explication of sense making machinery has often invoked work activity as a manifest 'working division of labour' Anderson et al Ethnography seeks to understand the organisation of work, its flow, and the division of labour from the point of view of those involved in the work. Because work settings are organised around, through, and within a division of labour, work activities are necessarily seen as interdependent. Understanding how members coordinate their work in real time, moment-by-moment and how they orient to the 'working division of labour' to make sense of what they are doing Anderson et al is a feature of ethnographic explication.

Ethnography approaches the flow of work rather than the disembodied idealisations of 'workflow' as an accomplishment, a collective achievement. Consequently, it requires examining the actual flow of work, not some idealised version of it. Individuals perform their tasks within the context of others similarly doing their tasks, within sequences of activities, but the actual work requires individuals to determine and dispay how their work fits into their responsibilities, their relevances, and how this will fit with that of others. Anderson et al call this an 'egological' viewpoint; a view of the world of work and its organisation from the perspective of individuals cooperating and coordinating their activities with others.

While individual workers have individual tasks to perform, they are also, and necessarily, individuals-as-part-of-a-collectivity, and much of their work consists in the ability to organise the distribution of individual tasks into an ongoing assemblage of activities within a 'working division of labour'. Individuals, that is, orient to their work according to 'egological' principles and their own 'horizons of relevance' but have to be attentive to the work of others in order to organise the flow of work in a coherent way.

This focus has arguably provided an important analytic tool for the examination of work as lived experience, providing important clues as to both how work was accomplished and, perhaps, why work was done the way it was. Within sociology, ethnography has been deployed to study an array of topics. In CSCW it has primarily focused upon the study of work and settings for which new technology is being designed with the intention of informing that design Hughes, Randall, and Shapiro ; Heath and Luff ; Suchman Ethnography, and especially ethnomethodologically informed ethnography, has acquired some prominence not to say notoriety in recent years within the study of CSCW.

Ethnography has gained some distinction as a fieldwork method that could contribute both to a general understanding of systems in use in a variety of contexts and to the design of distributed and shared systems Hughes and King Efforts to incorporate ethnography into the system design process have had much to do with the unfortunately belated realisation, mainly among system designers, that the success of design has much to do, though in complex ways, with the social context of system use.

A number of well publicised 'disasters' The London Ambulance System, the Taurus System for the Stock Exchange, for example suggested that traditional methods of requirements elicitation were inadequate, or in need of supplementation, by methods better designed to bring out the socially organised character of work settings. This 'turn to the social' in design, the interest in the role of social science theories and approaches in informing design, arose out of dissatisfaction with existing methods of informing design as offering overly abstract and simplistic analyses of the nature of social life.

If design, as a 'satisficing activity' is more of an art than a science, dealing with messy indeterminate situations and 'wicked problems'; then before designers can solve a design problem, they need to understand some basics - such as what they are designing, what it should do, and who should use it and in what circumstances.

It was argued that methods needed to be more attuned to gathering relevant data in 'real world' environments; that is, settings in which systems were likely to be used rather than in laboratories or other artificial and remote environments. The 'turn to the social' recognised a new kind of end-user, a 'real time, real world' human being, and consequently designers turned to the social sciences to provide them with some insights, some sensitivities, to inform design. With its emphasis on the 'real world' character of work settings, ethnography is often contrasted with what are commonly regarded as unrealistic and unsatisfactory notions about both systems and the users of systems that tend to be proffered by more traditional methods.

Traditional methods of system design perhaps owe far too much to the needs of engineering, and, as a consequence, important aspects of the 'real world' of work are obscured, misrepresented or ignored. It is in this respect that 'analytic approaches', Task Analysis , or Office Automation for example, are found wanting Shapiro ; Suchman representing an intrusion of the 'engineering mentality' into areas where it is inappropriate. The analytic deconstruction of work activities into ever more finely grained components removes the essential 'real world' features which make them practices within a socially organised setting.

This complaint attacks the individualistic slant of the cognitivism which underlies 'analytic approaches' by acknowledging the implications of the observation that, as already suggested, work is, typically, collaborative. Though performed by individuals, the various activities that constitute work are performed within an organised environment composed of other individuals, and it is this that gives shape to the activities as 'real world' activities.

Thus, the focus of ethnography is on the social practices that enable the very processes that 'analytic methods' identify, but at the same time decontextualise. It is through the social practices that ethnography seeks to identify and describe that work processes are established and are, accordingly, rooted in socially achieved sets of arrangements.

Such an approach also meshes with the growing use of information technologies within working life. As computers increasingly, and seemingly inexorably, are adopted and diffused into the world of work and organisation, there is a growing awareness that the ubiquitous nature of networked and distributed computing poses new problems for design, requiring the development and deployment of methods that analyse the collaborative and social character of work. Systems are used within populated environments that are, whatever 'technological' characteristics they may have, 'social' in character and thus the intent of CSCW to design distributed and shared systems means that this social dimension has to be taken into account.

Requirements elicitation has to be informed by an analysis of the 'real world' circumstances of work and its organisation Goguen The virtue of ethnographic approaches comes from the 'grounded' recognition that computers are enmeshed into a system of working as instruments and incorporated in highly particular ways - used, misused, modified, circumvented, rejected - into the flow of work. One of the virtues of ethnography lies in revealing these myriad usages in the context of 'real world' work settings; furthermore being. The advantages of using ethnographic methods in CSCW for studying work lie in the 'sensitising' it promotes to the real world character and context of work, i.

In attempting not only to document or describe activities but also in accounting for them, ethnography seeks to answer what might be regarded as an essential CSCW question as to what to automate and what to leave to human skill and experience.


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Ethnographic methods thereby assist in the delineation of work design 'problems' as a consequence of greater knowledge of the social organisation of work - the recognition that 'problems' need to be placed and resolved within the context of the work setting and not some abstract model of the work process. Ethnomethodology has consistently pointed to a yawning gap - the 'missing interactional what? For the ethnomethodologically informed ethnographer, there is no other place to stand in order to document, describe, and comprehend any setting than 'from the inside'. As Garfinkel argues:.

Immersion in the milieu is a, if not ' the' , fundamental aspect of the ethnographer's work, and, in consequence, ethnographers spend considerable time developing 'unique adequacy' - learning to recognise and understand the activities and events that comprised the everyday world of work. In this fashion, the daily, mundane business of work, the conversations, asides, and acronyms become intelligible. In getting to grips with and 'getting the hang of', the life of everyday work, researchers will necessarily learn various aspects of the practices and activities they are investigating - in some minimal sense actually how to do them - whatever 'them' happens to be, quilting, selling antiques, making bank loans, and so on.

In that sense, ethnography presents the 'worm's eye' view of the world - since, generally, there are few conventionally 'important people' in everyday work. O'Rourke reminds us, conventionally important people didn't get where they are by telling researchers the truth - nor should we ever fall for the sociologist's delusion - a variant of the 'Network Anchor-Creature self-conceit' that lets them, "believe Mikhail Gorbachev will suddenly take them aside and say, "Strictly between you and me, on Wednesday we invade Finland.

In some ways this is a necessary feature of ethnomethodologically informed ethnography, since arriving at an understanding of the social order from within requires documenting the 'worm's eye' view - producing thick descriptions of everyday activities, the materials used, the reasoning deployed, etc. The ethnography and perhaps the skill , then, consists in observing and describing how everyday work is achieved, how people observably and reportably act together to produce the objective, orderly, 'reality of social facts'. As Lemert suggests : " ethnomethodology imposes the obligation to study the utterly practical methods by which notoriously ordinary people compose the rational grounds of their social orderings.

Whatever the arguments surrounding analytic approaches to the study of work, the primary challenge would appear to be to develop some vulgar competence in the field. Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography requires looking at how people conduct their work in real settings, interested in exactly how work is socially organised in that setting.

This means looking at the actual working division of labour as routinely and ordinarily manifested in the persons' meaningful orientation to their work, not work as some idealised conception - "the focus is on embodied, endogenous, witnessable practices. Despite some heroic conceptions of the ethnographer, derived largely from social anthropology, the work is fundamentally dull and boring - like work is for most people. The overwhelming emphasis of routine ethnographic work - describing the mundane features of everyday work - comes right up against the fact that work for most people has a generally dull if not unpleasant quality:.

The thankless task of the ethnographer is simply to report in adequate detail how people go about doing what they construe as the things to be done. As such, ethnography is very much a practical activity; the fieldwork material - collected using a field notebook and a tape-recorder - is not dictated by strategic methodological considerations, but by the flow of activity within the setting. It simply involves recording what anyone is doing, moment by moment. Evidently, this does not demand any special or arcane skills for obtaining access and information - just everyday politeness - 'do you mind if I watch you work?

Despite concerns about contamination of data, Hawthorne effects etc. As Hughes et al. The practical and not to be underestimated exercise, then, becomes one of gathering the accumulated materials and assembling them into a reasonable account of the work in the setting as a 'real world, real time' set of arrangements. Like every other ethnographer 'immersed' in a setting, it will probably be your experience that your understanding of that setting, and what was going on within it, will develop gradually over the course of the fieldwork.

Like everyone else, you probably have some vague notions of how 'work' gets done in your particular setting - how quilts are made, how aircrafts are controlled in the sky, how banking is carried on etc. And so you will develop, over the course of the ethnography, a fuller, more informed sense of what the ways of work are and of the character of everyday work in a particular setting.

Ethnography is not a method without problems, many of which have been well documented Randall et al. Ethnography is not, and, indeed, does not claim to be, a methodological panacea; though perhaps fortunately many of the critiques are directed at sociological, as opposed to ethnomethodological, variants of ethnography.

In practical terms, and historically, ethnography has generally been limited to small scale, well defined, and usually quite confined contexts, well suited to the observational techniques employed. Consequently, problems can arise with the method's application to large scale, highly distributed organisations. Similarly, in small scale settings there tends to be a clear focus of attention for the participants, who are typically few in number, and there is a relatively clearly visible differentiation of tasks at one work site.

Scaling such inquiries up to the organisational level or to processes distributed in time and space is a much more daunting prospect. In a similar vein, historically ethnography has been a 'prolonged activity', and whilst 'quick and dirty' approaches have been developed, the time scales involved in ethnographic research are often unrealistic in a commercial setting where the pressure is typically for 'results yesterday'.

Moving out of the research setting into a more commercial one also raises different sets of ethical responsibilities as well as making access to sites more vulnerable to the contingencies of the commercial and industrial world. Ethnography insists that its inquiries should be conducted in a non-disruptive and non-interventionist manner - principles that can be compromised given that much of the motivation for introducing IT into the workplace is to reorganise work and, sometimes as part of this, to displace or deskill labour.

Since the s, and particularly in recent years, the use of ethnography as a legitimate and viable research method has been challenged on various grounds - in particular that it privileges a white, western, male 'gaze'. From within anthropology, ethnography has been accused of promoting a colonialist attitude Said telling us more about the researchers, and their usually his attitudes, than the cultures they purport to describe. Within sociology, this kind of attack and charge - in this case of 'androcentricity' - has been endlessly repeated by various feminist writers Reinharz ; Clough , who suggest that ethnographies have mainly been conducted by males and are about males ignoring the role of women in the social setting.

Clough for example suggests that an 'Oedipal logic' pervades traditional, realist ethnography, an ethnography that is effectively saturated with 'unconscious desire' - the desire to 'probe and penetrate' the world.

Ethnography - Wikipedia

From within the ethnographic establishment, Hammersley has argued that the tendency to treat ethnographic description as involving simple reproduction of the phenomena described is misleading and mythical. He stresses that such description is always selective. Consequently, and following the 'reflexive turn', he suggests that the relevances and values that structure any ethnographic description must be made explicit.

While it may be the case that ethnography retains an incoherent conception of its own goals and may frequently be a vehicle for ideology, such problems can be accepted without abandoning ethnography or its claims to represent phenomena - what he terms "subtle realism". While ethnography has always been subject to criticism from quantitative sociologists, as Brewer notes, it has recently come under attack from sociologists sympathetic to the method - the ethnographic critique of ethnography. This critique questions the reliability of ethnographic descriptions, and shows ethnographic texts to be artefacts, skilfully manufactured in order to construct their persuasive force.

Continuing this line of argument, the postmodern critique of ethnography questions its claims to 'neutral realism', arguing that in writing ethnography, the researcher does not merely uncover or detail reality, but creates it in the interpretive process of creating the text, since 'reality' does not exist to be discovered. The 'textuality' debate has historical roots in philosophy and critical theory, but has recently culminated in the 'ethnographies as texts' movement and a lack of confidence in cultural description, what Marcus and Fischer refer to as a "crisis of representation" and Hammersley as a "crisis of fragmentation" in the ethnographic tradition.

Clifford and Marcus, for example, argues that ethnographic writing is determined contextually, rhetorically, institutionally, generically, and historically, and that these "govern the inscription of coherent ethnographic fictions" Clifford and Marcus, 6.