This is a response to an Anthrodesign posting this morning in which someone blew off my statement about ethnography and theory.
Without going into the entire history of anthropology and/or ethnography, let me state the position that the ethnographic endeavor has always been about making recommendations and initiating change. The difference has always been the positionality of the field in terms of advocating for change (on the behalf of others) or directly making the macro-decisions that cause systemic changes. During the colonial heyday, ethnography shifted from directly making macro-decisions (as colonial administrators) to advocates for others (as they disengaged from the effects of the colonial project that as expressed by Renato Rosaldo’s concept of “imperialist nostalgia” they were responsible for). The guilt over ethnography’s role in the colonial project led the field to focus on the role of advocating for others.
The applicability of ethnography to design is an extension of that project whether the “others” are workers, customers, clients, and engineers. Ethnography’s applicability to design is not the real issue. Maybe it was 10 years ago, but there are too many organizations that use ethnography to good effects. The issue is what is the “metric” by which that value is measured and what implications does it have for the practice of ethnography, and thus directly the true value that it brings to the design enterprise. In relationship to the HCI community, it is an issue of who has the legitimacy to make decisions on par with those in the community that have adopted the “business/design value” metric as the criteria for legitimacy.
There are no inherent problems with discount methods, except when they are executed (1) without knowing what kind of information and problems ethnographic approaches are good for and (2) what it means to really represent an experience from the perspective of the people studied. Whether discount methods are conducted by a Ph.D. Anthropologist or an “untrained” designer, they need to be conducted with the understanding of how they solve specific problems (T his is theory). You need to know when you need to spend one week immersed in a community versus 2-hours rummaging through someone’s refrigerator. And you need to know the trade-offs you get when you make those decisions for the formation of the problems as well as the solutions developed.
To avoid anthro-centricity, in graphic design, you need to know which typographic font is appropriate for the information design of a government form versus a poster for the Lyric Opera. There is a theory behind those design decisions as well, which even “untrained” ethnographers should take in consideration if they are making those kinds of decisions.
And if you spend a year in someone’s home observing their daily behaviors and rituals, yet still model their behaviors based on a marketing purchase cycle (acquisition, conversion, retention); it is NOT ethnography. The CIA does excellent observation, but it is NOT ethnography.
The point is that theory is not a component of ethnography, but rather ethnography is an acting out of a philosophical orientation. A friend once called it “applied phenomenology.” See http://www.phenomenologycenter.org/phenom.htm for the seven widely accepted features of the phenomenological approach.
Theory tells you what are the boundaries by which ethnography can and cannot be effectively applied to design, engineering, education, or public policy. Theory tells you what is the inherent value system by which ethnography can most effectively be measured. Just like the “neutrality” of a font like Helvetica is the criteria which makes it most effective for information design on government forms. The understanding of these theories will lead to more thoughtful and effective research and design, regardless of the area of application. Which does not mean you need to have a PhD in Anthropology, but it means you should be in the “know” about the assumptions built into a practice so that you can effectively address them.