Beki Grinter

Doing Ethnography without the Ethnographer

In discipline, empirical, research on May 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

While catching up on some reading, I came across some references to consumer research firms’ efforts to do what I can only describe as ethnography without the ethnographer. There are a variety of ways in which this is done. Blogging is one, have people write their own stories about experience in order to understand it better. On the back end use some tools to distill it. I’ve been wondering what the implications of this are ever since.

First, it seems to me that this is part of a trend to make a retail version of a professional knowledge. The migration of ethnography into corporations as their “secret sauce” initially followed the “hire anthropologists or sociologists” model. But it didn’t have too, and apparently it isn’t always following that model any more.

Second, it looks to me like a type of deskilling. If the methods of ethnography (and I don’t just mean the data collection but also the data analysis) have been broken down into their component parts and the ethnographer replaced by technology that seems like a classic case of deskilling. I’m reminded of an article I read in Scientific American a long time ago now by Joan Wallach Scott who wrote about the processes of deskilling as breaking up work into component parts so that it could be migrated from men’s work (in its richest forms) to women’s work to the work of machines. Machines were the sign that the work was at it most routinized.

I’m troubled by this of course, its the type of work that I don’t think can be dealt with in this way, but it is and I am paying attention to the future of it.

  1. […] idea that big data might usher in a new era of automatic research and along with it researcher de-skilling or that it would render the scientific method obsolete did not prove to be a popular sentiment […]

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