Serendipity in Ethnography: Some things I learned during my doctoral field research

January 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm 6 comments

During the last doctoral colloquium at the EPIC conference I was going to present some of the findings from my doctoral research. At the last minute, however, I decided that it would be more useful to talk about my personal design-anthropology journey during my ethnographic fieldwork for others to learn from my experience. If you are a veteran in ethnography, this might sound like ethnography 101, but the truth is that all experiences are different, and in my opinion, as an academic, it is always good to reflect on them. The beauty of research, when it is applied, is that all the clean theoretical assumptions can be “dirtied” with the facts of reality. As Herbert Hyman said:

“All scientific inquiry is subject to error, and it is far better to be aware of this… ”

His main message was that is not necessary to conceal error, but to learn how to work with it. If we are dealing with human participants and we, humans, are instruments of research, it would be naive to think that error is not going to be present. We are not in a sterilized lab. Having read a bunch of heavy ethnographic research theory books, and also having undertaken research quests in the applied world, Harry F. Wolcott’s most basic book, Ethnography Lessons: A Primer, was (for me) the only one that approached the truth in the raw. He describes, based on his own experiences, what can go right or wrong in ethnographic research endeavors.

This post covers some practical knowledge gains by looking in retrospective to my serendipitous 8-month ethnographic research with graduate engineering student teams in their university environment. I thought I was completely prepared, as I had read and planned for things to happen in my research proposal, but reality set in once I was on the ground gathering my data. i realized things worked in diverse ways and I just had to learn to navigate each and every situation separately. Considering this is a blog post, I will just go forward and talk about some practical advice and ways to navigate the situation when unexpected or relevant issues come up.


What happens when you are living to close to your subject? When there is no physical or emotional distance? When you are “forced” to watch them non-stop?
POSITIVE: Everybody is around you all the time and you are there all the time, so you can closely observe what’s going on!
NEGATIVE: Everybody is around you all the time and you are there all the time! It can really get tiresome and emotionally stressful (you have to be OK, alert, and responsive all the time). Plus, it can be difficult to keep boundaries with individuals (you are there, so you kind of become “part of the gang”).
ADVICE: Find an emotional outlet. In my particular case, I tried to talk to my advisers and people that where off the field or doing research somewhere else. This really helped me to “zoom out” and to get those “Aha” moments. It is normally just then, when you verbalize your experience to others, that insights come through.

Building rapport can take longer than expected. And yes, books cannot say enough about it, it’s crucial!
POSITIVE: Achieving rapport with the right people can open doors and get you around towards first hand information.
NEGATIVE: It can take longer than what you have expected and it can be tiring [it is not easy to become friendly with people unless they are open to it].
ADVICE: Get to know key people and be strategic about it. Find the people that can help you achieve your goals. It’s better to have one key person than to have a great amount of people that are not to good at articulating observations or feelings. In my case, I found the key informants and the leader of the groups with whom I was working with. They moved the information and also encouraged others to talk to me.
I might add:

  •  Be likeable but don’t come off as disingenuous. Be yourself, but also try to be nice. People don’t want to talk to a grumpy individual! Leave your problems behind entering a conversation with the participants or community you are working with. This is about them, not you!
  • Find a transaction piece that can help to trigger some participant’s initiative overall in their self-reporting information. In my case, I considered that my subjects could profit from some of my photographic material. So I decided to give it to them. Find something that people can be interested in from what you are doing. I am not talking about releasing your fieldnotes, but if you can give something back to those that you are working with [and it doesn’t have to be money] it can become a win-win situation.
  • Become invisible so people don’t feel bothered by the presence of a stranger. How? In my case due to the long period that I was immersed in the field I eventually became part of the landscape.

Normally, people will have preconceptions of who you are. Yes, in many of the situations that you will be faced with, nobody will know you, the “real you”. All they will know are your labels and credentials, where you studied, who you worked with, etc.
POSITIVE: You can become an interesting person to talk to, as they might see you as a provider of external points of view. You can “re label” yourself in order to fit the environment.
NEGATIVE: People may pre-judge you because of your credentials or labels in negative ways. In my case, I was from another discipline entering another academic field, so judgements about my methods or ways of doing things preceded my arrival.
ADVICE: Try to empathize with them: Why do they think that about you? Are they from another discipline [they might have different methods, ways to express data, evidence or knowledge]? Did they have past experiences with someone from any community you belong to? Try to understand that you are the outsider, and just be positive about it! Be open with your methods and your process; try to show them what you are doing so that they understand that not every cloud brings rain. In my case I did a first “sondeo” and understood which were the variables coming into play. I used them every once in a while when giving an update of my process to the community I was working with. I also gave a couple of short lectures on anthropological and design methods I was using and I jumped in email threads where I shared my bibliography to others, so they saw that my assumptions and methods were coming from years of others’ work. Also, my blog helped a lot! They could see that I had done a lot of work as an instructor and an applied researcher! Be transparent, have your LinkedIn, Blogs and Twitters up to date!


There are several things that can go wrong. Some of them can be crucial, like Methods for example. The truth is that you won’t always have time to make a pretest, a beta version or to make a pilot study.
NEGATIVE: That you worked very hard designing or defining particular data collection method does not mean that it is going to succeed. In my case I developed a self-reporting technique for my participants. It was a gorgeous designed booklet for them to take notes on their work. They were excited when they received it, but they never used it!
ADVICE: Try, as much as you can, to test your tools for data collection. Place yourself in the participant’s shoes, mind jargon and behavioral goals in order to achieve clear interfaces in your research instruments. Incentives are particularly important! So try to go to lesson 2 and involve the “transaction” piece in your methodsLESSON 5: THINGS CAN GO WRONG WITH YOUR TECHNOLOGIES
OK, agreed, we are not in the cassette era, which you stumble upon some of the older advice on technologies for data collection in the field. But the truth is that, with all this new so-called technological “simplicity” things are getting more complex!
NEGATIVE: what if you ran out of memory, batteries, or if the device decided to “automatically” restore itself to default settings? You will hardly be happy.
ADVICE: In regards to technology, being cautious is never too much; use different systems to record your data. In my case I go with a Flip [as it records in HD, you can take still shots from the action film], the Iphone 4S [the quality of the mic is outstanding], a SLR Canon Rebel XTI [that I cannot always use because of the noise it makes, but it is great to have some pictures to give back to participants, for landscapes, spaces and for printouts] and a small Nikon Coolpix that fits in my pocket for if I ran out of battery in the others. The analog notebook is always irreplaceable, at least for me, as it provides contextual notes that can help further organization. In case you don’t have time to digitize that later by scanning, you may use the livescribe pen, which scans at the same time you are writing. The only issue with the livescribe is that it uses a particular notebook, and sometimes you need smaller artifacts to put your notes down in a more “invisible” way. On the other hand, is never too much to backup in EVERY way you can. Today you can access an account for free in DropBox or other sorts of Cloud computing. In my case, as I am having too much audiovisual data, I am using Google Drive because it was the cheapest in the market at the moment [compared to Amazon and DropBox]. It is also a good option to partner with your IPAD or Tablet through APPS like Noteshelf or PDF Expert. You can work with your files remotely from there. Both are about 10 USD, but they are totally worth it! Still, keep DVD’s and other sorts of drives so you are confident that your data is safe…

This is when Serendipity kicks in “big time”. In my case, I didn’t expect individuals to upload constantly information that would add to my recorded data. This is not unusual. Today, with the accessibility to technologies and social media [Facebook, Twitter, Wikis, etc], it’s not rare than you can collect thousands and thousands of information through in a variety of ways, overall online.
NEGATIVE: what if you have more data than what you expected to gather? What do you do to make sense of all of that and not to get lost in translation?
ADVICE: Lots of raw data can be good! If you know how to navigate through it… In my experience, not every software or system will be useful for your particular way or needs for organizing your data. That is what happened to me, and in small projects, what happened to my students. My humble advice on this point would be: keep a data log. Define a system prior to your data collection to know where your files are and what do they comprise. Once you leave the field, it can be hard to recall every moment or every piece of information/observation you collected. As I designer, I find that still, qualitative data software is not very powerful in navigating through your data in order to make associations, but that’s another story. Find what is useful for you and your own mental models or particular learning schema.

These are just part of the ideas I collected from my time in the field. I believe every research is a journey, and obviously, every researcher is a traveler in his own way. Just keep in mind that working with people surely implies complexities, wicked problems and unexpected situations. Just let the unexpected play a role, as Wolcott would say, let serendipity play a role.


Entry filed under: Design Anthropology, Ethnography.

Good Primers for new design approaches: some good reads in Design and Thinking (don’t underestimate that comma) Chilenos en Papel: Giving Back to People in a Visual Way

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contact + citing (CC license)

Constanza Miranda PhD(c) design.anthro
* Currently @ DILAB
* Ex.VR @ Stanford's Center for Design Research [DesignXLab]
* Ex.Instructor @ PUC Chile [Design+Engineering]
Use citations ¡Citar es ético!
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Design for Social Innovation initiative by Constanza Miranda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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