What is ethnography? It’s definitely not something we hear everyday, and it is not something we really notice until pointed out. Merriam-Webster dictionary’s short definition of ethnography is ‘the study of human races and cultures’. Pretty straight-forward right? Essentially yeah, it’s as easy as that. But there are some other things involved in understanding ethnography, like the different methods used to study, how studying humans and cultures benefit us, and also its challenges.
Ellen Isaacs is an ethnographer who spoke about ethnography at TEDx Talks on Broadway in 2013. She explains what ethnography is, how it is conducted in the everyday and how it has evolved. A great example of explaining ethnography is when Isaacs introduces the audience to her recent study of parking in New York City. Although this seems unusual to study parking in New York City, it also sounds obvious that parking on the streets of NYC is problematic with the population and heavy traffic. She explains the term ‘hidden obvious’ as “insights that are obvious only after you point them out”.
“A lot of times when you point things out to people they’ll say well sure it’s obvious that’s a problem, but they don’t think to tell you about it when you ask, to notice it you have to get out and watch” Ellen Isaacs, 2013 TEDxBroadway
Gradually, Isaacs and her team noticed that the main problem that occurred were the parking signs. The complexity of the signs were getting in the way of what a driver wants to know in the few seconds they are driving by, which is the relatable ‘can I park here?’ question we all face in any busy city. Isaacs points out that the restrictions concentrate more on what you can’t do than what you can, thereby studying this Isaacs and her team have come up with a solution for easier parking access in New York City. Although this seems fairly obvious, the signs didn’t come into focus as a problem until later in their investigations. Once the team noticed it though, that’s when it became more obvious. The solution was to redesign the signs to make them more easily read and/or create a more efficient parking meter.
That method of ethnography is called collaborative ethnography. According to Luke Eric Lassiter, collaborative ethnography is ‘literally, to work together, especially in an intellectual effort. While collaboration is central to the practice of ethnography, realising a more deliberate and explicit collaborative ethnography implies resituating collaborative practice at every stage of the ethnographic process, from fieldwork to writing and back again’ (Lassiter, 2005).
Reciprocal ethnography however is quite different and it encourages a giving/receiving method. Lassiter quotes Glen Hinson in his work, saying, ‘Reciprocation entails an act of return, a giving back for something received. In the ethnographic process, this sets up a model of exchange where one thing granted (e.g., an interview) yields an appropriate reciprocal response (e.g., help planting a garden). What this does not imply is constant ongoing discussion, where the project that yields that interview in the first place is co-conceived by both participating parties’ (Lassiter, 2005).
So how does ethnography benefit us? Well collaborative ethnography is beneficial as a group of ethnographers create and discuss the study together throughout their project findings, which in turn helps the receiver (say the people of NYC who need to park) more efficiently. Challenges of this however are not only the length of time and effort it takes to find a ‘hidden obvious’ but it can also jeopardise the nature of the intended study, as Lassiter states, “Collaborative ethnography moves collaboration from its taken-for-granted background and positions it on center stage” (Lassiter, 2005).
Lassiter, L.E 2005, ‘The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography’, University of Chicago Press, Illinois USA, viewed 18 August 2016, http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/468909.html
Merriam-Webster 2015, Online Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, viewed 19 August 2016 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethnography
TEDx Talks 2013, Ethnography: Ellen Isaacs at TEDxBroadway, online video, 01 March 2013, viewed 19 August 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nV0jY5VgymI