Transforming Ethnography - Reinventing Research[1]

Brigitte Jordan

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and Institute for Research on Learning

Published as:

1997            Transforming Ethnography -- Reinventing Research. CAM (Cultural Anthropology Methods Journal) 9:3: 12-17 (Oct). Also, with same title, in: Groupware - Software für die Teamarbeit der Zukunft: Grundlegende Konzepte und Fallstudien. J. Schiestl and H. Schelle, eds. Marburg, Germany: Tectum Verlag, Pp. 200-212, 1996.

1. Introduction

For the last several years I have been privileged to work with two remarkable groups of researchers and system developers at PARC (the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center) and at IRL (the Institute for Research on Learning, also located in Palo Alto, California).[2] A major interest of these groups has been to develop tools and methods that help us better understand complex work and learning situations in corporate and public sector production and service organizations. Some of us have been pursuing this interest with an explicit focus on technology design, others have been more concerned with a holistic understanding of organizations, work practices, and learning in the workplace. No matter what the focus, all of us tend to draw heavily on methods that grew out of anthropological ethnography on the one hand and ethnomethodology on the other. This means that we rely heavily on participant observation, in-situ question-asking, and micro-analytic methods of analysis, including video-based Interaction Analysis (Jordan and Henderson, 1993).

In many ways, what we do is no different from what anthropologists and other ethnographically trained practitioners have always done: establish relationships in the study site; “hang out” to become as much as possible a part of the scene; attempt to understand what is going on from the inside out and from the bottom up; and feed back that understanding to the people we work with. But we are also becoming increasingly aware of the fact that our work has changed in significant ways from what we used to do. It has changed in methods, in scope, in output, in who we collaborate with, who we are responsible to -- and we are only beginning to understand the magnitude of the transformation. Ethnographic research in industrial work places, whether it is carried out in the interest of technology design, organizational learning, or the motivation and satisfaction of workers and customers, looks and feels different from what we and other anthropologists used to do when we studied small-scale societies like villages and neighborhoods in Third (and First) World countries. And the differences go far beyond location and language.

Our current projects in industry and service organizations impose particular constraints on how we work. We are increasingly involved in having to understand very complex, rapidly changing settings where multiple activities are carried out by multiple actors with multiple agendas, relying on multiple, complex technologies. The requirements of these settings compel us to look for new approaches, new methods, new ways of conceptualizing what our work could be about. But they also offer new opportunities, not the least of which is to make our research relevant to pressing problems in our own society.

I make no claims here about adequately describing the transformations going on in the field in its entirety. What I write about is what the change looks like from my personal vantage point at this particular time -- from the vantage point of a formerly academic anthropologist who used to do community-based research in developing countries and now finds herself deeply immersed in trying to understand change and innovation in industrial workplaces. That view is very heavily influenced by the people I work with, of course, but I do not imagine for a moment that they would totally agree with the sense I make of what is going on. What’s more, for all of us who are doing this kind of work, the picture is constantly changing and our own views are in a constant state of flux.

With these caveats in mind, how might we characterize the transformation? Let me try to lay out, as honestly as I can, and with as much help as I can muster from my colleagues, what it is that has, in fact, changed in the ways in which we do our work.

2. Changing Images of Research

Under the old paradigm[3], the idea was that researchers go out to investigate some aspect of the world by applying proven, reliable methods that would produce valid data and thereby some kind of superior understanding of the phenomenon of interest. The knowledge thus acquired, after a lengthy and complicated verification process, becomes input for decision-makers at the policy level. Verification of results and notification of interested parties happens through publication of academic papers and books, through written reports, and, in limited fashion, through consultations between academics and decision-makers.[4] The process of getting research results back into the policy loop may extend through several years.

In the fast-moving organizational environments in which we carry out our work nobody is willing to wait for scientific validation by outside experts. Given that changes in these settings happen at an exceedingly rapid pace, the old-style validation process is actually impossible. These organizations do not stand still long enough to be studied that way. Practically what that means is that we experience, in most of our projects, tremendous pressure to provide input early on. Typically, a manager will say: “I know you haven’t completed the study. But you’ve been here now for three months (or three weeks, or three days), can’t you tell me anything? What are you seeing? Do you have any recommendations that would help me make better decisions now? “ In the extreme case, we may get asked for advice before we have even begun the project, with the reasoning that we might be able to provide useful input based on experience in other companies.

Under these pressures, our thinking has shifted from conceiving of our work as providing authoritative, scientific input to policy makers to a view of ourselves as partners in the co-construction of new meanings within the organization. Our emphasis is moving from chasing “valid and reliable data” to an emphasis on “making meaning” together with our partners in the organizations in which we work. This means building shared views from which action can be taken, views to which we contribute by making visible the invisible and talking about the unspeakable. From our fieldwork, we attempt to feed the shared view, strengthen the connectedness, stimulate conversations in the company rather than providing authoritative data or advice.

At the bottom of this cauldron, of course, lies the question: should we call what we do “research” at all. Sometimes, people ask us: “What is it that you are doing here? Is it research or is it consulting? Are you providing feedback or advice? Are your funders clients or partners?” And frequently enough, we ask ourselves these very same questions.

The answer we increasingly live with is: “It depends.” And one that increasingly emerges, at least for me, is: “It doesn’t matter. It is whatever it is.” Which is not to say that I don’t care about the question but rather, that what is important is to come to an understanding of how  exactly we do research or consulting or intervention or feedback or advising, and in what ways that has changed from how we used to think of our roles as researchers.

3. Stakeholders and Accountability: Of Community and Identity

In traditional ethnographic work, researchers usually see themselves as primarily responsible to the scholarly community from which they come and to the people they study. At the end, they typically write a report for the funding agency, a number of papers for scholarly journals and, eventually, an ethnography.

How they pick their research topic or the community in which to carry out the research and what makes them decide to apply for funding for a particular project, often has to do with finding a topic “interesting.” This is itself a complicated notion since topics aren’t inherently interesting or uninteresting. Rather, the very fact that something emerges as a topic, and beyond that as an interesting topic, has to do with the ways in which intellectual currents run at the time and the shape of the latest theories to which this issue has a relationship. In other words, in academic research the interest-quotient of a topic is determined by a community of scholars that needs work on this particular topic and is ready to process the results of the research in their scholarly “meaning-making.”[5]

One aspect of the transformation, then, seems to be that in academic research, the community to which we were accountable, who constituted our audience, our critics, our emulators and detractors, was fairly clearly delineated. There was a format, there was a language, there were criteria -- but none of this is true for us anymore. Where our money comes from, who we are accountable to, what constitutes ethical behavior, what constitutes an advance in knowledge, what an argument should look like, what counts as evidence, what is a standard of proof, and, yes, notions of what is interesting and what is not, are no longer clearly defined.

We used to determine our research topics as members of a scholarly academic research community. The new demand on us is to do research generated by the business interests of our partners. For those of us working in contemporary industry, the community to which we belong -- and in whose interest we carry out our work -- has become multi-layered.

That we are accountable to the sponsors of our work is too simple-minded a view. In fact, there are always multiple strata in the organizations we study and multiple levels of accountability. Our funder is usually a corporation who wants to see results that allow it to carry out its business in a “better” way -- be that generating more profits, increasing employee motivation or customer satisfaction, becoming a “learning organization”, identifying its core competencies, or increasing market share. But the conversations we engage in run as often along horizontal/crossfunctional as along vertical/hierarchical lines since we also feel accountable to the front-line workers, supervisors and managers with whom we carry out our research.

At the same time, the intellectual community interested in our work has broadened considerably, from anthropologists and other academics who read ethnographies to a multidisciplinary spectrum of practitioners from sociology, organizational development, computer supported cooperative work (CSCW), social psychology and systems design. Our work also overlaps with that of management consultants and change gurus and as we have increasingly something to say about the latest management trends (such as reengineering or outsourcing) those arenas provide relevant conversational partners as well. So the territory in which we operate has broadened tremendously even as unstudied societies have disappeared and developing countries have increasingly closed their doors to western researchers.

With that broadening comes a need to engage in “conversations”, meaningful interchanges, the co-production of a shared view, collaborative meaning making, with many different “others”, all of whom bring requirements to the interaction that we need to be responsive to. This complexity, this sense of treading novel territory, forms part of the excitement of our work. For many of us there are times when we feel that we are participating in the construction of a new community, a cross-disciplinary collection of people who are passionately concerned with building better learning and working environments.

4. Distributed Teams for Studying Distributed Organizations

Increasingly it is becoming necessary for us to study co-occurring phenomena in distributed organizations. It appears that there is a change of focus and emphasis from sequentially organized accounts and sequential representations of the world to synchronic representations and network-based accounts. Classic ethnographic studies typically followed a community through its annual cycle: the sequence of religious, agricultural, political and production activities and events. What happened first and what happened after that were important ways of looking at the situation. To be sure, linkages to the outside world were also sometimes considered, but I would say by and large were brought in only to shed light on the sequential course of history. Often, historical analysis went hand-in-hand with causal analysis, so that events occurring at time-one were causally linked to events occurring at time-two.

In our current work there is typically little time depth. We often are not in a position to stay at a field site long enough to make that possible. But this itself may be due to the fact that both we and our corporate sponsors have become much more interested in short term, present-oriented analyses of networks and relationships between different parts of the system, than in historical analysis. This is not to say that historical analysis does not happen, only that there is considerably less emphasis and less explanatory value attached to it in our work than in classic ethnographic studies.

One outcome of this network orientation which allows us to understand communication and coordinated action across distributed parts of an organization, is that we have increasingly moved to working in distributed teams, in order to carry out ethnographic work simultaneously in multiple sites. For example, in a study of an airline’s ground operations in a West coast airport, we found we needed to track communications that went out from an airlines operations room to flight personnel, the baggage crew, customer agents, and others. At one time we had seven different video cameras going at the same time in order to be able to track the ways in which activities in one location affected those in others. In that study, the ethnographers were subsequently physically collocated for the analysis, but in other projects we have carried out members of ethnographic teams have been physically separated across the country throughout the project period with the exception of fairly short periodic project meetings.

Using multiple distributed teams is particularly fruitful in geographically distributed, hierarchically organized companies where the relationship between headquarters and “the field” always seems to be problematic. For example, in a “systemic assessment” we carried out for one of the business divisions of a Fortune-50 company, it was eminently clear that we would need to understand how programs and technologies are rolled out from headquarters and how they affect various types of field organizations. As a consequence, we positioned two-person ethnographic teams in a number of field sites at the same time that we had a permanent ethnographic team at headquarters. The field teams stayed in a particular location for weeks or months and were in a position to assess the effect of headquarter communications and initiatives. Similarly, the headquarters team was in a position to track what kinds of communications did, in fact, come back to headquarters from the field and how that information affected headquarters decisions. One important result of this kind of coverage was that we were able to pinpoint some of the reasons for “bad data” on the basis of which headquarters made decisions with negative consequences.

5. Methods and Technologies for Linking Geographically Distributed Team

The new communication technologies, primarily fax, email and voice mail, have made it possible to broadcast information very rapidly and efficiently. This has had a profound impact on how we work.

In classic ethnography, a lone fieldworker might spend the day (or night) at the field site, write up his or her fieldnotes after hours, and send one copy to professor or collaborator back home, either as a carbon in the old days or a computer disk more recently. After data collection was completed, the investigator returned home and began the laborious process of analyzing the data for insights into the state of the world at the field site. There were thus distinct, temporally disjoint stages for data collection, analysis, and write-up. The interactions and conversations the fieldworker had with her or his relevant scholarly community were relatively sparse, drawn out over long periods and mostly happening after the fieldwork was completed. At best, the influence of others’ ideas and insights might change the direction of the analysis but rarely was there an opportunity to affect the course of field investigations.[6]  Essentially, the fieldworker entered the field with a research design and a set of ideas about what the important questions were. Minor deviations and adjustments that occurred because of circumstances in the field had the limitation of being based solely on the experience and judgment of a lone and lonely fieldworker.

Today, our big advantage is that new ideas, preliminary findings, interesting hunches, and predictions to be checked out, are easily spread around. We find that the ability to communicate frequently, regularly, reliably, spontaneously, synchronously and asynchronously, transforms our ways of working and of organizing ourselves and the work in major ways -- at first subtly, but in retrospect quite massively. It becomes possible, for example, for a fieldworker to develop a hunch at midnight in Seattle, broadcast a message on email or vmail (voicemail) to the team, and have input from colleagues on the East Coast by the time she gets up in the morning.

Thus our “sense-making conversations” have become more inclusive and more substantial. With several team members vitally interested in similar issues, the flow of ideas during fieldwork is vastly increased. To take advantage of that opportunity (and to have some hope of not getting swept away by the torrents of information) we developed a set of conventions for working together that facilitate the flow of information, while at the same time reducing some of the information processing load than can so easily overwhelm members of extended teams. In the last few years, we have invested a considerable amount of time and effort in creating methods and procedures that allow teams to work to maximum advantage. In the course of doing this, we have transformed how we do our work. Let me cite just two or three of the dozens of examples of changes in the practice of ethnography.

Single investigators write their fieldnotes primarily for themselves. They write them in such a way that when they later reread them, the notes call up for them the range of circumstances to which the notes merely point. The success of this process hinges crucially on the fact that fieldworkers do not look on their fieldnotes as “data” but rather as a memory aide, as a device through which they can pull up from memory the actual circumstances of particular events in all their richness. For example, a note that says: “Met Rich in the hallway. He said Janelle and Beth had another fight”, relies, for being made sense of, on a hearer who knows about the relationship of the fieldworker to whoever Rich is, Rich’s relationship to Janelle and Beth, Janelle and Beth’s relationship to each other, their past history, the issue of what sort of a fight this is and in what way it is “another” fight. The fieldworker also knows what kinds of consequences are likely to follow, and how important it is to track them. For an outsider, on the other hand, a note like the one above is likely to provide only the most inconsequential information: “Somebody says two people had a fight.” And even if the relationship of the individuals involved is explained in the fieldnotes, it is likely to be forgotten again by the reader by the time these individuals appear in another fieldnote some days, or weeks, or months hence.

While notes of this sort are completely satisfactory for a solitary researcher, we realized early on that the “raw fieldnotes” that fieldworkers bring home from the field, cannot stand up to the demands of being read by multiple audiences. We were also acutely aware of the fact that the repetitive work of disambiguating them carries a heavy price that is multiplied in the case of teams. In that case, it is not one person who has to go back through files or call somebody up to find out the relevant information, it would be every team member who attempts to make deeper sense of the fieldnotes.

So we looked for ways to provide some cognitive scaffolding, some ways of reducing the processing time necessary for making sense of fieldnotes one hasn’t written oneself. As one way of alleviating the difficulty, we developed Templates for Fieldnotes.  Templates remind the ethnographer of the need for minimal context-setting information that s/he should give, such as date, time, location, who is present, what documents were collected (including audio or video recordings made of the interaction) and so on. A summary of the content precedes the body of the actual notes which is followed by the fieldworker’s remarks about the analytic relevance of what s/he observed. As team members become used to the templates as producers and readers of fieldnotes, they can draw on a common set of expectations about what kind of information they will find and where to find that information.

Another adaptation to the requirements of team work was the development of “live” documents. We collected and made available lists such as company org charts, a contacts list, and a compilation of company-specific acronyms to make it easy to search for information readers of fieldnotes were likely to need. Some of these documents require frequent additions and changes (that’s why we call them “live” documents). But when multiple people provide input to a data base or document, confusion can easily result about who has the latest version and who else might be working on the document at the same time. We investigated several kinds of software that supposedly can handle this problem but found that for a large number of live team documents, the low-tech solution of assigning an “owner” was the better solution. The owner of a document is the only person who makes changes. Whenever a sufficient number of changes have been submitted, she broadcasts them on email and puts a new version of the document out on a file server where it is accessible to all team members.

We also developed conventions for commenting on each others manuscripts and fieldnotes, with each team member adopting a particular style, such as [CAPS, UNDERLINED] or [bold, italics] . That way, written material can make the rounds preserving authorship of changes and generating the resources for active involvement in shared sense making.

In spite (or I would say because) of the density and frequency of electronic and voice communication, we have found frequent face-to-face meetings of critical importance. Why this is so is only insufficiently understood. We know that video conferencing has not reduced the need for business travel at all. We also know that each type of remote communication device has particular drawbacks; there are always particular kinds of interaction that it does not support. It may simply be the case that in fieldwork that is aided by computational and communication technologies, the very density and quantity of information requires more processing. And the way human beings process best is in social interaction. As a consequence, we have, through the years, steadily increased the amount of face-to-face interaction among distributed teams, in spite of the fact that it is an expensive proposition to bring eight or ten people together periodically for several days from different parts of the country. However, there is general agreement that such meetings are more than worth the expense. They are in fact crucial for the success of team-based projects.

6. The Essence of the Transformation

There are many, many more changes in our practice that I could point to. Among these, our experiments with embedding project insights and findings in the corporation are probably the most significant. But let me conclude with an attempt to articulate what we keep thinking about as the “essence” of the transformation. What is it that has changed such that many of us feel we are engaged in an enterprise that is fundamentally different from what we used to do?

I believe that the most fundamental change lies in a changing conceptualization of the role of the researcher and the goals of research. In a nutshell, we become co-producers of meaning in the corporate arena, participants in a conversation with people whose daily lives revolve around appropriating new technologies, new processes, and new ideologies at a rapid pace. And the value of our contribution depends directly on our being able to ground our advice, our feedback, our insights in a deep understanding of the reality of the work. The intelligence we contribute to the system shifts, in Varela’s words, “from being the capacity to solve a problem to the capacity to enter into a shared world of significance.


Brown, John Seely

1991       Research that Reinvents the Corporation.  Harvard Business Review. Jan-Feb: 102-111.


Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz and Linda L. Shaw

1995      Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Jordan, Brigitte

1993     Birth in Four Cultures: A Crosscultural Investigation of Childbirth in Yucatan, Holland, Sweden, and the United States. (Fourth edition. Original 1978). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.


Jordan, Brigitte and Austin Henderson

1995      Interaction Analysis: Foundations and Practice. Journal for the Learning Sciences: 4:1:39-103.



[1]  My title plays off a seminal paper by John Seely Brown (1991) that introduces the idea of “pioneering research”, a combination of applied and basic research that cuts across both these categories and combines the most useful features of each. In his view, one role of corporate research is to invent methods and tools to help customers understand how people really work and how technology can help them work more effectively.

 [2]  While I feel responsible for the slant I am taking in this paper, I want to emphasize that the basic ideas are “community property”, having been shaped by a large number of individuals. For the present formulation I want to particularly thank the members of the Workpractice and Technology Group at Xerox PARC and the members of the former Systemic Assessment Team at IRL. Special thanks to Melissa Cefkin, Shirley Edwards, and Lindy Sullivan for critical readings of the manuscript.

 [3]   I do not mean to imply here that there was, even twenty years ago, a single, unitary paradigm according to which all ethnographic investigations were conducted. Nevertheless, there was a clear preponderance of projects that attempted to press ethnographic work into the straightjacket of quantitative hypothesis testing or, at least, of formal model building. This orientation was equally apparent in the funding practices of national funding agencies.

 [4]   In the US, the various Boards of the National Academy of Sciences that provide scientific input to government agencies constitute a prestigious instantiation of that approach.

 [5]   Emerging interests have, of course, much to do with economic conditions and political realities. For example, “women’s topics” became interesting and fundable only after the women’s movement had gained some prominence and power in the U.S. Whole new fields sprang into existence within a few years. My own early work contributed to the emergence of a field called “ethno-obstetrics”, or “the anthropology of birth”, a topic that had not been seen as interesting before then, in spite of the fact that understanding how a society perpetuates itself might reasonably be considered a subject of some theoretical and practical importance (Jordan 1993).

 [6]   A frequent problem was that the researcher found out during analysis that he or she had collected the wrong kind of data. This is one reason why repeat studies of the type “community X revisited”, though rarely achieved, were again and again called for within the profession.