Saturday, April 19, 2014


A colleague of mine suggested doing an ethnographic study of an organization where he is doing some consulting work. Somehow, the idea of learning more about ethnography caught my attention. I am not sure how this happened. I ignore most things. But, now and then, an idea will get stuck in my head and I can't get it out.

The term ethnography comes from two Greek words which translate, roughly, into writing about people. It is probably better known as cultural anthropology. What an ethnographer does is to move into a foreign culture, attempt to understand it from the inside, and then document that understanding. Historically, the was done by people who wished to understand other cultures from large countries to small isolated tribes. More recently, organizational cultures have attracted attention as well.

The philosophical justification for this approach is articulated in Martin Hollis' The Philosophy of Social Science One of the dimensions that divides the assumptions made by researchers is Explanation vs. Understanding. Those who seek explanation looks for relationships between variables in describing a culture. For example, money spent on one's self versus money spent on others might be a metric to describe a society. Further, if there is a relationship between money spent on others and longevity, then those who seek explanations have found what they are looking for. But, what is it like to live in a culture where one spends more money on others? Those who seek explanation cannot answer that. For that we need understanding. And ethnography is a means of achieving understanding. While researchers holding different sets of assumptions might have harsh words for those holding other assumptions, it really isn't a matter of right or wrong. Different sets of assumptions yield different knowledge. And one can only argue that a set of assumptions is more or less useful in obtaining certain knowledge.

I found ethnography appealing for three reasons. First, the quantitative/technical part of my brain gets tired and  ethnography provides a way to use a different part of my brain when the other part needs a rest. Second, unlike many academics who drill deeper and deeper into a niche, I am quite the reverse. I want to know about everything. Finally, I believe this approach might have great value in studying certain aspect of Information Technology. For example, there are definitely software 'cultures' that produce information systems and those cultures need to be better understood. Further, we see unique cultures developing in virtual worlds and massively multi-player role playing games. And those unique cultures would bear some scrutiny as well. In addition, I think I might be uniquely qualified to do that as it is easier for an expert in IT to learn ethnography than it would be for an ethnographer to learn information technology. So, I am off on another tangent.

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