6 October 2007

Ethnography in Industry: Notes from EPIC2007

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Today is the closing day of EPIC 2007, the third international Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, in Keystone, Colorado, USA.

EPIC is the premier international forum bringing together artists, computer scientists, designers, social scientists, marketers, academics and advertisers to discuss recent developments and future advances around ethnographic praxis in industry. Keynote speakers this year are Genevieve Bell (Intel) and Brenda Laurel (California College of the Arts).

Jeffrey Bardzell, an assistant professor of HCI/Design and new media at the School of Informatics in Indiana University, writes on some of the tensions that were discussed at the conference, on his post on the OTOinsights blog:

“There was an interesting tension that many of the researchers seemed to be facing. On the one hand, their work was being used to help develop models for complex business practices. On the other hand, as ethnographers, they wanted to focus on concrete situations and contexts and the real, flesh-and-blood people within them. From my perspective, one way that this tension got addressed was to work proactively to improve communication between managers (who want the models) and employees, on whom the models are ideally grounded and in any case who will have to live with them once they are developed. Stated more abstractly, the ethnographers seemed to want to make a distinction between managing complex processes (which is seen as good) and implementing rationalist control schemes (which are seen as inhuman and bad).

Another major issue is one of legitimation. How can ethnographers convince managers and marketing leaders to take them seriously? How do they justify their work both intellectually (methods, data, etc.) and also from a business perspective (actually leads to better business processes or products)? Complicating this argument is the perceived conflict between the reductionist, abstract models that managers and marketing professionals want and the rich, individual “thick” and nuanced descriptions that ethnographers value and provide. Another way of saying this is that there is a lot of thinking about how ethnographic research can, should, does, or fails to connect to business cycles, that is, there is a lot of thinking about ways that ethnography can have real business impact.”

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