This post is the second in the series, you can read from the beginning here – Language. An Interview with Brigitte Jordan, Part 1.
At the time that I interviewed Brigitte Jordan, I was wondering about design ethnography’s way of handling data. While the academic anthropologist usually works alone, goes to the field alone and then writes up his or her field notes afterwards alone, ethnographers in the corporate world have to make their notes and findings quickly available to a range of stakeholders and interested parties. Often, they don’t have great influence over how that data will be handled afterwards.
The Interview. Anthropologists, on the other hand, often see themselves as representatives of the people they study, and they try to influence policies on their behalf. Brigitte Jordan herself had tried to convey to the Mexican Ministry of Health how childbirth worked in rural settings in the country, and how the healthcare system should be adapted to local needs. So I couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t ever been conflicted in the corporate world, between the people she morally felt responsible to, and the expectations of the paying client. „Well, our work is full of ethical problems in the academic world as well as in the corporate arena,“ Jordan said. „Whether you work in academia or commerce, you try to make the world better in some way, right? And you know that fundamentally, your idea of what’s better might not be better in the long run. That’s one thing to keep in mind, to have some humility about that.“
She admitted that it’s not uncommon to find out that, what one thought the client wanted, is not what they really had in mind. „We call it requirements creep. It’s something that is very common, but that often has major ethical implications,“ she said, remembering one of her own assignments in which it became clear that the aim of her research was to automate parts of the factory she was studying. „That’s a bunch of people being let go.“ For her, the answer to this requirements creep lies in communication with the stakeholders. „They need to be involved in the design of the study, in the methodology, in the failures. If that is the case, then there is a much greater chance to talk about questions such as ‚how many people are we going to lose‘ in a constructive way.“
This reminded me of her 1997 paper „Transforming Ethnography— Reinventing Research“. In it, she describes our role in the corporate arena as that of „co-producers of meaning.“ What I understand from this is that unlike anthropologists, who merely study how other people make sense of the world around them, design ethnographers become themselves involved in the making of meaning when they continuously present, explain and discuss their findings with different parties and stakeholders. For me, this thought really helped ease my concerns about depth of research. If data collection and sense-making are transparent and collaborative processes in design ethnography, then generating meaning – and hence representing people’s experiences – becomes a communal effort that is negotiated throughout the length of a project. I now think that this is something academic anthropology could learn from design ethnography: Sharing your ethnographic data (strategically) can make it less subjective – and more actionable.
I asked Brigitte Jordan how easy she thought it was for people with no background in anthropology to wrap their head around the concept of ethnography. „It depends on how open they are,“ she said. „How curious. One thing struck me when I was teaching anthropology: I used to have large sign-ups, and a lot of people would drop out in the beginning. But the people that stayed, they were the types that really wanted to know. They wanted to find out, they wanted to experience things. And I think if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter where they come from.“
Key reflection: Coming to the programme in Dundee with a first master’s degree in social anthropology, I felt a certain uneasiness when we were first introduced to the short-lived, quick-paced research that is at the heart of design ethnography. The academic world tells anthropologists: If it’s for less than a year, don’t bother going into the field in the first place. Design ethnographers’ research, on the other hand, often takes no longer than a few days or weeks. I just didn’t see how they could possibly achieve the same depth as „traditional“ ethnography in such little time. The answer, I now know, is of course that they don’t aim for the same scope of insight, and most importantly, that they process their data very differently. Brigitte Jordan addresses this issue brillantly in her aforementioned paper „Transforming Ethnography“.
Brigitte Jordan’s new book “Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Settings” is available from booksellers now.