Ethnography suffers from a misconception that is informed by special powers of observation, that spirited intuition imbibes the watcher, leading to great insight and transformative ideas.
The truth is ethnography can be tedious, requiring careful observation, coding, and tracking of simple behaviors that allow you to build small hypotheses, test, and repeat. I have watched people pick up a product, look at it, and timed that interaction. Over and over and over.
The power of watching becomes how you interpret the accumulation of those small interactions and others.
Here’s an example.
The Street Life Project was a ’70s project to document urban life. This was recently updated by a Rutgers professor with an emphasis on how technology has changed public behavior in urban spaces. Public spaces were filmed and a team of researchers observed and coded behavior as “physical touching, apparent talking and collective locomotion.” (The NYT article is here with video from the original street life project)
What did he learn?
- Technology has not made us asocial. Pubic interaction has improved with a greater number of people in pairs visiting the park.
- Neither has it made us shut-ins: there were a higher percentage of people “just hanging out”
- We’re not as attached to our phones as we tend to think. Only 3 percent were on their phones.