Ethnography = reporting = paying attention, right?

A look at psychologist Sherry Turkle’s latest study and promotion of normal conversation includes an interesting description of ethnography:

Turkle is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as “a partisan of conversation.” Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as “ethnography,” that in journalism is known as “reporting,” and that everywhere else is known as “paying attention.”

Considering Turkle’s years of studying human interaction with machines and technology (including the fascinating book Alone Together), I suspect she would not describe ethnography this way. But, it is not hard to find similar descriptions of ethnography. Isn’t it just observation and paying attention? Not quite. Journalists tend to equate ethnography with good reporting but this is not the case. Here are some key differences:

1. Ethnography does not involve intentionally interviewing key informants in a story. It involves much more discussion, observation, and time.

2. Ethnography is sometimes known as participant observation. Ethnographers don’t just interview; they often participate with the people or groups they are studying so they can get an insider view (key: while still retaining their outside, analytical perspective).

3. There is a rigorous process to ethnography that typically involves months of participant observation, copious note taking (both on the spot as well at the end of each day – I’ve seen recommendations for 2-3 hours of note-taking for each 1 hour in the field), returning from the field and coding and analyzing the notes, writing a study that interacts with and adds to existing theories.

4. This is not just “low-grade spying.” Ethnography is often an intense, draining experience that involves a lot of human interaction.

In other words, ethnography is not just about showing up and eavesdropping. Some people may be pretty good at this but this does not automatically make a good study. This, in my mind, is often the difference between academic and journalistic approaches to topics and social issues: the methodology employed by journalists tends to be scattered and there is little discussion of the trade-offs involved in their methodological choices.

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