Using ethnographic techniques to study how office space is used

According to Cubed, architects and designers have had a lot of idealistic approaches to office design but companies have pursued more ethnographic approaches in recent decades:

In other words, interior designers are struggling, hard, to be relevant and so are architects. And so are space planners and so are product designers. Both Steelcase and Herman Miller have intensified their use of anthropological techniques – participant observer, video ethnography, object testing – to understand office workers’ behavior and to design around behavior rather than attempt to influence or change it. (p.308)

In other words, some have moved from top-down designs borrowing from trendy ideas about office behavior and design to actually studying the people at work in offices to see what might or might not work. What you likely gain are the small but important pieces of information that might be lost with other methods of data collection. Imagine the all-important serendipitous short conversation between two employees who pass in the hallway. Designers and others often think these are really important as they generate social connections and innovation. But, if you asked on workers on a survey about such short encounters, they may not recall them or think much of them at the time.

Lots of businesses could benefit from ethnographic approaches as they would get the viewpoint of the workers instead of the interpretations of management.

The need for “the endangered art of ethnography”

To highlight a new award for ethnography, a British sociologist explains what ethnography brings to the table:

Day after day, we are bombarded with survey evidence about the lives and the times of our fellow citizens. This, we are told, is how the unemployed regard benefit fraud, how the Scottish middle class react to the idea of independence, what black youths feel about the police’s use of stop and search. But much of this evidence is collected over a short period of time by professional pollsters who have little sense of the context in which they ask their tick-box questions.

Ethnography is a necessary supplement and often an important antidote to this form of research. It takes time: several of the researchers on our shortlist, for example, had spent two to three years studying, and often living within, a specific culture or subculture. It also allows questions to arise during the course of the research rather than being pre-programmed. So when Howard Parker embarked on his classic ethnographic study of delinquent youth in Liverpool (View from the Boys: A Sociology of Downtown Adolescents, 1974), he was faced by the official assumption that the young people in his sample were persistent offenders, hardened and even dangerous delinquents. Only after two years of hanging around with the boys was Parker able to conclude that this was far from the case. The boys’ offending was “mundane, trivial, petty, occasional, and very little of a threat to anyone except themselves”.

In a very similar manner, Heidi Hoefinger’s Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia: Professional Girlfriends and Transactional Relationships (2013), one of the studies shortlisted for the award, began from the common belief that encounters in the so-called “sex bars” of Cambodia would be entirely cash-based and essentially sleazy. Only after spending long periods of time talking to the women who worked in the bars and their male clients was she able to show that the relationships fashioned in the bars also had an important emotional component. Another stereotype had been exploded…

But the award is not only an affirmation of the significance of ethnography. What also prompted the five-year agreement between the BBC and the BSA was a wish to recognise the personal qualities that are needed in someone who is prepared to leave their family and friends to spend extended periods of time in a culture that will be uncomfortable, alien and, at times, downright dangerous. We all happily dip into different cultures: watch the skateboarders going through their paces under the Royal Festival Hall, check out the street style of the Rastas at the Notting Hill Carnival, wander through Chinatown during the New Year celebrations. But this is a far cry from suspending our own cherished values and embracing those of others for months and even years.

I wonder if ethnography gets less attention these days because we live in an era where:

1. We want research results more quickly. In comparison, surveys can be quickly administered and analyzed.

2. The big data of today allows for broad understandings and patterns. Ethnographies tend to be more particular.

3. We like “scientific” data that appears more readily available in surveys and experiments. Ethnographies appear more dependent on the researcher and subjective as opposed to “scientific.”

At the same time, there are other social forces that would promote ethnographies including more humane and holistic understandings of the world (particularly compared to the sterility of multiple-choice questions and quick numbers) as well as needing more time to study complex social phenomena.

“On the Run” has an extra level of fieldwork immersion

As publishers get excited about Alice Goffman’s upcoming book, sociologists say the fieldwork she undertook was quite immersive:

Ms. Goffman, who grew up in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia, said she took her first field notes as a teenager, recording observations about the Italian-American side of her family in South Philadelphia. By her sophomore year at Penn, she had moved full time to a mixed-income African-American neighborhood and was hanging out on a tough strip she calls 6th Street (all names and places in the book are disguised), fully immersing herself in local culture.

She abandoned her vegetarian diet, listened only to mainstream hip-hop and R&B, and adopted local “male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language,” as she puts it in a long appendix, describing her research methods. While drugs, and drug selling, pervaded the neighborhood, she did not use them, she writes, partly because “it hampered writing the field notes.”

By her own account, she lost most of her college friends, and struggled to complete her non-sociology requirements. Her thesis, advised by the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson, won her a book contract from the University of Chicago (probably the first based on undergraduate research the publisher has ever signed, said Douglas Mitchell, its executive editor).

It may sound “absurd” now, Ms. Goffman said of her extreme immersion. “But I was trying to take the participant-observer approach as seriously as possible.”

Fieldwork is intended to get an in-depth view of real life through long periods of observation and interaction. This sounds like going the extra step to truly find out what is going on. I wonder if there isn’t another element involved: Goffman worked in areas that many, the public or academics, might consider dangerous for significant periods of time. In other words, even most sociologists, who tend to be interested in addressing social issues and using a variety of research methods, would not go as far as Goffman did. All of this makes me wonder how much we might have missed about the world because sociologists and others might not always be willing to go further.

What kind of sociology book gets trade press attention before it is published

Books by sociologists don’t often become bestsellers or draw the attention of a broad range of presses, reviewers, and the public. But, here is some backstory on the soon-to-be published On the Run and why it is drawing attention:

As an author, Alice Goffman has a few things going for her. She’s the daughter of the late Erving Goffman, a giant in the field of sociology, and her surname alone has long made her of interest to those in academia. Then there is her young age (32) and the somewhat dramatic nature of her fieldwork: starting her research when she was a college freshman, Goffman spent six years following a small group of young black men in inner-city Philadelphia. All of this has put a spotlight on Goffman’s forthcoming book, On the Run, which the University of Chicago Press is releasing on May 13. The excitement around the title has led the scholarly publisher to break with a number of norms; it has gone back to press three times already, and has auctioned off the paperback and digital rights to a trade house…

The planned book was an ethnography examining the effect of the prison system beyond the reaches of confinement; it focused on the lives of a group of young, male African-American friends in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The proposal was brief, touching on the failings of the war on drugs—specifically, the havoc wreaked by the parole system—but it was impressive enough, Stahl said, that the press acquired it. (At the time, Goffman was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and, according to Stahl, UCP had never before acquired a title by someone still in college.) When Goffman turned in her manuscript a decade later—the submission date was loose, given the lengthy nature of fieldwork—Stahl said UCP’s editors realized the book was not only a “great ethnography,” but also a “gripping read.”…

While Star said it’s “striking” that Goffman started her fieldwork when she was so young, and that there are elements of her own backstory that may draw media attention, he believes the book stands on its own. And, although On the Run is an academic text, Star thinks it touches on themes front and center in the public debate: namely, the inordinately high incarceration rate for black men in the U.S. In the wake of books like The New Jim Crow (Free Press, 2010), which Star felt began “raising questions about who goes to prison and why,” On the Run taps into a “very important set of issues involving the intersection of justice, crime, poverty, and race.” And, echoing Stahl’s feelings about the trade appeal of the book, Star said that On the Run is also, despite its academic nature, a book with “novelistic qualities.”

If it is accurate to compare The New Jim Crow to On the Run, FSG and UCP have a hit on their hands; the former book, by Michelle Alexander, has sold over 200,000 copies in paperback and hardcover combined at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan. Star certainly feels the topicality of On the Run will help it in the trade market; he pointed to another book he recently acquired, tentatively titled Locking Up Our Own, by Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr., which also delves into the subject of black men and prison. Locking Up examines the correlation between the rising number of African-American elected officials and the incarceration of African-Americans in cities like Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting see how much attention this gets after its release as well as the book-sale figures. Several things seem to make this stand out from other academic books: the backstory of the author from her young age at the beginning to a well-known father; a topic that lines up with a lot of recent conversations (inequality, race, the prison system, the plight of cities); and “novelistic qualities” that help it move beyond a dry academic texts with more elements of story. I wonder if a parallel to this work isn’t the work of Sudhir Venkatesh which shares some similar traits: interesting story of how he started the project (held by a gang while trying to do survey research in a housing project); describing the business-like qualities of gangs even as urban crime and economies were becoming prominent conversation topics; and Venkatesh has plenty of interesting stories (which lately seem to have drawn some criticism for being “thin”). So, based on On the Run and Gang Leader for a Day, sociology bestsellers need to be ethnographic works that focus on race, cities, and crime?

Another question: is this the sort of book that is the left’s answer to all of the right-wing best-sellers of recent years? I wonder who exactly will purchase this book.

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.

What exactly is the ethnographic line between entertaining stories and academic content?

One sociologist expresses his dislike of Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book Floating City and raises an interesting question about the line between entertaining stories and sociological analysis:


Early in my career I had a book reviewed by a wise sage of Fleet Street who mocked my sociological language and academic conceits. Some years later, a literary agent explained that if I were to abandon academic conventions but retain the stories of “low life”, untold riches would surely follow. In exchange for academic orthodoxy I should situate myself firmly in the narrative, charting my no doubt dangerous but hilarious adventures through the life-world of the lower orders. Although I rejected this suggestion, I always wondered what an ethnography eviscerated of academic content would look like.

Floating City has answered this question and much more. A self-styled “maverick sociologist” and experienced urban ethnographer who holds a named chair at an Ivy League university, Sudhir Venkatesh drains his study of illegal entrepreneurship in New York of most of the academic conventions that will come naturally to someone with almost a quarter of a century of experience in the dangerous enclaves of US higher education. On arriving in New York from Chicago, Venkatesh finds life in a “World City” unfamiliar (but isn’t Chicago a World City?), with old standbys such as neighbourhood and community apparently made redundant by globalisation…

The populist format of Floating City is insistent that the Homeric author is a pioneer, the first in the field, an ingénue intent on emphasising that the unique demands of researching the global city require a rejection of academic tradition. But his outsider stance and maverick posturing are an irritant; they get in the way of his street-savvy case studies and vignettes of urban life. For at the heart of this book is a conventional ethnography that challenges the author’s ingénue facade by using the full arsenal of ethnographic orthodoxy, and along the way highlighting the enduring importance of community and neighbourhood.

The best of this book is precisely the result of the “traditional sociology” that Venkatesh derides. I will not forget in a hurry the poignancy of his descriptions of Manjun and his family, who run a shop selling pornographic DVDs, or his fine-grained interaction with a group of aspirational prostitute women struggling on streets paved with something less than gold. His interaction with coke-addled socialites I found irritating and somewhat pointless, and his aim to make connections between the so-called upper- and underworlds fizzles out. For while the city may be more fluid, the rich and the poor remain separated, and the dots are not joined.

This gets at some basic issues sociologists face:

1. What audience should they aim for when writing a book? If they write for the public, they may be derided by fellow academics for not having enough academic content. If they write a more academic book, few in the public will touch it. It is rare to find such sociological works that can easily transcend these audience boundaries. Just the other day, I was explaining to someone how the book Bowling Alone was one of these rare texts that contained an academic approach to a problem that caught people’s attention.

2. How exactly should ethnographic research be conveyed? Yes, there are stories to relate but it also needs to contain some sociological analysis. Different ethnographers rely on different mixes of narrative and analysis but the sociological element still has to come through to some degree.

3. If the sociologist is studying “low life,” how can these lives be explored without being exploitative or cheapening? Salaciousness might sell but it does not tend to grant dignity and respect to those being described. Sociologists also often develop personal relationships with those they are studying and these complicates the retelling.

These are common concerns of ethnographers and there are not easy answers. Amongst themselves, sociologists disagree how to do these things better.

Focus less on how all of Manhattan’s 120,000 blocks can be walked and spend more time with the sociological findings

A sociologist who has walked every block of Manhattan shares what he learned in a new book:

The result is his new book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. The expansive sociological study relies on Helmreich’s on-the-ground research, culled from thousands of hours of observation and casual conversations with local residents, to help parse hot-button issues like immigration, assimilation, and gentrification. But more than that, the miles and miles clocked – he wore out nine pairs of shoes in his trek across the city – come through as a sort of extensive love letter to the frenetic energy and diversity of New York…

For non-New Yorkers, the time the book spends on the outer boroughs is a fairly obvious corrective for what Helmreich sees as the tourism-generated, Manhattan-centric view of New York. And for all its diversity – the book spends hundreds of pages on the immigrant communities of the city – New York comes off as an inextricably linked web of groups that constantly must interact, change, and adjust. “It’s almost as if you dropped a hundred towns in Nebraska into the middle of the city,” Helmreich says. But what sets New York apart, he adds, is that “there’s this duality to New York that you can be in these places, but you can also be in the city.” Even those who live in more isolated pockets, such as the waterfront community of Edgewater Park in the Bronx, have a sense of connectedness…

By necessity, given the size of the city, Helmreich calls his book no more than a much-needed “introductory work” to the diversity of New York City. His method is, in some ways, a throw back to a much earlier form of social criticism, when walking was curiously in vogue for the self-styled intellectuals and elites of 19th century Europe. Think of Charles Dickens’s night walks through London or the well-dressed flâneurs of Paris. And it’s one that anyone can learn from. “If I accomplish anything besides sociology,” Helmreich says, “it’s to encourage people to walk through what I call the greatest museum in the world.”

Interesting findings that could suggest how disparate communities within a larger community understand their place in the whole. Additionally, there is a lot of potential here to detail the New York that most of its residents know, not the big money Wall Street/hedge fund world or the celebrity/glamorous crowd.

However, this article goes more for the human interest angle than the actual findings of the book. While it may be interesting to detail how a single person was able to walk the whole city, it may not mean much if they weren’t very observant or didn’t find much of interest. Rather then calling this an “epic quest,” how about thinking through what this methodology leads to compared to traditional ethnographic work that calls for spending extended time with a more limited group of people? How does this compare with other studies of American streets, such as the work of Jane Jacobs looking at places like Greenwich Village and Rittenhouse Square (Philadelphia), Elijah Anderson examining street life in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods, or Mitchell Duneier analyzing how black street vendors utilize public sidewalk space in New York City? Even as New York City gets a lot of attention, this seems like a lost opportunity to highlight how a sociologist (versus a journalist or a reality TV show or an academic from another discipline) views the street-level operation of the world’s #1 global city.

Seeing the world from behind the Genius Bar

Here is a fascinating look at the world as viewed from behind the Apple Store’s Genius Bar:

When Apple employees are asked what they love most about their job (and they are asked often) most invariably answer “the people.” They mean their co-workers, not the customers.

Because the daily expectations for customer service go beyond anywhere else in retail, only those with managerial ambitions will invoke their commitment to helping people. Some thrive on that. Others get diagnosed with PTSD. Consider that the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City is open 24 hours and has more annual foot traffic than Yankee Stadium, yet only one door. Every day, in every Apple Store, people flood to customer service, when what many truly need is therapy…

This is the dilemma of working for a technology company that is also perceived as a luxury brand: We attract clients who understand that we provide the latest and shiniest things that they must have, while at the same time they have no idea whatsoever how to use them. I wanted to ask Debris, “Did you ever learn about electricity and water?” but instead just recite the question over and over in my head…

I look up at the dozens of people cradling their aluminum babies. Tapping their feet, chewing their nails, licking their lips, they’re worried bad about something that matters to them. I wish Barbara the best of luck, really meaning it, and excuse myself. I unholster my iPod and call out the next customer’s name.

Is this what the modern world looks like or is this highly idiosyncratic and applicable only to Apple stores? The author oozes a sort of Marxist alienation with hints that the work is hard and dealing with people all day long is difficult (and then contrast this with stories about Apple workers in China). Would this job be considered a “good job” today or are the employees hoping for a better opportunity?

It also strikes me that we have a lack of sociological studies today from inside major corporations. Think about the major corporations of the world today – Apple, Google, Walmart, Shell, McDonalds, Disney, and on – and sociologists are stuck observing from the outside. We have to rely on books like Nickel and Dimed that give us an inside glimpse. I assume many corporations may not like such an insider study as some of the findings might reflect poorly on them, but don’t we need ethnographic and participant observation studies of corporations to understand today’s world?

Comparing ethnography and journalism, stories vs. data

A letter writer to the New York Times unfavorably compares ethnography and social scientific methods to journalism:

David Brooks’s review of George Packer’s book “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” (June 9) is befuddling. First, Brooks praises Packer’s “gripping narrative survey” of recession-era life, comparing it to earlier efforts like that of John Dos Passos. Then, bizarrely, he faults Packer for not providing a “theoretical framework and worldview” that would include “sociology, economics or political analysis.” Narrative description and evocation has for centuries been among the most powerful forms of argument — so powerful, in fact, that the social psychologists Brooks admires appropriated the styles and cloaked them in the pseudoscientific garb of “ethnography” (which we used to call “journalism”).

Have we reached a point where devotion to instrumental reason is so maniacal we can’t handle mere stories anymore? Or perhaps we accept stories only when they’re accompanied by the tenuous methodology of social “scientists.” I would bet that a single profile by Packer, one of America’s best journalists, provides a better snapshot of real life than the legions of sociology and economics articles published since the crash.

Here is someone suspicious of social science. This is not an uncommon position. There is no doubt that stories and narratives are powerful and also have a longer history than the social sciences which developed in and after the Enlightenment. Yet, we also live in a world where science and data have also become powerful arguments.

Intriguingly, ethnography is a social scientific method that might help bridge this gap between narrative and data. This method differs from journalism in some important ways but also shares some similarities. The ethnographer doesn’t just work with statistics and data from a distance or through a few interviews. Through an extended engagement with the research subject, even living with the subjects for months or years, the researcher gets an insider perspective while also trying to maintain objectivity. The participant observer is engaged with larger social science theories and ideas, trying to understand how more specific experiences and groups line up with larger theories and models. The research case is of interest but the connection to the bigger picture is very important in the end. At the same time, ethnographies are often written in a more narrative style than social science journal articles (unless we are talking about journal articles utilizing ethnography).

Stories and data can both be illuminating. I know which side I tend to favor, hence I’m a sociologist, but I also enjoy narratives and “mere stories.”

Anthropologist behind story of Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to bypass Disney lines

Lost a bit in the story about Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to avoid lines at Disney is how the story came out: from the research of an anthropologist.

“It’s insider knowledge that very few have and share carefully,” said social anthropologist Dr. Wednesday Martin, who caught wind of the underground network while doing research for her upcoming book “Primates of Park Avenue.”

“Who wants a speed pass when you can use your black-market handicapped guide to circumvent the lines all together?” she said.

“So when you’re doing it, you’re affirming that you are one of the privileged insiders who has and shares this information.”

A win for social science? Perhaps not – Wednesday Martin was trained in comparative literature. I imagine there is some more backstory to this including how Martin found out about this practice and how this information made it to the media. Here is more about the book with an intriguing title which is to be released next year:

What happens when an anthropologist from the Midwest moves to Manhattan’s most prestigious zip code…and raises her children there? Primates of Park Avenue is an anthropological memoir of Manhattan motherhood by Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).  By turns hilarious, touching and insightful, Primates of Park Avenue reveals the pressures, conundrums and competition that make mothers and mothering in Manhattan unique. From a deconstruction of the exercise and self-care practices of the caste of women with children she calls “Manhattan Geishas” to the lurid details of her own crazed pursuit of a Birkin bag; to an analysis of the rites of passage like the coop board interview, the gut renovation, bed bug battles and “ongoing” school applications that brought her to her knees; to an exploration of what she calls “the world’s most complicated, fraught, and misrepresented relationship, the dance between mothers and the nannies they hire to help them raise their children”; to an inside view of the galas, benefits, kiddie birthday parties and other extravaganzas of conspicuous consumption that define her adopted tribe, Martin spares no detail in exploring what makes Uptown motherhood strange, exotic and utterly foreign and fascinating. At the same time, Primates of Park Avenue illuminates the quests, anxieties and ambitions–for a healthy, happy child, a good night’s sleep, sexual satisfaction, financial security and a concealer that actually works–that connect women with children all across the country and all over the world.

An “anthropological memoir” – this might be easier for the general public to understand than saying it is a personal ethnography. It sounds like the book, in the words of one of my colleagues, will take the familiar, the wealthy in New York City, and make it exotic.