Home > Ethnography, participant observation > Grandma’s day at court: ethnography for understanding process

Grandma’s day at court: ethnography for understanding process

This morning I accompanied my 83-year-old grandma to court. Two weeks ago she received a ticket on her way home from church when she failed to move into the center lane as she passed a police officer who had pulled over another driver for speeding. When she called in to pay her fine, a clerk informed her she would have to go to traffic court. She had a date, time and address for her court appearance, but nothing else that could help prepare her for what to expect.

Ethnography is a particularly useful methodology for understanding process, especially when it comes to uncovering insights into how people experience products and services in context. As we go about our daily life, we often don’t even think about the steps that make up our behavior. If we were to ask a participant how she does X, she would most likely come to a succinct answer by weeding out everything she considers extraneous. As ethnographers the extraneous is precisely what we’re interested in because that’s what helps us really understand the unarticulated needs and wants of the consumer. And these are the insights that offer oodles of opportunities for innovation, branding and product placement.

Back to grandma. When we arrived to traffic court we had no idea what to do. It appeared as a random assortment of people and activities. After watching others and looking for signs, we learned how to check ourselves in. Then we waited. I observed.

The random assortment of people and activities started to coalesce, patterns started to emerge and I began to understand the process people undergo when they enter the courtroom. I learned about the types of offenses that bring people to traffic court. I learned about the division of labor that prepares the accused for their plea and how the different roles (ie., public defender, baliff, prosecutor) make up that process. I learned how those in the courtroom move through the space and how the space itself (ie., the placement of desks and tables) facilitates the plea process and separates officials from the public. More so, I learned a lot about what happens when people deviate from the social norms established by the court, like when someone approaches the prosecutor ‘out of turn’ or talks once the magistrate has started to hear cases.

I began to get a deeper sense of the undertones that ripple through the process. I learned how the process itself strips defendants of their privacy (and how shame accompanies that) and how once a defendant enters the courtroom, he loses all control and authority he may possess in everyday life (and more so, how he responds/adjusts to that). I began to understand some issues concerned with socioeconomic status and social capital, how the defendants can differ from employees of the court around these things and generally, what that means for the process as a whole.

I spent an hour and a half in traffic court with my grandma. Had this been a real ethnography, I would have spent several days. Over time I would have watched nearly 100 defendants go through the process to get an in-depth understanding of everything I just mentioned, and more. I would have spent time talking with defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, the bailiff, clerks and maybe even the magistrate. I would have learned where opportunities exist to make the process easier for both the court and the defendants.

Because ethnography takes us to where the action occurs, it is a great way to bring the experience, and the consumer, to life. My grandma would agree.

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