Archive for July, 2020

Keeping your cool when things get hot

July 23, 2020 Leave a comment

After more than a couple of decades of being a professional ethnographer, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen it all. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean it in an authentic way. I’ve been present to share in the good, the bad, the joyful, the heartbreaking, the beginning, the end, the scary, the exciting, the uncomfortable, and the easy. During each of these moments, my craft has required that I maintain a focus that allows me to stay firmly grounded in the experience at hand and to stay the course, no matter how awkward. Although sometimes this can be difficult, I’ve found that there are a couple of strategies that help me to do good fieldwork no matter what comes my way.


Oscar Wilde said it best when he said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” I don’t think it is possible to do good fieldwork unless you are willing to be authentically yourself. This doesn’t mean that you have to bare your soul or uncover your blemishes with participants, but it does mean that you behave and speak in a way that is normal for you. This is important for a lot of reasons, but it often becomes especially important when fieldwork is more intense or when it departs, more than usual, from the standard. We are usually asking people to share so much of their lives that it is not unusual for them to end up sharing things that we didn’t anticipate or maybe weren’t fully prepared to discuss. When this happens, the process is just quicker, easier, and more fluid when the ethnographer is her/himself. That is because going off script is easier to navigate inside the skin in which you are most familiar.

One time, I spent about three weeks following families on vacation at a theme park. Originally I had planned to keep my intense fear of roller coasters to myself. I knew that I had a pretty good poker face and that I would be able to manage riding along with families, even if it wasn’t very pleasant. After my first day of fieldwork, however, I realized that sharing my fear with families actually opened up an interesting dialogue and surprisingly seemed to help build a more intimate rapport. I stumbled upon this when one of my participants, an 8 year old boy, asked me if I liked scary rides as we were standing in line to board said scary ride. I knew I couldn’t lie so I told him the truth, which sparked a heated discussion amongst the family about just how scary the ride was and about the definition of “scary.” It also resulted in the son holding my hand on the ride and moving me into a deeper participant role with that family. Several days later, the family had a collective meltdown as I was shadowing them. It was not pretty and was uncomfortable for everyone present, but I think that having shown them my authentic self (and weakness), made them more comfortable to share this event with me. The rapport we had built over the last few days made it more comfortable for me to witness.     


I wish I had a quarter for each time my job required me to do something I didn’t know I would have to do. A deep commitment to flexibility is really the price of entry for being a good ethnographer. We take an inductive approach to our work which means that we never really know what is going to happen. It is best to show up with a sense of adventure and a wiliness to experience and do whatever helps us better understand who our participants are and what it is like to be them. This means that I have consumed lots of delicious food over the years, but also tons of things that I would have rather not eaten or drank. I’ve stayed longer than expected and sometimes even returned for an additional visit. I’ve spent hours and hours waiting patiently (or lending a helping hand) while my participants had to deal with or manage a crisis that was unexpected and (at least on the surface) unrelated to the reason for my visit. One time my colleague and I helped clean up a very serious water spill when our participant’s washing machine emptied out onto her floor. I’ve helped feed hungry kids, put babies to sleep, carried boxes, moved furniture, given rides, helped fill out forms, searched for lost items, helped fold laundry, sat outside in 100-degree weather for a visit with a cancer patient who was always cold. At every venture, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn additional context that helps me to better understand my participant’s lives and often their challenges.

One time I was doing fieldwork on how families with young kids used their minivans, so I was riding along while they did errands. When we called to arrange one of the visits, the dad had mentioned that I was welcome to join, but that I would have to enter the minivan from the hatch back. The third row was not accessible from the sliding door because of the child car seats. Although this didn’t sound like much fun, I figured it would be okay—I’m a practitioner of yoga after all. But once I arrived and saw just how little room there was between the top of the third-row seat and the ceiling of the minivan, I started to panic. For a minute, I considered asking if there was an alternative, but then I remembered that they had mentioned that this was how grandpa got in when he rode with them and so I hopped into the trunk area and threw myself over with abandon! Not only did my colleagues get a good laugh, I developed a keen appreciation for the need to create a different solution for grandpa! 

Empathic Curiosity 

Obviously being curious is an important skill for an ethnographer, but it is a particular type of curiosity that ensures fieldwork inquiry leads to understanding and not just a macabre documentation. Our work requires not just the observation and recording of data, but an attempt to better understand the challenges, experiences, and feelings that our participants have, from their perspective.  This can be really, really hard, especially when the topic at hand is a difficult one. It requires that the ethnographer open themselves up in a way that is sometimes painful. We have conducted a lot of fieldwork with people who are seriously ill or who are caring for someone who is seriously ill, and in both cases, the day-to-day experience is often excruciatingly difficult and the discussion of that experience can be equally difficult. In these kinds of situations, people often stop talking to their loved ones about what they are experiencing since it is just too painful for both parties, and so when we visit them, there is sometimes a little bit of a watershed moment when our participant understands that we really are there to learn from them and to hear their story. This can be exceedingly emotional for the participant and sometimes for the ethnographer.

One time I was visiting a woman who had a very serious chronic lung disease that had left her socially isolated. Her home was the majority of her world. She rarely got out and maintained very few relationships outside of her husband, her doctors, and the woman who came in to clean for her a few times a week. She had been a powerful and social executive prior to her diagnosis, and the transformation had been devastating. As we spent our final hour together, I was exhausted. She had walked me through her life in a way that left me feeling like I could truly understand what it must be like to be her. In order for this to happen, I had to be not only curious and willing to listen, but also be willing to let her lead and to be open to seeing the world from her point of view.


After a particularly frustrating round of fieldwork, a colleague once reminded me that there are no mistakes with ethnography. By definition, ethnography is all about real life and real life is messy, and therefore ethnographic fieldwork is often messy. Sometimes ethnographers forget this when butting up against deadlines or when working with clients that prefer a more tactical approach, but it is really, really true. Things tend to be connected in ways that we don’t always understand, especially at first blush. Sometimes when we are doing fieldwork, we can get distracted by our fieldguides and forget what we are really there to do—which is to learn about the social and cultural context of our participants’ lives and then and only then to dig into the specific topic that our client has hired us to learn about. It is understanding our specific topic in the context of our more general learnings about who people are and how they live that creates the much deeper insights that our clients are looking for. But sometimes the social and cultural context of people’s lives are complicated or thorny. Over the years, I’ve found myself witnessing a variety of illegal or unsafe activities. Once when we did fieldwork with people who had chronic pain and found ourselves in the middle of some sticky pharmacological situations. One participant, an elementary school teacher, asked me to ride with her to finish packing up her classroom for the year. After a few minutes on the road, it became clear that she was impaired. Luckily the drive was not that far and after spending some time moving things into a storage shed, she seemed to be less impaired than before. When touring another participant’s medicine cabinet, it became clear that they received prescriptions for pain medications from a variety of different doctors. Naively, I had not anticipated either of these situations and neither were covered on the official fieldguide for the project, but a quick re-grounding in the project objectives made it clear that understanding the context in which both of these events happened would provide me with a much more holistic, accurate, and real understanding of what it is like to live with chronic pain.

Ethnographic fieldwork isn’t always easy, but it is almost always interesting. Maintaining authenticity, flexibility, empathetic curiosity and a commitment to holism goes a long way towards ensuring that even when fieldwork is difficult, insights are trustworthy and even deeper and more real.

Categories: Uncategorized

Forming connections in the field: Three case studies on the bonds that ethnography builds

July 21, 2020 Leave a comment

The bonds ethnographers make with their participants can come in unexpected ways. Years ago I was in Australia studying hair loss, and my participant’s apartment looked like it would be walkable from the hotel. This was back when we used paper maps, and I would measure distance by how many thumb-widths point A was from point B. What I thought might be a twenty-minute walk turned out to be more like an hour jog in the Sydney heat, so I showed up late, sweaty, and panting like a dog. Fortunately, the guy was as nice as could be, and it ended up being very rich, surprisingly intimate fieldwork. As much as I’d like to, I can’t really attribute that to my highly refined skills and astute questions. Rather, I think that by arriving a disheveled mess, by showing this very human side of myself, it gave him free rein to do the same.

That day we connected over dripping sweat and blistered toes, but often our bonds with participants are deeper and longer lasting. It’s only natural that ethnographers in academia who spend years with the people they’re studying might build these bonds, but it can happen in business ethnography too, where we might only have a few hours with participants. You don’t always develop intimacy with participants, and it isn’t always necessary in order to walk away with good data, but it’s still great when it happens.

All ethnographers, including my co-workers at Ethnographic Research, Inc. will likely have similar stories of the connections they’ve made in the field. Here are a few of mine, along with a few ideas of how the methods and contexts of ethnography might have fueled the bond-building.

Watching fireworks with the Wilsons

A travel and leisure company hired us to understand families on vacation—a fun topic for sure. We did all of the fieldwork in Orlando, going to both the lesser-known attractions, like the Titanic Museum and the Holy Land Experience (a religious theme park), to the bigger names like Universal and Disney World. Our job was to become ethnographic tourists and temporary members of the families in the sample, popping in for participant observation multiple times throughout their trips. I was “Uncle Steve, the one that keeps staring at us.”

Each family was great, but I really bonded with one in particular, the Wilsons. The mom, Marianne, has a personality that can light up a room and is one of the funniest people I’ve met. The dad, Paul, is much more reserved, the “strong and silent” type. He had fun, but I always got the sense that his biggest joy was seeing his family have a good time. Marianne and Paul have two teenage daughters: both good, smart kids who share their parents’ love of all things Disney. They are the kind of people who would have gotten along with anybody, but we really hit it off. On our last day, together we hung out for hours longer than we were slotted for so they could show me Epcot’s fireworks show, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. We still send each other Disney-themed Christmas cards every year.

Why did we get on well? The Wilsons were very friendly and that’s certainly helpful, but there’s probably more to it. We got along well with all of the families in the sample, probably more so than a typical project. Some of it might have been transference: we were observing one of the happiest times of the year for the families, and those good feelings about their vacations became good feelings about us ethnographers along the way.

The context also provided the families an ideal “looking glass self,” a way of gauging how they think they appear to others. With an ethnographer at your side, you might be more self-reflective, more aware of how this outsider is perceiving you and your kids. Sometimes this can be a good thing, sometimes not so good. On vacation, your family might put aside its typical troubles for a few days, everyone might stop quibbling for a minute. Seeing the ethnographer there, observing you and your family in all of its glory, can feel great. You might think, “Yeah, we are pretty awesome.” Still, not all of the trips were as fun and fancy-free as the Wilson’s trip. Some continued to quibble and some didn’t leave their problems at home—those families don’t send me Christmas cards.

Gaining mana in game shops

A games company wanted to learn about teenage boys who were into collectible card games (CCGs) like Pokémon and Magic the Gathering so we dove headfirst into the fascinating world of the local game shops they hung out at. More than just retail stores, these shops were gathering places where people played all varieties of games: mainly CCGs, strategy games like Warhammer, and tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. The shops served as many players’ core social hubs, where they went to be with their friends, chill out, and have fun.

Although I didn’t keep in touch with the participants I met during the study, they welcomed me into their world with open arms, and I became a part of their groups remarkably fast. I did the weekly Friday Night Magic events with my pedestrian starter decks and won a game or two. I competed in a Pokémon tournament and lost miserably. Dungeons and Dragons is hard for a newcomer to jump into without grinding everything to a halt, so we just sat in on those sessions. All in all, they enjoyed us being there, and we enjoyed it too, the culture and the games themselves—I still play Magic to this day.

But why did we have these synergies? Simply showing interest went a long way. Collectible card games serve a niche audience and CCG players don’t have many people outside of their inner group willing to talk about games with them. I know I’d be thrilled if someone asked me how my Ooze deck was coming along.

The research was also a great example of something we talk about a lot: the value of letting the participant know they’re the expert. There was a distinct hierarchy at the shops. There were the adults and older teenagers who had been playing these games for years and were often more skilled and had more expendable income to spend on the best cards. The old timers often mentored the younger kids (our primary participants), teaching them the ropes, raising the next generation of CCG players. Our arrival meant that the younger kids could turn the tables. The students became the masters, and we became their students. That sort of role switching can be fun and empowering for a kid.

Henry and his chauffeur

A pharmaceutical company hired us to learn about the experiences of people living with schizophrenia. The plan was to see each participant four times times over the course of a year, but I ended up hanging out with one participant, Henry, for several years (until he passed away). When we met Henry, he was living in a transitional home in a rough part of Kansas City. His thoughts could be hard to follow at times, so we never really did any sort of formal interviewing with him. Instead we learned through observation, experiencing his very unique life alongside him.

Henry was a character: charismatic, a 24/7 Lothario, kind of a hustler, but an all-around good guy. Henry walked most places out of necessity, so when we first showed up, we weren’t so much researchers to him, we were a ride. I couldn’t count how many times I drove him to Dollar General and the smoke shop so he could resupply. As time went by, our destinations expanded, and I never knew what I was in store for when he invited me out to lunch. Cigarettes and snacks continued to be on the docket, but we might go to sell some stuff at the pawn shop. We might go to see one of his girlfriends (who had interesting stories too). One time I even took him to vote (and saw how problematic voter access can be).

With Henry, the bonds of fieldwork might have had an economic origin (I had a car and paid for lunch), but he developed a genuine fondness for not only for me but my co-workers, Melinda and Shalonda too. It was probably a rare treat for someone to be as attentive to him as we were, for someone to really listen and care about what he had to say.

Henry’s situation was unique but regardless of who you are or where you’re from, it is unusual for people to show you the sort of genuine interest that’s central to an ethnographer’s work. Whether we’re asking someone about their life story or how they do their laundry, the “it’s all about you” focus of an ethnographer is refreshing and makes fieldwork wide open to these kinds of bond-building moments. Ethnographers don’t necessarily remove themselves from the environments they work in, rather they work to help others shine, to share themselves in ways they often do not. Part of it is simply people “clicking” with other people, but there is also some special magic in the ethnographic context—our methods produce a setting ripe for the kinds of deep connections that develop between us and the people we learn from.

Categories: Ethnography, Process

Analysis at Ethnographic Research, Inc.

July 13, 2020 Leave a comment

Analysis is a sacred and labor-intensive element of our work at Ethnographic Research, Inc. Sometimes we hear about ethnography timelines that have reporting slotted just a couple of days after the end of fieldwork and we aren’t sure how that is even possible. Ethnography is about bringing people and culture to life; it gets to the heart of what’s really going on with a depth that is simply impossible to achieve in a couple of days. Good ethnography offers what Clifford Geertz called “thick descriptions.” More than just reporting some top of mind ideas, it goes much deeper into context and culture. To get there, we rely on (1) analytical rigor, (2) theory, and finally, (3) years and years of experience.

1.    Analytical rigor

Doing analysis right takes a lot of work and a lot of time. We spend around six hours doing analysis for every hour of video we collect, and we collect tons of video. We often provide some “early insights” to clients who need something to work from immediately, but to do a complete analysis that makes the most of the data? That takes time.

Still, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend doing analysis if you don’t spend it wisely, so we use methods like Glaser and Strauss’s Grounded Theory, an inductive approach to analysis where data is coded and categorized until insights begin to emerge. People tend to picture analysis as this magical process where a wild-eyed, crazy-haired social scientist is thumbing through notes and watching video until some brilliant idea pops in their head. And yes, there are “Eureka!” moments (and sometimes crazy hair), but in reality, we follow fairly structured steps. If we didn’t, those big ideas might never show up and if they did, we wouldn’t be sure that they were trustworthy.

2.    Theory

Our team is academically trained in ethnography, and we learned that using theory to help inform research is not only helpful, it is required. It just makes sense. Brilliant minds have been wrestling with similar topics for years. It would be silly not to take advantage of that, and although we’re all sociologists by training, we also use theory from anthropology, psychology, and sometimes economics and philosophy.

Our use of theory has a meaningful impact on our results. It is vital in making sense of data, and it helps so much in understanding the social and cultural drivers behind the behaviors we observe. Research that ignores culture comes out flat. For social scientists, by definition, if you want to understand people, you have to look at the society and culture they live in: the people they interact with, the institutions they are a part of, the information they consume, and any other outside influence that shapes the way they see the world. Theory provides the scaffolding for organizing and understanding all of that data.

3.    Years of experience.

Ethnographic Research, Inc. opened its doors back in 2001, long before the iPhone, long before Facebook. Back when we started, ethnographers didn’t do in-homes, they did in-caves.

We’ve been observing people in-context for nearly twenty years, and we’ve picked up a few things along the way. This gives us a leg up whenever we start a new project—we go in with a strong understanding of how households have evolved over the last couple of decades and can use this to give projects an analytical jumpstart. We can approach new topics with a certain maturity and sophistication that would have been impossible were we just starting out. For instance, we do a lot of work studying how illnesses impact people’s daily lives. We’ve studied the daily lives of people with cancer, heart disease, arthritis, chronic pain, lupus, epilepsy, and many others. When someone comes to us wanting to learn about the patient experience of a condition we haven’t studied, like multiple sclerosis, we have all of this past work to help us learn, right away, what is unique and different about living with MS.

This experience is just as helpful for our other projects too. We have years of experience watching people shop, work, cook, groom, clean, play, parent, travel, and more. This allows us to place our research topic into a much larger database of insights into daily life habits and rituals. It helps us in every aspect of the journey that is ethnography. We can avoid common pitfalls in sampling and recruiting, we can get the most out of our in-home visits, and our analytical processes are refined and streamlined. We have also learned that it is our analytical processes that add the most value for our clients. All of the time and rigor we give to analysis are absolutely necessary when your research aims for deep, rich insights.

Oh the people we have met!

July 7, 2020 Leave a comment

We never really know what to expect when we roll up to do ethnographic fieldwork. Even though we’ve been doing ethnography for more than 30 years, arriving at a participant’s home or workplace always feels a little like our first day on the job. We’re anxious and hopeful that everything will go okay but are never really sure what is going happen when we walk through the front door and into someone’s life. Some contexts are more exciting or more unnerving than others, but we have to be prepared for almost anyone or anything. And boy-o-boy, have we not been disappointed. We have met so many interesting people and heard so many interesting stories over the years.

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 1,000 times—we’ve got the best job in the world. One reason it is such a great job is that it gives us the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. As sociologists, we believe that people are inherently interesting and what we’ve discovered as professional ethnographers is that EVERYONE has a story to tell that is uniquely captivating. If you take time to learn about someone, you discover that they are way more multi-dimensional than they appear at first blush. Although our job is usually to focus on the patterns that tie people together, we generally get there by first listening to and trying to understand each individual and what makes them who they are.

Over the years we have met thousands of people. We have been invited into their homes and into their lives and have found ourselves entertained and inspired by most of them. Here are some of the people who have stuck out as being particularly impressive, entertaining, or inspiring.

  • Alma from Missouri was 85 years old, played the organ, and kept a refrigerator stocked with six different kinds of soda (she lived alone). She had a Facebook page and texted before either were mainstream and recorded herself reading books so that her kids could listen to her homemade books on tape.
  • Dina from Pennsylvania was a twenty-something year old mother of two diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. We met her when we conducted a study on chronic pain. She had one of the most positive attitudes and brightest smiles of anyone we’ve ever met.
  • Robert from Georgia was a postal worker we met during a study on diabetes. He had hardly traveled outside Atlanta except for a tour of Korea while in the army. He was soft-spoken and exceedingly polite and spent a lot of time wondering how scientific theories intersected with philosophy and religion.
  • Rene from Kansas single-handedly cared for her husband with dementia even though she was in her 70s. She was amazing and truly inspiring and gave us a new appreciation for unconditional love.
  • Chubby from Georgia was a really thin man receiving treatment for cancer but was far more concerned about his wife’s happiness and comfort than his own.  
  • Dr. Anderson from Minnesota was a primary care doctor who had been treating most of his patients for several decades. He moonlighted as the primary fundraiser, organizer, and healthcare provider for massive shipments of medical supplies and treatment of patients in the Philippines.
  • Deanna from Arizona was a young mom who had spent a few years in a prison where she worked as a firefighter, then met her husband at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and together they built the kind of suburban life for their kids that they never had.  
  • Edwin from Georgia was a barber who delivered a homily with every trim, complete with a bible that he encouraged patrons to open to the page of their choice from which he would extemporaneously preach in a strong baritone.
  • Fanny and Lloyd from rural Louisiana owned and ran a booming roadside fish restaurant, in their retirement.
  • Annie from Missouri was a single woman with no kids, until she met and married a widower with eight kids, after which she became a stay-at-home mom.
  • Brenda, a physician’s assistant from Oregon, had a treatment style that combined science, tough love, and a bohemian philosophy to motivate her patients to get healthy.
  • Sheila from California was diagnosed with a serious chronic lung disease that caused her to be fatigued and winded virtually all of the time but refused to take on the role of “sick person” no matter what came her way.
  • Samantha a restaurant manager and bartender from Illinois highlighted her love of cats and witches in her talented artwork.
  • Angela in Tennessee, after meeting her husband on an oldie’s music cruise, decided to quit her job as an architect in Washington and move cross-country to live with him and start a second career as an uber driver.
  • Candace and Dean from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan were in their 70s but still shoveled their own rooftops (we didn’t know people did that either!). Dean has decided to donate his body to science and has been getting medical trivia tattooed on his body for the last several years to make it more interesting and educational for whoever does his autopsy.
  • Dr. Monroe, a veterinarian in rural Kansas, treated every kind of animal under the sun and did professional ballroom dancing on the side.  

Our research over the years has included more interesting characters than the Marvel Universe. They might not be able to fly or bend metal with their minds, but they’re all superheroes to us—doing their own things and making their own, unique life stories. We are just thankful that they have been kind and generous enough to share their rich experiences with us. We are so excited to see who we get to meet and learn from during the next 20 years!  

Categories: Uncategorized

Developing empathy and understanding with ethnography

July 6, 2020 Leave a comment

The political divide in the United States has been a stark reminder of how people can experience and interpret the world in very different ways. No matter what side you are on, it can be hard to see where the other side is coming from, what they’re feeling, and what drives them to think and do what they do. Developing this sort of empathy is essential to ethnography and to each part of our research process. We need empathy to ensure that we gather data that is deep and trustworthy. We need empathy to help us organize and sort that data in a way that accurately reflects the experiences and viewpoints of our participants. We need empathy to hold ourselves and our clients accountable and grounded during the reporting phases of our work. Still, maintaining empathy is sometimes easier said than done. Although most of the time we can connect with people and their stories right away, sometimes we just can’t relate to their experiences and viewpoints. Let’s explore some ways that ethnographers can develop empathy and understanding, especially in contexts where those might be hard to come by.

History, physical space, and relationships

Spending time with people is obviously the first step for ethnographers. Developing empathy is typically just a matter of really listening and hanging out with participants, trying to walk in their shoes as much as we can. Usually this goes a long way towards gaining insight into their perspectives. Even if it isn’t directly related to what we’re studying, investing time to learn a little bit about where they come from and about the context of their daily life pays dividends in helping us walk away with an empathetically grounded understanding of our research topic.

Touring a participant’s home or workspace provides another great opportunity to build empathy. Going room to room, sharing stories about their recent purchases and favorite belongings, there’s a good chance that we will run into something that will help us understand what their life is like and what’s really important to them.

We also try to involve our participants’ friends and families in the process whenever we can. They may show a different side of themselves when they’re playing with their kids or when they’re talking shop with a colleague. This can help us see them in a whole new light. People play many different roles in their lives, and the more roles we can observe, the more complete our understanding will be.

Public discourse, media, and marketing

We can also build empathy if we step back and look at the impact of the larger cultural context on our participants’ attitudes and actions. Macro sources of behaviors and beliefs are often ignored, but they can be quite powerful in molding and shaping individuals. Tracing the influences of marketing messages, information sources, government systems, religious structures, and social media all help us gain a better understanding of who our participants are.

We usually do this through “contextual mapping.” This means we examine how what we’re studying is represented in public discourse. If we want to understand cat owners, for example, we’ll dive into social media to see how cat care is discussed. We’ll survey ads about cat care, looking at the messages they convey and the symbols they use. We’ll explore the world of cat care influencers, like Jackson Galaxy, to see what they’re teaching others. We’ll also watch lots of cute cat videos just for the heck of it, but the goal is to understand how all of this background noise impacts and shapes people with cats in their lives. Contextual mapping would help even the most die-hard “dog person” empathize with their cat-loving neighbors.

Colleagues and theory

When we’re having trouble getting our heads around what’s going on with our participants, sometimes it helps to get another perspective. Getting a colleague’s input is great. Sometimes we need someone else to remind us to be more empathetic and to stop letting our own baggage get in the way. Social science theory also helps us reposition our thinking and see our data and our participants from a different angle. As odd as it may seem, reading theory can even help when the theory has nothing to do with the research topic. You can read Foucault when you’re studying paper towels, and it still might spark a big idea. Theory is an ethnographer’s yoga—it resets your mind and leads you straight towards empathy and enlightenment.

Induction and reflexivity

A good ethnographer is always working inductively, but sometimes we put the cart before the horse and start making assumptions. This can prevent us from developing empathy and getting at the heart of what’s going on with our data. If this happens, we need to take a deep breath and brush off those assumptions as quickly as we can.

The whole process requires self-reflection. When what someone thinks or does seems a little confusing, we try to remind ourselves that our thoughts or actions would probably be just as confusing to them. If we continue to have trouble understanding someone’s behaviors or motives, there’s a decent chance that we might be our own roadblock; a prejudice of one sort or another might be standing in our way. It helps to take an inventory of our own beliefs and practices, being critical of their origins and how they shape our viewpoints. This is a key step in developing empathy. If we want to walk in the shoes of the people we’re trying to learn from, we’ve got to take our own shoes off first.