[Book Review] Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector by Sam Ladner

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.38.28 AMI always eagerly anticipate new contributions to the field of business and design anthropology because it’s an area of practice that is still growing and could use as much thoughtful ideation around its identity, values, and application as it can get. My hope for new books, articles, blogs and other forms of idea-sharing in this field is that its practitioners continue to build on its foundations through sharing relevant experiences, case studies, research findings, theoretical frameworks, and ways of communicating its value to others. I am happy to say that “Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector” (2014) by Sam Ladner lived up to my hopes by adding a useful, practical and fresh perspective to the conversation.

I highly recommend this book to just about anyone in this field of work, including:

  1. Students of ethnography who eventually want to apply it in a business setting and want a realistic take on what that might look like (hint: it’s not what they’re teaching you in school for the most part.)
  2. Young professionals who are a couple years into their careers and could use a guidebook of sorts to help them do good ethnography and think about ways to talk about it to convince others of its value.
  3. Veteran practitioners who want a quick, good reference book and a fresh take on how to talk about their work.
  4. Researchers who aren’t trained in ethnography or the social sciences, but who want to know what it’s really all about and how to do it without just making shit up.
  5. Academics who want to switch to an applied career in business but don’t want to come off as too academic one they get there.
  6. Non-researchers who work in business (e.g., product managers, designers, engineers, and other clients/stakeholders) who want to understand how ethnography fits into business and design processes and how it can help improve products and services.

From theory and analysis to working with stakeholders and creating proposals, this book touches on the key aspects involved in doing high-quality ethnography in a business setting, with relevant anecdotes from Ladner’s own personal ethnography journey. While much of the book is essentially a primer on designing, conducting and managing ethnographic projects, Ladner does not gloss over a number of other aspects that many consider important, like the rampant misconceptions of ethnography in business and how to address them, cultures of positivism versus interpretivism, managing client expectations, ethics, and what ethnography is actually meant to accomplish.

I appreciate that Ladner, a sociologist, starts off with just enough of an explanation of the roots of ethnography, but does not dwell on it before getting to something everyone cares about – why ethnography is valuable to private sector work. She follows with a section that is determined to convince even the most practical-minded person that theoretical explanations of data are important to quality research. While academically trained ethnographers will be familiar with the introductory content, Ladner makes some really important points about working in this field that we may not have thought about or that we could use reminding of. Here are a few of my favorite nuggets:

  • “Positivists rule in the private sector. Interpretivists are few in number and small influence.” Say it, Sam! Here she means that we work in environments with people who conceive of significance from a different perspective. It’s been this way for a long time and it’s not going away, but we can work with it.
  • “How can a private-sector ethnographer navigate contemporary corporate life when her chosen research method continually conflicts with its time regime?” Essentially, corporate work has its own understanding of time, accounting for that time is an essential part of our work, and the discipline of project management is how people control time, money, and other people – likely a “foreign and threatening” notion to most ethnographers, who have to play nicely within the dominant corporate culture. Ethnography wasn’t designed for use in corporations, but it has to adapt. Ethnographers must communicate to stakeholders and clients (especially those used to traditional market research) that they will comply with budgets and timelines and will provide a useful product in the end. Brilliant!
  • “Ethnographic projects represent a fundamental threat to identity if they focus on the gap between the customer’s experience and the organization’s own identity pillars.” In doing ethnography, you are asking your company or clients to value and incorporate the perspectives of people who may be very different from them, and to see those people (and not just themselves) as experts. The risk is that they might not like what they hear in the results, but it may just blow their minds away and change their product or service for the good.
  • “Standing in a room and looking at things is not an ethnography.” …Isn’t she the best?

There’s enough in this book to warrant it a necessary addition to any personal or organizational collection. The veteran researcher will take great interest in Ladner’s thoughts on how to maneuver corporate culture and be successful with ethnographic research. The novice or non-researcher will appreciate how Ladner demystifies the process of ethnography, and provides an in-depth review of how to actually manage and conduct an ethnographic project. All the while, she reminds the reader about the human-centered nature of ethnography and its goal of shedding light on and caring about the ways of other people, and not just ourselves, when we are doing business or designing things. Importantly, anyone struggling to communicate the value of ethnography to stakeholders or clients will find a helpful ally here.

Ladner’s book reminds me that it’s important to always be thinking about ways to bridge the gap between understanding and misconception, and to advocate for people in all of their complexities as well as the importance and significance of the social world in environments where it may not be not second nature to do so. She reminds me that truth is subjective and perception is reality, and that because people create identity and meaning through the products and services they choose, the job of the ethnographer, which is to understand things from the emic point of view, is as important as ever.

7 thoughts on “[Book Review] Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector by Sam Ladner

  1. I look forward to reading this! I will disagree with the last point you make (not related to the book) which is that TRUTH is actually the reality and that it’s perception that is subjective. Consumer culture and the ethnographic study of it is all about how we perceive the world differently and how that effects our consumption choices. As a sociologist and anthropologist myself I have learned over years of doing this mind of work that all humans hold the same truths – it’s just how we perceive the qualification and degree of importance. of those truths – like safety, comfort, self actualization, etc that is different and subjective based on context.

    Really great book review, however. Will be purchasing a couple copies as soon as I am done typing this reply. 😉

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