Applied Ethnographic Research – Where’s the theory?

Why is academic anthropological theory and sometimes training of so little use to researchers using ethnography as a research technique? How can academics create theory that speaks to applied fields and industry?

Recently, I had my first experience doing ethnography for industry. This was an eye-opening experience and it made me think about my training and the place of theory in applied anthropology. Let me explain: Initially, I was asked to carry out a literature review on the topic we intended to research in a 15-week project with a major multinational technology company. Ethnography was to be the main research technique used to study a very complex virtual and physical work environment. As I imagined, there was a great deal of academic literature on the topic we were studying. What surprised me was that it was largely useless for the type of applied work we were doing. First, my colleagues had no interest in reading lengthy articles that are written without any bullet points and where was the executive summary! Second, my colleagues had little or no formal training in anthropology and the references to canon pieces and general anthropological literature did not speak to their hands-on work reality. Finally, I realized that most of the publications seemed outdated as soon as they were published. Really, there must be something better out there but I was unable to find it.

This little experience left me wondering if theory can inform applied anthropology for industry? If so, what would it look like? I would like to have a discussion on this topic. What have others found? What solutions exist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can academics help industry folks doing mixed method research do ethnography better? How can we help give depth to their practice and analysis?

I called on a number of anthropology bloggers to enter into a discussion. The first post on this topic is by Krystal D’Costa on Anthropology in Practice. We hope that the conversation will grow and continue. Please feel free to link blog posts and leave comments.

My response will follow shortly.