Imaginary ethnography

26/1/2023 ☼ methodologyethnographyimaginationculture

I used to co-teach a doctoral course in the methodology of management research. The weeks I taught were about interview methods and ethnography.

When I began graduate school, I thought I would be a Big Data quantitative researcher. Very quickly, I realised that quantitative analysis definitely only works for well-defined constructs and usually only for well-defined questions. (Many social scientists forget this, perhaps because epistemology is rarely a required course even at PhD level. Or perhaps because there is almost a hegemony of quantitative research these days.)

It is only through messy qualitative research — and especially ethnography — that we can discover new, emergent constructs and questions, or figure out how to define them clearly enough for quantitative analysis to be meaningful.

So here we are now at a time in world history when lots of stuff is happening that is not well-defined. New technology and ways of using it, unpredictably changing environments, unstable geopolitical situations, etc.1 It definitely seems time to be using ethnography for insight again.

In particular, we seem to need ways to imagine better futures and explore their implications. At the very big picture level, stuff like anthropogenic climate change absolutely requires better and more rigorous imagination than we are currently bringing to it. On a smaller scale, organisations also need rigorous imagination to adapt to changing environments. This is true whether they are for-profit, not-for-profit, or government organisations. Operating the same way that worked in the past is unlikely to continue working as well into a future that is very different from the past.

Imaginary ethnography can help us develop better, more rigorous imagination.

What is imaginary ethnography?

Ethnography is observation of the fine details of lived experience — the recording of detail that is so much a part of life that it has become taken for granted — to derive insight into patterns of behaviour that are invisible and imperceptible to those living the experience. Ethnography is distinguished from simple observation by the theorising imperative.

Imaginary ethnography is ethnography of lived experience that doesn’t exist — it is an attempt to generate insights into patterns and dynamics of a non-existent or not-yet-existent way of life by imagining taken-for-granted details and theorising about the context in which they might become so normalised as to be invisible.

As an aside, taken-for-granted detail is crucial to understanding the deep bases for a situation’s coherence, for really getting the meaning engine that keeps the situation running. A good rough analogy is how an organization’s behavior becomes much comprehensible when the implicit and never-spoken assumptions it holds become clear.

This is why culture is hard for those embedded inside it to really see, and also why the external perspective always provides valuable (though in its own way incomplete) insight.

Why do we need imaginary ethnography?

Imaginary ethnography is not fiction, science fiction, design fiction, or scenario planning.

Fiction and science fiction both are observations of lived experience that don’t exist — at their finest, they are records of broad and fine detail that have many similarities to ethnography’s attempt to enter (to the extent it can) into the hermeneutic circle of the person or group being observed. For instance, some of Ursula le Guins writing does this, creating the sensation of strangeness not by describing impossibly advanced technologies and weird-looking aliens but by describing a world filled with familiar-seeming things and people which behave in unfamiliar ways that highlight fundamentally different assumptions about how things should work. But f/sf lacks the explicit theorising impulse of ethnography. Their reason for being is not the creation of theory as a basis for driving new behaviour, even if they can sometimes drive new behaviour. There are also methodological considerations to imaginary ethnography that f/sf simply does not need to consider.

These methodological considerations are more relevant when distinguishing imaginary ethnography from design fiction and scenario planning. Design fiction and scenario planning are both driven by the theorising impulse. They operate by creating fictions of varying levels of detail. However, design fictions and scenarios generally focus on exploring the implications of evident changes to various aspects of life, like what happens if cars disappear or if there is a UBI — they are not about the unconsidered trifles but about the noticeable differences. They inherently lack the particular methodological considerations of imaginary ethnography, specifically the focus on what is implicit and taken for granted.

Imaginary ethnography could therefore be a powerful adjunct to design fictions and scenarios as established tools of futurism.

The challenge of imaginary ethnography.

In traditional or, as I like to call it, Old Skool ethnography, the ethnographer is the observer and the group they study are the observed. This sharp distinction begins to fade as soon as the ethnographer enters the field (because being part of the group makes it easy to go native”).

But inevitably, even someone who is a stranger to the group becomes part of the group as the stranger. (Simmel calls it the structural position of the stranger.) The stranger begins immediately to comprehend how life works in the group; what is taken for granted. In other words, the ethnographer begins immediately to soak up the culture of the group they study and go native.”

The ethnographer’s difficult task is to remain the stranger/observer even as they try to become a type of native/observed — both points of view must remain conceptually separate even as they become conjoined in reality.

Add to that the problem that imaginary ethnography brings: The ethnographer is observing and trying to derive patternings from situations that don’t exist, while simultaneously trying to go native as a stranger and stay strange as a native. There is a manifold (in the formal sense of many and various, and also the informal sense of mutually layered) problem here:

  1. The ethnographer must imagine the thing being observed.
  2. This imagination must be that not of the stranger/observer but the native/observed.
  3. The imaginary ethnographer must thus go beyond the traditional ethnographer’s already difficult task, to literally both be the observer and the observed at the same time.

This requires us to be much more explicit (as in ethnography) of our own subjectivity while still opening a path to imagining people and situations which don’t exist yet (as in design fictions)

This is a very difficult task but seems crucial now.

  1. Yes I know humanity has always had new tech, geopolitical instability, disease, unpredictable weather etc. I wrote about why nonetheless, this time is different from all the times that came before.↩︎