Design Ethnography: a historical view

| March 15, 2011

Recently I came across a helpful article that I would like to share with those of you who are interested in design education. The article was written by Timothy Waal Malefyt and it was published in the American Anthropologist 2009 111 (2): 201-210. Its entitled: Understanding the Rise of Consumer Ethnography: Branding Technomethodologies in the New Economy. What I like about the article is that it provides a history of the increasing role of anthropologists in business and industry who specialize in design ethnography. I’ve listed a few quotes below that I found interesting.

  • “Popular press articles have widely celebrated anthropology, and particularly ethnography, as a new business tool to gain insight into consumers’ lives.” (Malefyt, 2009: 201)

  • “The explosive growth of ethnography in consumer research has reached a level wherein many Fortune 100 corporations regularly employ ethnographic approaches.” (Malefyt, 2009: 201)
  • “This means ethnographic companies and market-research anthropologists no longer assume a solitary uniqueness for their practice but often distinguish themselves by branding.” (Malefyt, 2009: 201)
  • “Ethnography is employed by corporations not so much to explore cultural issues of shared values and trends but, rather, as a method to probe the individual and categorize the self” (Malefyt, 2009: 202)
  • While anthropologists in the 1980s “questioned ethnography as highly problematic…. For corporations the emergence of new attitudes and approaches to intensify a deeper examination of the consumer… became the very cornerstone of the need for fundamental research like ethnography.” (Malefyt, 2009: 204)