View from the Inside: Watch and Learn

Celeste Pang, Design Research Team Lead

In the latest post of the View from the Inside series, Celeste Pang discusses the Innovation Hub sessions on participant observation and alternative methods for data collection.

Celeste is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology. She works in ageing and health-related research, and brings extensive experience in ethnography to her role in the Innovation Hub, where she leads the Family Care Office design team.

“Watch and learn.”

As a researcher trained in anthropology, asking critical questions and learning through observation and participation—ethnography—is a skillset that takes years to build. Yet ethnographic research draws upon, and builds from, basic aspects of human sociality and relationship-making.

We talk to people (often through informal or semi-structured interviews); we engage with our communities of study in their day-to-day life (participant observation); we build rapport (or relationships of trust); and we strive to be continually reflexive and aware of ongoing ethical issues and power dynamics in our work. We may be studying a community or an issue that touches us personally, or we may find ourselves further afield. Either way, we aim to “make the familiar strange.” We critically, deeply, and with attention to detail, hang out.  

Being present in the field, whether in long durations or shorter engagements, is key. “Present,” to me, takes on an almost meditative quality—it involves following a person, an idea, a flow of information, goods, or people, and fostering a holistic awareness of what is going on. Sharpened senses, alongside different levels of remove, allow us to appreciate and better understand the contexts we are studying: the sights, the smells, the texture of days, the mundane, the routine, and the eventful. We listen closely and watch how people react and interact. We take detailed notes, jot our impressions, collect images, transcribe interviews, and make thick descriptions through text and other media.

While traditional anthropological training informally mandates a year in the field, not every person or organization has such time—and not every question requires a prescribed duration. Ethnography is being taken up in industries from health to technology and design as a way to learn more about users’ perspectives and experiences and to inform service, product, and systems design. Rapid ethnographies may study the eating and serving patterns of residents in a long-term care home through team-based participation observation, while semi-structured interviews with multiple stakeholders can inform the design of strategic plans and governance structures.

Alternative methods can include such initiatives as design events. “Explore, Imagine, Play”: the Innovation Hub uses this as a framework in our design projects,  whether we are helping to redesign the instructional landscape or to create family-friendly study spaces on campus. These events explore what already exists through guided activities, such as facilitated dialogues about participant experiences; encourage imagination of “what if…” and what could be possible in the future; and create opportunities to play to broaden focus from a single final solution to innovative insights.

Indeed, exploring, imagining, and playing, when used with reflexivity and sensitivity to research contexts, seem to me to be part of the best ethnographies (or at least my favourite ones). Learning from others by “being there,” a central tenet of ethnography, is a process and a skill to be cultivated. By learning to describe thickly and imagine alternatives, ethnographers are uniquely placed to reflect upon important social issues and inform designs for the future. And, in the midst, we get to hang out.

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