Some Common Misunderstandings, Objections and Complaints

  • Andrew Crabtree
  • Mark Rouncefield
  • Peter Tolmie
Part of the Human–Computer Interaction Series book series (HCIS)


A great many people find ethnomethodologically-informed ethnography problematic. Not only does it have a peculiar language and talk about the world in terms that designers often find strange and hard to digest, when they do manage to swallow it then it often sits uncomfortably with their prior intellectual diet. It is not possible to do justice to the full range of misunderstandings, objections and complaints that are entertained about ethnography, but we can address some of the more common and salient ones. Accordingly, this chapter seeks to explore, elaborate and even correct some of the chief ways in which ethnography is continuously ‘misread’ by designers and others involved in the development of computing systems. You will find even more matters of contention in the social sciences but we wish to set those aside here and focus on the key issues that we have encountered within a design context over the years. These tend to revolve around issues of subject, method, role and scope of ethnography in design. A rounded appreciation of them relies on understanding what we have said in the previous chapters.


Common Sense Work Practice Ethnographic Study Logical Procedure Design Context 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Anderson, R. (1997). Work, ethnography and systems design. In A. Kent & J. G. Williams (Eds.), Encyclopaedia of microcomputers (Vol. 20, pp. 159–183). New York: Marcel Dekker.Google Scholar
  2. Bell, G., Blythe, M., Gaver, W., Sengers, P., & Wright, P. (2003). Designing culturally situated technologies for the home. Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1062–1063). Fort Lauderdale: ACM.Google Scholar
  3. Bell, G., Blythe, M., & Sengers, P. (2005). Making by making strange. ACM ToCHI, 12(2), 149–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beyer, H., & Holtzblatt, K. (1999). Contextual design. ACM Interactions, 6(1), 32–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boehner, K., David, S., Kaye, J., & Sengers, P. (2005). Critical technical practice as a methodology for values in design. Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Workshop 9. Quality, Value(s) and Choice, 2–4 April. Portland: ACM.Google Scholar
  6. Button, G. (2000). The ethnographic tradition and design. Design Studies, 21, 319–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Button, G., & Sharrock, W. (1995). The mundane work of writing and reading computer programs. In G. Psathas & P. ten Have (Eds.), Situated order: Studies in the social organisation of talk and embodied activities (pp. 231–264). Washington, DC: University Press of America.Google Scholar
  8. COMIC Deliverable 2.1. (1994). Informing CSCW requirements.
  9. COMIC Deliverable 2.4. (1994). CSCW requirements development.
  10. Crabtree, A., Rodden, T., Tolmie, P., & Button, G. (2010). Ethnography considered harmful. Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 879–888). Boston: ACM.Google Scholar
  11. Czyzewski, M. (1994). Reflexivity of actors versus the reflexivity of accounts. Theory, Culture and Society, 11, 161–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dekker, S., Nyce, J., & Hoffman, R. (2003). From contextual inquiry to designable futures: What do we need to get there? IEEE Intelligent Systems, 18(2), 74–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (Eds.). (2005). The discipline and practice of qualitative research. Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 1–32). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  14. Dourish, P. (2006). Implications for design. Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 541–550). Montreal: ACM.Google Scholar
  15. Elliot Sim, S. (1999). Evaluating the evidence: Lessons from ethnography. Proceedings of the 5th International Workshop on Empirical Studies of Software Maintenance (pp. 66–70). Oxford: IEEE.Google Scholar
  16. Forsythe, D. (1999). It’s just a matter of commonsense: Ethnography as invisible work. Computer Supported Cooperative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing, 8, 127–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Garfinkel, H., Lynch, M., & Livingston, E. (1981). The work of a discovering science construed with materials from the optically discovered pulsar. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 11, 131–158.Google Scholar
  18. Greenbaum, J., & Kyng, M. (Eds.). (1991). Design at work: Cooperative design of computer systems. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  19. Hartswood, M., Procter, R., Slack, R., Voß, A., Büscher, M., Rouncefield, M., & Rouchy, P. (2002). Co-realisation: Towards a principled synthesis of ethnomethodology and participatory design. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 14(2), 9–30.Google Scholar
  20. Hughes, J. (2001). Of ethnography ethnomethodology and workplace studies. Ethnographic Studies, 6, 7–16.Google Scholar
  21. Hughes, J., Randall, D., & Shapiro, D. (1992). Faltering from ethnography to design. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 115–122). Toronto: ACM.Google Scholar
  22. Jordan, B., & Dalal, B. (2006). Persuasive encounters: Ethnography in the corporation. Field Studies, 18(4), 1–24.Google Scholar
  23. Malcolm, N. (1993). The limit of explanation. In P. Winch (Ed.), Wittgenstein (pp. 74–83). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Marcus, G., & Fischer, M. (1986). Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  25. Martin, D., Rodden, T., Rouncefield, M., Sommerville, I., & Viller, S. (2001). Finding patterns in the fieldwork. Proceedings of the 7th European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 39–58). Bonn: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  26. May, L. (1998). Major causes of software project failures. CrossTalk: The Journal of Defense Software Engineering, July, 9–12.Google Scholar
  27. Mogensen, P. (1994). Challenging practice: An approach to cooperative analysis.
  28. Mumford, E. (1985). Socio-technical systems design: Evolving theory and practice. In Computers and democracy: A Scandinavian challenge (pp. 59–77). Aldershot: Avebury.Google Scholar
  29. Newall, P. (2005). Anything goes: Feyerabend and method. The Galilean Library.
  30. Sacks, H. (1984). Notes on methodology. In J. Maxwell & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis (pp. 21–27). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Sacks, H. (1992). On exchanging glances. In G. Jefferson (Eds.), Lectures on conversation (Vol. 1, Part I, Fall 1964 – Spring 1965, pp. 81–94). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
  32. Shapiro, D. (1994). The limits of ethnography. Proceedings of the Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 417–428). Chapel Hill: ACM.Google Scholar
  33. Sharrock, W., & Randall, D. (2004). Ethnography, ethnomethodology and the problem of generalisation in design. European Journal of Information Systems, 13, 186–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Wyche, S., Medynskiy, Y., & Grinter, R. (2007). Exploring the use of large displays in American mega-churches. Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2771–2776). San Jose: ACM.Google Scholar
  35. Zimmerman, D. H. (1973). The practicalities of rule use. In J. D. Douglas (Ed.), Understanding everyday life: Toward the reconstruction of sociological knowledge (pp. 221–238). London: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew Crabtree
    • 1
  • Mark Rouncefield
    • 2
  • Peter Tolmie
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Computer ScienceUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK
  2. 2.School of Computing and CommunicationsLancaster UniversityLancasterUK

Personalised recommendations