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“It's Just a Matter of Common Sense”: Ethnography as Invisible Work

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Anthropologists have been using ethnographic methods since the 1970s to support the design and evaluation of software. While early use of such skills in the design world was viewed as experimental, at least by computer scientists and engineers, ethnography has now become established as a useful skill in technology design. Not only are corporations and research laboratories employing anthropologists to take part in the development process, but growing numbers of non-anthropologists are attempting to borrow ethnographic techniques. The results of this appropriation have brought out into the open a kind of paradox: while ethnography looks and sounds straightforward, this is not really the case. The work of untrained ethnographers tends to overlook things that anthropologists see as important parts of the research process. The consistency of this pattern suggests that some aspects of ethnographic fieldwork are invisible to the untrained eye. In short, ethnography would appear to constitute an example of invisible work. Drawing on my own decade of experience as an anthropologist working in design, I attempt to clarify the nature of ethnographic expertise, describe six misconceptions about ethnography that I have encountered among scientists, and present real-life examples to illustrate why quasi-ethnographic work based on these misconceptions is likely to be superficial and unreliable.


Forsythe, Diana E. (1999): “It's Just a Matter of Common Sense”: Ethnography as Invisible Work. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW): Vol. 8, No. 1-2. DOI: 10.1023/A:1008692231284. Springer. PISSN: 1573-7551. pp. 127-145