Reporting Ethnography: Storytelling & the Roles Participants Play

In Chapter 10 of Sam Ladner’s book Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector, the author discusses a best practice approach to reporting ethnographic research for a corporate audience.  She states Shakespean actorthat “private-sector ethnographic reports are successful if they are dramatic and consistent with the organization’s truth regime” (p.165).  To this end, Ladner recommends text reports with “clickable hyperlinks” throughout and supplemental material, such as a PowerPoint presentation, that acts as the “marketing campaign” or “movie trailer” for the text document.

As another “delightful element” to the ethnography report, Ladner suggests the use of personas or archetypes, each representing a depiction of participants that share a particular characteristic.  This is “a useful way to summarize the voluminous amount of qualitative data” (p. 167); however, Ladner cautions that personas “are often done badly” and points to Steve Portigal’s article on the subject matter, “Persona Non Grata.”  In it, Portigal advocates for maintaining the “realness” of research participants rather than manufacturing a “falsehood” (by way of personas) that distances the users of the research from the people they want to know most about.  Portigal encourages researchers to engage with the “messiness of actual human beings,” emphasizing that “people are too wonderfully complicated to be reduced to plastic toys [that is, personas].”

Reporting observational research for corporate users can be a challenge.  On the one hand, the researcher is obligated to dig into the messiness of analysis and convey an honest accounting of what the researcher saw and heard.  On the other hand, the final reporting is meaningless if no one pays attention to it, thereby preventing the research from having the desired effect of bringing new energy and a new way of thinking to the organization.  Ladner and Portigal agree that powerful storytelling grounded in reality is the best approach, but how do we create a compelling drama while maintaining the integrity of our data?  A combination of formats, as Ladner suggests, is one tactic.  And the use of personas may be another.  An open and ongoing discussion among researchers about personas – if and how the roles we assign the actors in our final story are (or can be) created while staying true to the study participants – seems like a worthwhile effort.

 

Image captured from: https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/2015/386081/

 

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