The “Real Ethnography” of Michael Agar

Several years ago, when working on Applied Qualitative Research Design, I began reading the works of Michael Agar. To simply say that Agar was an anthropologist would be cutting him short; and, indeed, Anthropology News, in an article published shortly after Agar’s death in May 2017, described him as

“a linguistic anthropologist, a cultural anthropologist, almost an South Asianist, a drug expert, a medical anthropologist, an applied anthropologist, a practicing anthropologist, a public anthropologist, a professional anthropologist, a professional stranger, a theoretical anthropologist, an academic anthropologist, an independent consultant, a cross cultural consultant, a computer modeler, an agent-based modeler, a complexity theorist, an environmentalist, a water expert, a teacher…”

One doesn’t need to look far to be enlightened as well as entertained by Mike Agar – On the “Scribblings” page of his Ethknoworks website, he lightheartedly rants about the little money most authors make in royalties stating “If you divide money earned by time invested in writing and publishing, you’ll see that you’d do better with a paper route in Antarctica.” It may be this combined ability to enlighten and entertain that drew me to Agar and keeps me ever mindful of the words he has written and the ideas he instilled.

For some reason I come back to his 2006 article “An Ethnography By Any Other Name…”. In it, Agar explores the question “What is a real ethnography?” with discussions of debates (“tension”) between anthropologists and sociologists, and about various nuances such as whether applied anthropology is actually “real” given that “ethnography no longer meant a year or more by yourself in a village far Read Full Text

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.


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Facilitating Reflexivity in Observational Research: The Observation Guide & Grid

Observational research is “successful” to the extent that it satisfies the research objectives by capturing relevant events and participants along with the constructs of interest.  Fortunately, there are two tools – the observation guide and the observation grid – that serve to keep the observer on track towards these objectives and generally facilitate the ethnographic data gathering process.

Not unlike the outlines interviewers and moderators use to help steer the course of their in-depth interviews and group discussions, the observation guide serves two important purposes: 1) It reminds the observer of the key points of observation as well as the topics of interest associated with each, and 2) It acts as the impetus for a reflexive exercise in which the observer can reflect on his/her own relationship and contribution to the observed at any moment in time (e.g., how the observer was affected by the observations).  An observation guide is an important tool regardless of the observer’s role.  For each of the five observer roles* – nonparticipant (off-site or on-site) and participant (passive, participant-observer, or complete) observation – the observation guide helps to maintain the observer’s focus while also giving the observer leeway to reflect on the particular context associated with each site.

As an adjunct to the observation guide, it is recomObservation gridmended that ethnographic researchers also utilize an observation grid.  The grid is similar to the guide in that it helps remind the observer of the events and issues of most import; however, unlike the guide, the observation grid is a spreadsheet or log of sorts that enables the observer to actually record (and record his/her own reflections of) observable events in relationship to the constructs of interest.  The grid might show, for instance, the relevant constructs or research issues as column headings and the specific foci of observation as rows.  In an observational study of train travel, for example, the three key research issues related to activity at the train station might be: waiting for departures, delays in departures, and boarding; and the key areas of observation would pertain to behavior, conversations heard, and contextual information such as the weather and the general mood.  Like the guide, the observation grid not only ensures that the principal issues and components are captured but also encourages the observer to reflect on each aspect of his/her observations and identify the particular ways the observer is influencing (or is being influenced by) the recorded observations.

*Roller & Lavrakas, 2015. Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach. New York: Guilford Press.