the reductive seduction of other people’s problems

“The “reductive seduction” is not malicious, but it can be reckless. For two reasons. First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.”

Practical Ethnography – the chapter about theory

My notes from chapter 2 of Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector, by Sam Ladner.

“Becoming a good private-sector ethnographer means you must understand your research method and be able to explain it to your clients and stakeholders. Practically speaking, this means you must know how to do ethnography but also how to think about ethnography.”

What is truth, anyway?

In the private sector truth is seen to reside in facts. This is a ‘positivist’ or ‘factist’ perspective about truth. There are generally numbers involved in these facts. The factist approach also usually assumes that future events can be predicted. In a corporate environment you’re going to find yourself surrounding by positivists.

Ethnographers start with an ‘interpretivist’ view of truth. Interpretivists seek to understand how people ascribe meaning to their world. Sociologist Max Weber used the German word verstehen to describe this goal –  “to understand a single phenomena as representative or indicative of a wider system”.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz argues that culture is “the meaning people ascribe to:

  • objects
  • people
  • activities,
  •  and institutions.”

It’s the ethnographer’s job to uncover these meanings. For the people we are studying, truth lies in these perceptions, not in the absolutes.

My notes: When we talk about user research, or we’re reading articles about qualitative user research methods etc, we’ll often hit some version of this statement: “qualitative research helps us understand the why”. These theoretical approaches gives us the chance to frame those whys through different lenses.

Our identities and the system of meaning in which we find ourselves creates our truth

“A product’s meaning is a function of a consumer’s perception of two broad concepts: 1) his own identity; and 2) the system of meaning in which he finds himself.”

Identities are not fixed. They’re often in flux. What does it mean to be a ‘woman’ or an ‘Asian’? These aren’t really categories that determine our behaviour. They’re roles that we, individually, interpret. Sam Ladner gives a couple of examples here: not all women wear make-up, not all Asian people living in a western country will speak a language other than English.

My notes: You often hear certain expected behaviour being ascribed to a specific identity. One example that drives me nuts is the ‘your mum’ identity when talking about technology. “Imagine your mum trying to use this product”. (Well, my mum works for NASA so she’d probably be ok with your stupid app.) 

Erving Goffman, a sociologist, argued that all social life is theatre. In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life he argued that we perform different roles in different ‘fronts’. We wear different costumes, act in different ways and use different scripts depending on which front we find ourselves in: work, home, a shop, a party ….

“We regularly and normally engage in “impression management” to control who sees what, and when.” And we “strive to keep our fronts separate.”

My notes: Except that systems like facebook mean those fronts all kind of crossover, which can sometimes be embarrassing.

There are three key aspects of identity that private sector ethnographers will need to grapple with: gender, economic class, race or ethnicity.

“These roles affect (but do not determine) the decision to purchase a product, how consumers user or display the product, and how they influence others to purchase the product in turn.”

Some stuff about gender

  1. Gender is often seen in terms of two binary states: male and female, but we know (we know this, right) that it’s much more complicated than that.

2. Judith Butler argued, in 1999, that gender is fundamentally a performance.

How this is relevant for private sector researchers? People often grapple with an ideal role of woman or man and purchasing a product can play into this.

Some stuff about economic class

  1. Karl Marx’s idea that wealth is not a fact “but a socially constructed meaning that is debated, negotiated and resisted”.

2. Cultural capital – the knowledge about which brands to buy and what they signify is very different to actual economic capital.

Some stuff about race and ethnicity

  1. “Race is more of a social identity than it is a biological phenomenon.”

All of these identity roles intersect.

Cultcha! Or our broader systems of meaning that we find ourselves in. 

Identities play out within contexts.

“It is the ethnographer that provides insights into the influences culture has on the individual”.

While the factist approach believes people have all the answers about their context, the interpritivist view understands that we often don’t understand or fully appreciate the impacts our culture has upon us.

Why that’s important to understand: You’ll often be asked to ask interviewees for their opinion about social trends or product trends or similiar. “Consumers are just as unaware of these trends … ”

“We can operationalize culture as values, beliefs, and behaviours.”


Values generally fall somewhere along five axes, as Kluckholm and Seeley put forward in the 1950s.

These axes are:

  • Time orientation – is looking forward or looking back more important to the organisation?
  • Activity – what activity is correct?
  • Human relations – hierarchies or collaboration? Competition?
  • Human nature – are we born good, bad or neutral?
  • Human to nature – do we dominate nature, live within it, or submit to it?

Values tend to cluster.


What do people believe about a particular topic?


Linton (1936), in his book The Study of Man, argues that there are four types of behaviours.

  • Universals
  • Specialties
  • Alternatives
  • Peculiarities.

Sam Lander gives this example:

Behaviour Description Example
Universals What everyone does Wear shoes
Specialties What some roles do – e.g. women, managers Wear dress shoes, wear high heels
Alternatives In the realm of personal taste Wear hot pink Doc Martens
Peculiarities What only “strange” people do Go barefoot

Sum all of this typing up in one sentence

Perception is reality.


And just to be 100% clear, except for the bits I noted as mine, everything here is from Sam Ladner’s book. Go buy the book! It’s good.