20 - Transferring Ethnographic Competence  pp. 344-358

Transferring Ethnographic Competence

By Brigitte Jordan

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The Rise of Ethnography

In the last few years, ethnography has taken on a new prominence and popularity in the business realm. As a consequence, many of our corporate partners are thinking about internalizing ethnographic expertise by “transferring” some measure of ethnographic skills to their employees. We have fielded sporadic requests for this kind of teaching for a very long time, both at PARC and the closely allied Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), but in the last few years they have become noticeably more frequent, sometimes attached to requests for research on recognized issues, such as technology development or understanding customers. In other words, teaching ethnographic field methods has become a product, an “offerable” for institutions like PARC. The tension between ethnography as research and ethnography as product is increasingly resolved by moving ethnography into a service function, a function that supports technology-focused research as a validating rather than as a discovery science (Whalen and Whalen, 2004).

A History of Ethnographic Research and Teaching at PARC and IRL

The full history of the relationship between IRL and PARC remains to be written. Here I offer my own recollections, based on my experience during the more than ten years of IRL's existence, of how work practice analysis arose at PARC out of anthropologically grounded ethnography and ethnomethodology. All such accounts are socially constructed, drawn from a memory that is fallible and only rarely reflects “the facts.”


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