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The Ethnographic Interview


I’m about as far away from an ethnographer as you can get. I live in the heart of the United States and in the same home for over 20 years. And yet, I use ethnographic interviewing in one form or another every single week. How can it be that I’m not embedding myself into new and strange cultures, and yet I value skills that resemble those needed by an ethnographer so deeply? The answer lies in the techniques and thinking that The Ethnographic Interview teaches and in my work world.

I came to The Ethnographic Interview by way of Peter Morville’s work, Intertwingled. He recommended it as a way to understand information architectures – and corporate cultures – more completely. I agree. All too often, the issues we have in understanding one another are about how our cultures differ, and no one has bothered to understand the unwritten meanings behind the words we use.

Requirements Gathering

Before I share some of James Spradley’s insights into ethnography, it’s important for me to cement the connection between what people do today and what ethnography is, so that it’s criticality can be fully understood. In IT, business analysts – by role or by title – seek to understand the foreign world of the business. They learn about logistics, manufacturing, marketing, accounting, and more in an effort to translate the needs of these groups for the developers and systems designers that will create IT systems to support them.

Even the experienced business analyst who knows the company and the department well must do their best to remove all of their assumptions and start fresh in understanding what the group is doing and what they need. While it’s technically impossible to remove all assumptions, because they are so good at hiding, the ethnographer’s task is to eliminate as many as possible and to test those that remain.

I wrote a course for Pluralsight some years ago, titled “Gathering Good Requirements for Developers,” where I teach a set of techniques designed to expose assumptions, test them, and make things feel more real and understandable on both sides.

The requirements gathering process, whether a part of agile design or traditional waterfall methodologies, is absolutely essential to being able to deliver what the business needs. The process of requirements gathering is ultimately a process of eliciting and understanding what the foreign culture is saying – even if that foreign culture is inside of your organization.

What is Ethnography?

An anthropologist is expected to be off in a foreign land eating strange food and spending most of their time wondering what people are saying and what the heck they’re doing so far from those they love. Ethnography is their principle work, which is the systematic study of the culture they’ve embedded themselves in. Put differently, the goal of ethnography is (according to Bronislaw Malinowski) “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”

Simply stated, it’s learning from people. However, there are several nuances. First, ethnographers invite natives to teach them. They don’t assume that they know or can learn the culture without help. Second, there are components of the culture that aren’t ever directly expressed. For instance, in the United States, the phrase “How are you?” is typically a greeting. The typical response is “I’m doing well, and you?” It doesn’t convey a real interest in the other person – until and unless it’s followed with, “I mean, really, how are you?”

Dig Deeper

If there’s one thing I’ve found that is a problem with requirements gathering, information architecture, or just working with other people, it is that we don’t truly understand. We believe we understand. We might be using the same words, but we just aren’t 100% in alignment. That’s where training in ethnography is really helpful.

Ethnographers observe behavior but inquire about the meaning. They understand objects but seek to discover the meanings that the culture assigns to these objects. They record emotions but go beyond to discover the meaning of fear, anxiety, anger, and other feelings.

In short, they dig deeper. They verify their understanding to ensure that what they believe they understand is actually right. Consider for a moment death. It’s the punctuation mark at the end of life – every life. Yet, different cultures view death differently. Some cultures keep death hidden – as is the Western point of view – while others embrace or celebrate it. Some cultures believe in reincarnation and others in an afterlife. It’s the same event, but it’s culturally very, very different.

Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power that we all make models in our head, and it’s these models that drive our thinking. He also shares how painful it can be to get these models to surface. The models are tacit knowledge that cannot be expressed in explicit language. In fact, Lost Knowledge differentiates between tacit knowledge and what’s called “deep tacit knowledge,” which are mental models and cultural artifacts of thinking that are so ingrained the person literally can’t see them.

The person the ethnographer is talking to, the informant, needs prompted to access the information they don’t know they know. A good ethnographer can tease out tacit knowledge from even the worst informants – but finding the right informants certainly makes it easier.

Indispensable Informants

If you follow agile development practices, you may notice that agile depends on a product owner who is intimately familiar with the business process that the software is being developed for. Lean Six Sigma speaks of getting to the gemba (Japanese for “the real place”) to really know what’s happening instead of just guessing. Sometimes this is also used to speak of the people who really know what’s going on. They do the real work.

The same concept applies to ethnographic research. You need someone who is encultured, really a part of what you’re studying. While the manager who once did the job that you’re looking to understand might be helpful, you’ll ideally get to the person who actually is still doing the work. The manager will – at some level, at least – have decided that they’re no longer a part of that group, and, because of that, they’ll lose some of their tacit knowledge about how things are done – and it will be changing underneath their knowledge anyway.

Obviously, your informant needs to not just be involved with the process currently, but they also need to have enough time. If you can’t get their time to allow them to teach you, you won’t learn much. Another key is that the person not be too analytical. As we’ll discuss shortly, it’s important that the informant be able to remain in their role of an encultured participant using their natural language rather than be performing translation for the ethnographer – as they’ll tend to do if they’re too analytical.

You can’t use even the best interviewing techniques in the world to extract information that no longer exists.


The heart of ethnography isn’t writing the report. The heart of ethnography is the interviewing and discovery process. It’s more than just asking questions. It’s about how to develop a relationship and rapport that is helpful. The Heart and Soul of Change speaks of therapeutic alliance and how that is one of the best predictors of therapeutic success.

Tools like those described in Motivational Interviewing can be leveraged to help build rapport. Obviously, motivational interviewing is designed to motivate the other person. However, the process starts with engaging, including good tips to avoid judgement and other harmful statements that may make a productive relationship impossible.

For his part, Spradley in The Ethnographic Interview identifies the need for respect or rapport and provides a set of questions and a set of interviewing approaches that can lead to success.

Types of Questions

At a high level, ethnographic questions fall into three broad categories – descriptive, structural, and contrast questions. These questions allow the ethnographer to dip their toes into the water of understanding, structure their understanding, and understand terms with precision.

Descriptive Questions

Descriptive questions are by far the most voluminous questions that will be asked. They form the foundation of understanding what is in the informant’s world and how they use the objects in their world. Descriptive questions fall into the following categories:

  • Grand Tour Questions – These questions ask for a tour around the topic
    • Typical Grand Tour Questions – Asking for a typical situation in their environment
    • Specific Grand Tour Questions – Asking for a specific time and what happened
    • Guided Grand Tour Questions – Asking to see the specific things happening in an area of the informant’s environment
    • Task-Related Grand Tour Questions – Asking the informant to explain a specific task that they do and how they do it
  • Mini-Tour Questions – Mini-tour questions are the same structure as grand questions but focused on a smaller area of the informant’s experience.
    • Typical Mini-Tour Questions
    • Specific Mini-Tour Questions
    • Guided Mini-Tour Questions
    • Task-Related Mini-Tour Questions
  • Example Questions – Asking for a specific example of something that the informant has answered in general
  • Experience Questions – Asking for experiences that the informant might have found interesting, relevant, or noteworthy
  • Native-Language Questions – Asking how the informant would interact with someone else from the culture – in the language that they use
    • Direct Language Questions – Asking what language they use to refer to something in their environment
    • Hypothetical-Interaction Questions – Asking questions about hypothetical situations that the ethnographer creates
    • Typical-Sentence Questions – Asking what kind of sentences that would be used with a phrase

Descriptive questions allow ethnographers to amass a large amount of information, but that information is unstructured and unconnected. While it’s necessary to spend some time in this space, after a while, it will become necessary to seek to understand how the informant organizes this information.

Structural Questions

As important as building a vocabulary is, understanding the relationships between various terms is more illuminating to the structural processes that the informant uses to organize their world. We use symbols to represent things, and these symbols can be categories that contain other symbols. This is a traditional hierarchical taxonomy like one might find when doing an information architecture (see Organising KnowledgeHow to Make Sense of Any Mess, and The Accidental Taxonomist).

In truth, there are many different kinds of ways that symbols can be grouped into categories, and understanding this structure is what makes the understanding of a culture rich. Spradley proposes that there are a set of common semantic relationships that seem to occur over and over again:

1. Strict inclusion X is a kind of Y
2. Spatial X is a place in Y, X is a part of Y
3. Cause-effect X is a result of Y, X is a cause of Y
4. Rationale X is a reason for doing Y
5. Location for action X is a place for doing Y
6. Function X is used for Y
7. Means-end X is a way to do Y
8. Sequence X is a step (stage) in Y
9. Attribution X is an attribute (characteristic) of Y

Spradley proposes five kinds of structural questions designed to expose the semantic relationships of terms:

  1. Verification Questions – Asking for verification of a domain – or relationship between a set of terms
    1. Domain Verification Questions – Asking whether there are different kinds of a term that the informant has shared
    2. Included Term Verification Questions – Asking whether a term is in a relationship with another term
    3. Semantic Relationship Verification Questions – Asking whether there is a kind of term that relates other terms or if two terms would fit together in a sentence or relationship
    4. Native-Language Verification Questions – Asking whether the words spoken from the informant to the ethnographer are the words that would be used when speaking to a colleague
  2. Cover Term Questions – Asking if there are different types of a particular term
  3. Included Term Questions – Asking if a term or set of terms belong to another term
  4. Substitution Frame Questions – Asking if there are any alternative terms that could be used in the sentence that an informant has spoken
  5. Card Sorting Structural Questions – Asking informants to organize terms written on cards into categories and by relatedness. This is similar to an information architecture card sorting exercise. (See my post and video about Card Sorting for more.)

Descriptive questions will be interspersed with structural questions to prevent monotony and to allow the ethnographer to fill in gaps in their knowledge. Though structural questions help provide a framework to how terms relate, the relationship strength between terms isn’t always transparent. That’s why contrast questions are used to refine the understanding of what the strength of the relationship is between terms.

Contrast Questions

Sometimes you can’t see differences in the abstract. For instance, our brains automatically adapt to changing light and convert something that may look blueish or pinkish to white, because we know something (like paper) should be white, even when the current lighting makes it look abnormally blue or pink. So, too, can the hidden differences between terms be obscured until you put them right next to each other. That’s what contrast questions do. They put different terms side-by-side, so they can be easily compared.

The kinds of contrast questions are:

  1. Contrast Verification Questions – Asking to confirm or disconfirm a difference in terms
  2. Directed Contrast Questions – Asking about a known characteristic of a term and how other terms might contrast on that characteristic
  3. Dyadic Contrast Questions – Asking the informant to identify the differences between two terms
  4. Triadic Contrast Questions – Asking the informant to identify which one of three terms is least like the other two
  5. Contrast Set Sorting Questions – Asking the informant to contrast an entire set of terms at the same time
  6. Twenty Questions Game – The ethnographer selects a term from a set and the informant asks a set of yes/no questions of the ethnographer until they discover the term. This highlights the hidden ways that informants distinguish terms. (This is similar to techniques like Innovation Games, where the games are designed to reveal hidden meanings.)
  7. Rating Questions – Asking questions about the relative values placed on different terms – along dimensions like easiest/most difficult and least/most interesting, least/most desirable, etc.

The sheer number of types of questions can seem overwhelming at first. However, many of these forms flow automatically if you develop a genuine interest in the informant and their culture. Still, sometimes it’s hard to try to learn a new language and think about what’s the next question that you need to ask to keep the conversation moving.

Multiple Languages

In the case of an anthropologist who is working with a brand new culture, it could be that they’re learning a whole new language – literally. However, in most cases, it’s not that the language is completely different and new to the ethnographer. In most cases, it’s the use of the terms that are different. Just experiencing the difference between UK English and American English can leave someone a bit confused. A rubber in England is an eraser in the US, and a cigarette in the US is a fag in the UK. While both are English, the meaning and expectations of the word are quite different.

We often forget how we speak differently in a profession. A lexicon – special language – develops around industries that aren’t a part of the general consciousness. It’s the ethnographer’s job to discover not only that lexicon but also what the words mean to the rest of us.

Who Should Translate, and When?

When there are multiple languages, there is always the need to translate from one language to another. However, who does that translation – and when is the translation done? Informants, in their desire to be helpful, are likely to try to translate the information of their culture into terms that the ethnographer will understand. While the intent is helpful, the result is that the ethnographer doesn’t get to understand that aspect of the culture.

So, while translation is necessary, it’s best to continue to discourage the informant from being the one who is doing the translation. The ethnographer can leave their notes in native language and then translate later. This also allows them to validate information with structural and contrast questions. Sometimes, it’s this review that reveals some underlying themes of the culture.


In most cultures, there’s a set of recurring themes that appear. It isn’t explicit or stated, but there are those sacred cows that everyone worships that shapes the way the organization thinks. An entrepreneurial company has agility or velocity at the heart of the way that they organize their thoughts. A brand-focused company may be inherently focused on status or image. While these values aren’t typically articulated, they’re assumed, and they shape the way that the organization thinks – about everything.

By having the opportunity to review and rework translations, these themes begin to emerge. The semantic relationships appear over and over again until it becomes apparent that they’re not specific ways of organizing a topic but are instead a way of organizing everything.


One of the challenges that I often see in requirements is that the business analyst doesn’t always spend the time drilling into the details and verifying understanding in a way that results in requirements that fully express the needs of the business and how they do work. The ethnographic process – including the variety of questions – is one way to combat this challenge. It’s possible to leverage the ethnographic process to more deeply understand what is happening and how the systems are expected to help.

While I may be far from the fields of a foreign land, speaking to people whose language I don’t speak, I often move from industry to industry and company to company, learning their languages and the way that they think about the world. The Ethnographic Interview is, therefore, a useful tool for helping me get a better understanding and better requirements.