Distributed Ethnography

The power of interpretation is in your hands.

Using SenseMaker®, a software ecology that integrates decision support, research, monitoring and knowledge management, it allows us to hear the everyday stories of people, to understand their dinner-table conversations and in hearing their hopes, dreams, unstructured opinions and views – to decode the social patterns that are really driving behaviours and attitudes. 

“We are never more than the co-authors of our own narratives." (MacIntyre, 1981)

The stories we tell are a fundamental patterning device through which we understand the world and, therefore, capturing these narratives provide a rich and valuable set of research data. 

Rather than focusing on fully constructed stories, the distributed ethnographic tool captures fragmented narrative,everyday conversations, in their original form and context. Traditional methods, such as surveys and questionnaires, allow respondents to self-report on their experiences by using a Likert or linear-based scale. Although widely used, this uni-dimensional method often does not provide an accurate reflection of thoughts and attitudes and is prone to researcher bias. Similarly, ethnographic methods, although able to reconcile some of these criticisms, lack scalability and are therefore difficult to deploy.

Alternatively, this tool has been described as the first distributed ethnographic research tool. It allows respondents to become ethnographers in their own communities by contributing stories in their own contexts, in their own time, using their phones, laptops or other electronic devices. For this reason, it enables a scalable, sustainable, distributed ethnographic approach. 

Rather than being mediated by experts or researchers, the power of interpretation always remains at the subject level; it is the individual who provides the data that decides what it means (self-signification). This shifts the top-down approach of traditional research to a more engaged, more accurate, more far-reaching social sensory system that allows decision-makers to take the pulse of a social network at any given time and empower this network to devise and implement their own solutions.