UX book review: Shane, the lone ethnographer — A beginner's guide to ethnography

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ethnography /ɛθˈnɒɡrəfi/

noun

  1. the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences.

— Oxford Dictionary

Shane, The Lone Ethnographer is self-described as “A Beginner’s Guide to Ethnography”, written and cleverly illustrated by Sally Campbell Galman, an award-winning cartoonist and Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts. It is the visual, comic-like journey of Shane, a graduate student and novice researcher looking to run her first ethnographic study.

 

Galman, Sally Campbell, 2007. Shane, the Lone Ethnographer: A Beginner's Guide to Ethnography (AltaMira Press: Plymouth, UK). Galman, Sally Campbell, 2007. Shane, the Lone Ethnographer: A Beginner's Guide to Ethnography (AltaMira Press: Plymouth, UK).

 

A journey into qualitative research 101

In the book, we work with Shane through her many struggles as she tries to run her first major research project. Shane’s character is reminiscent of my own experiences and observations of many graduate students out there: ambitious and hungry for success but distracted, easily bored, and generally unmotivated. We follow Shane as she works through very recognizable stages of research we have done in the past. Daunting beginnings, bursts of motivation as information comes together, feelings of absolute despair, and finally the satisfaction of overcoming feats we thought would be impossible at the very beginning.

Shane’s story will hit close to home for anyone who has ever completed a research assignment. Perhaps a bit too close, as she tries frantically to search for answers she should have known—if only she had listened in class. What is qualitative research? What is a research paradigm? What’s the point of a literature review? How do I think of a research question? Is this a representative sample? How do I organize my data? How do I write it up?

These are all questions Shane has to deal with as she embarks on the journey of writing her first major research project, an ethnography on the professors at her university.

Shane, The Lone Ethnographer is a fresh and engaging read that covers all the elements of a standard methodological textbook; however, unlike many dry academic texts, Sally Galman makes basic theoretical and methodological concepts relatable and easy to understand. I was able to read Shane in about two hours—not because of its comic book format, but because it is a clever presentation of information that usually tends to be dull. The main research element culprits are all there: paradigms, frameworks, theorists, literature reviews, sampling, data collection, analysis—yet learning about them through Shane’s eyes makes these important terms seem simple, straightforward, and even fun.

 

Galman, Sally Campbell, 2007. Shane, the Lone Ethnographer: A Beginner's Guide to Ethnography (AltaMira Press: Plymouth, UK). Galman, Sally Campbell, 2007. Shane, the Lone Ethnographer: A Beginner's Guide to Ethnography (AltaMira Press: Plymouth, UK).

 

What you need to know

For me, Shane, the Lone Ethnographer served as a refresher on the basics of conducting a piece of qualitative research. However brief, Shane’s journey reminds us of key points that are often easy to forget:

  1. Qualitative research is not for everyone. It can often lack the rigour of analyzing quantitative data. Open-mindedness and flexibility are important, because you never know when you may have to take a different lead on your research. If you are painfully shy, inflexible, or arrogant (whether you like to admit to it or not), this branch of research may be wrong for you.
  2. Be aware of your own biases. Being an excellent researcher is one thing, but being able to interpret qualitative results well without imposing your own worldview is a skill that takes time and practice. We all view the world through our own specific lens, and our ideas, notions, experiences, and normative assumptions influence the way we look at our data.
  3. Getting started is the hardest part. We hear it all the time, but qualitative research in particular has a tendency to appear tremendously daunting in the early stages. Careful planning, flexibility, and being prepared to fail can help, but truth be told, jumping in and getting started is the best remedy for a seemingly intimidating project.

I always enjoy reading tips on how to write a good question, and Galman provides a very simple but clear perspective on how this is done. The distinctions she makes between normal conversation and ethnographic interviewing are a great place to start for anyone new to qualitative research. Useful examples on the differences between open-ended and structured or semi-structured interviews are also helpful when considering the different ways in which you can approach an interview.

One part of Shane’s journey that stood out in particular was her process of interpreting the results of her ethnographic study. Here, she chose to think of it as a “thick description” from which to understand context and draw meaning, rather than boil down findings. In simple terms, qualitative research is more than about creating a list of what people have said; it is about the inferences you make, how you connect information, and how you pull out key messages and themes.

Should I add Shane to my library?

Yes. Overall, Shane, The Lone Ethnographer will appeal to anyone remotely interested in the study of humans and culture. For those of us familiar with qualitative research, it will serve as a pleasant and somewhat nostalgic refresher. For those new to the field, it provides an accessible, comprehensive, and honest account of what you can expect when trying to conduct your own research. It’s an easy read, and if you’re hooked you’re in luck because Shane’s journey continues in part two of her research adventure: The Good, the Bad, and the Data: Shane the Lone Ethnographer’s Basic Guide to Qualitative Data Analysis.

Finally, Shane, The Lone Ethnographer is an excellent example of how you should avoid judging a book by its cover. However light-hearted and scribbly it may seem at first, it is well thought-out and rich with information and practicality. At its best, it’s an unassuming book that could easily contend with thicker volumes on a graduate bookshelf.

To better understand where ethnography fits in with other user research methods, I recommend checking out this useful guide. It provides insight into how ethnography compares to other research techniques, and where it might fit into your toolkit.

Further reading:

Published on Jan 27, 2016
Ania Mastalerz
  • Ania Mastalerz
  • Ania is a user researcher at Optimal Workshop. When she's not researching the researchers, she's shredding on Mt. Ruapehu and eating healthy snacks.

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