Design Ethnography and Ethnographies of Designers: An Embedded and Collaborative Approach to the Study of Cultural Producers (Dorland, 2016) investigates the challenges and possibilities presented when conducting ethnographic research among cultural producers – especially among designers who themselves conduct ethnographic research work. In this paper, I claim that despite the barriers to ethnographic methods presented by the designer’s location within a community of guarded elites, and their use of designer-adapted observational research practices, an ethnographic study approach to the study of the design community is not only feasible but also valuable in the field of cultural production studies. The challenges presented by the use of ethnographic methods in the study of cultural producers can be mitigated in three ways: by using an embedded approach to ethnographic research, by mobilizing the researchers’ insider status within the community, and by applying designer-led approaches to observational and visual research methods in a collaborative fashion.

Design Ethnography and Ethnographies of Designers: An Embedded and Collaborative Approach to the Study of Cultural Producers.

AnneMarie Dorland
April 21, 2016

Candidacy Examination
Supervisor: Dr. Brian Rusted
University of Calgary
Department of Communication, Media and Film


The use of an ethnographic lens to examine cultural producers is part of both a larger cultural and an ethnographic turn within the social sciences  (Culyba, Heimer, & Coleman Petty, 2004; Knoblauch, Jacobs, & Tuma, 2014). Using ethnographic methods to construct what Bruner and Turner refer to as “the anthropology of experience” of the cultural producer (Bruner, 1986), allows us to interpret the design studio not only as a geographic location, but a social system which situates cultural producers within a social and economic network (Sullivan, 2009), uncovering ways in which cultural producers such as designers negotiate, define and shape social forces that are then made material and evident in media and popular culture. Through the use of ethnographic methods, scholars are able to gain access to the ways in which “the culture of production is responsible for the production of culture” (du Gay, 1998, p. 6) with a focus on the organizational structure, embodied practice and the material world of cultural producers.

With such apparent strength as an approach, why is ethnography relatively under-used in the study of designers and their studio practice? As cultural producers, designers pose a compelling case study for the researcher. An understanding of the designer as cultural producer is predicated on conceptions of the intermediary function of this occupational category in the creation, reification and distribution of culture (Bourdieu, 1984). However, the very aspects of their practice that position designers within this fascinating occupational and cultural category also mount barriers to the use of ethnography in their occupational setting.

In this paper, I claim that despite the barriers to ethnographic methods presented by the designer’s location within a community of guarded elites, and their use of designer-adapted observational research practices, an ethnographic study approach to the study of the design community is not only feasible but also valuable in the field of cultural production studies. The challenges presented by the use of ethnographic methods in the study of cultural producers can be mitigated in three ways. In this paper, I will propose that the limitations of ethnographic research in the studio setting can be addressed and accommodated by using an embedded approach to ethnographic research, by mobilizing the researchers’ insider status within the community, and by applying designer-led approaches to observational and visual research methods in a collaborative fashion.

The Cultural Intermediary: Situating the Designer Within the Field of Cultural Production

A contemporary understanding of the cultural producer is rooted in studies of class, taste and occupational context. Of key importance to examinations of cultural production from within the fields of industry-focused media production studies and cultural studies are Bourdieu’s conjoined conceptions of the cultural intermediary and the field of cultural production. Distinction (1984), Bourdieu’s sociological saga of class, power and practice in French society, provides a conceptual device that has been much used by the fields of cultural and production studies in service of describing the social role of cultural producers: the categorization of the “cultural intermediary” (p. 365).  For Bourdieu, cultural intermediaries are ambivalent, accidental producers of culture, members of a class of workers positioned in the middle of, and mediating between, the worlds of economy and art (p. 359). Bourdieu’s conception of the cultural producer ­— a socially-positioned practitioner involved in production of cultural artefacts, of the taste that naturalizes and reifies those artifacts, and of the needs that drive their consumption ­— hinges upon a key assumption. In a move contrary to the indications of the existence of cultural intermediaries throughout history, this occupational category is deemed new, populated by members of the “new petite bourgeoisie” (p. 265), a class faction described as rushing in to occupy a newly-opened space in a swiftly-changing system of cultural and economic capital, providing “symbolic work of producing needs, even in the production of goods – design, packaging, sales promotion, marketing, advertising etc.” (p. 359).

Bourdieu positions the work of the cultural intermediary within a second theoretical proposal: that of the “field of cultural production”. In his work The Field of Cultural Production (1993), Bourdieu re-introduces the cultural intermediary as cultural producer, suggesting that to understand cultural artifacts, we must not only read them textually, but we must consider the conditions of production, the specific logic within which the field of cultural production is characterized, and the relationship between that particular field, and the wider fields of power and class relations (Dubois, 2015).

Though Bourdieu primarily examines the production of fine art in this work, application of his theory of ‘social fields’ to the unique conditions of cultural production serves as the foundation for many contemporary understandings of the work of cultural producers  (Matthews & Smith Maguire, 2014), laying the groundwork for a categorization of the occupational community of designers as cultural producers more generally. In short, Bourdieu provided a model of the cultural intermediary as cultural producer operating in a specific field of cultural production: a definition that highlights the nature of the cultural producer’s work as both non-art and non-business, and as influenced by economic forces, conditions of consumption, feedback based on the reception of their work, political and structural constraints, and personal history, thus offering a theoretical vocabulary for the description of the practice of cultural producers to scholars interested in cultures of production and the production of culture (du Gay, 1998).

Though Bourdieu’s conception of the cultural intermediary has been widely adopted in media production studies, cultural studies and ethnographic approaches to the study of production cultures  (du Gay & Nixon, 2002; Featherstone, 1991), its two founding premises are not universally accepted. Of note, McFall (2002) provides a critique of Bourdieu’s conception of the ‘new’ cultural intermediary, questioning whether it is such a temporally-defined phenomenon after all (and providing ample historical evidence of the impact of ‘old’ cultural intermediaries in the production and circulation of culture that belie the newness of Bourdieu’s occupational category). Additionally, Bourdieu’s notion of the field of cultural production has been criticised for its reliance on the conception of the “economic world reversed”  (p. 108) – a description of the inverse relationship between autonomy and economic power at work within the logics of this specific field (Dubois, 2015). This proposal of the “economic world reversed” inherent to Bourdieu’s conception of the field of cultural production provides an explanation for the trope of the starving artist, but does not provide fertile ground for understandings of cultural producers that adhere to the notions of economic value espoused by the ‘ruling elite’ (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 164). With those criticisms in mind, Bourdieu’s cultural intermediary still acts as a useful sensitizing lens for the examination of the work practices of cultural producers, focusing our attention on the many ways in which forces of power, class, politics and habitus impact their work.

In studies of cultural producers such as designers, Bourdieu’s original conception of the cultural intermediary has been expanded to define the working practices of a wide variety of practitioners, shifting focus away from the determining characteristics of ambiguity and class, and towards the production practices of those involved in media and creative industries, thus positioning cultural producers as active agents in the production, reception and innovation of both material and immaterial aspects of our cultural life (Mahon, 2000). Banks, Gill and Taylor (2014) propose that cultural producers are a specific and distinct group of media workers defined by their symbolic, aesthetic or creative labour in the arts, media and other creative or cultural industries. In addition, they suggest that the study of cultural producers requires engagement with issues of precarity within cultural production work, inequality and privilege within an increasingly-global cultural workforce, issues of affective labour and the personalization and inversion of work and life within cultural production industries (2014, p.15).

The current focus on cultural producers is part of what Mahon has called “cultural production turn” in social sciences research (2000, p. 470), a call to arms for researchers to embrace ethnographic studies of cultural producers within the humanities and to “look at cultural production with new eyes” (Banks et al., 2014, p.3). For some, the definition of cultural producers has expanded to include us all: Coté and Nielson ask if “we are all cultural workers now?” (2014, p. 2), suggesting that the culturalization of the economy has redefined the boundaries of this conceptual and occupational category of cultural production. Despite the ever-broadening scope of the term, the conception of the cultural producer nevertheless allows us to examine the interconnectedness of the production process and the lived realities of those involved in media production.

Ethnography Within Communities of Cultural Production

Studying the individual and socially-situated practices of cultural producers is key to understanding what Nixon calls the “mutually constitutive relationship between cultural and economic processes” (2003, p.34) and yet, studying cultural producers using ethnographic methods is still “unconventional” according to Mahon. As she suggests, the use of immersive and participatory methods, interviews and other forms of fieldwork is key to the study of the cultural producers:

“At the heart of these ethnographic studies of people who create music, video, film, visual arts, and theater is a concern with mapping and analyzing the processes through which, and the contexts within which, producers conceptualize, construct, and transmit meaningful cultural forms. They also address the relationship of these processes to social reproduction and social transformation” (2000, p. 468).

By engaging with cultures of production through ethnography as a method and as a methodology, we are able to investigate both the relationships between culture and industry, and the ideology of a cultural industry more generally (Negus, 2000). This turn to cultural producers is echoed loudly throughout the social sciences:

“After decades of being displaced in media and communication studies by a focus on texts and audiences, and in sociological research on work by the study of industrial and service sector labour, the labouring lives of people working in the cultural and creative industries are now firmly on the research agenda” (Banks et al., 2014, p. 1).

But, as Mayer, Banks and Caldwell (2009) have suggested, we continue to lack ethnographic studies of cultural production based on work done in the field (1997).

Ethnography, when understood as a method, “has emerged as a particularly effective and popular approach to researching cultural processes” (Turner, 1990, quoted in Van Loon, 2001, p. 3). In the study of cultural producers, as in most ethnographic research fieldwork methods such as interviews, participant and non-participant observation, and the study of documents and of artifacts are commonly combined to generate an interpretive and constructivist understanding of the beliefs and practices of a community  (Atkinson, Coffey, & Delamont, 1999; Davis, 2008). As Gains has outlined in her examination of fieldwork among elites within government and politics, ethnography can be understood on a continuum from method (or technique for “accessing and analyzing observations”) to “interpretivist methodology with attendant ontological and epistemological underpinnings” (2011, p. 161). The use of ethnographic methods also allows for what Joli Jenson (1984) has described as an interpretive approach for studying media industries: an approach which highlights the use of case studies and complements the use of the circuit of culture models proposed by Johnson (1987) and modified by du Gay et al (1997) and Soar (2000)[1]. When understood as a product rather than a process, ethnography stands as an interpretive account of a culture (Geertz, 1976), crafted and understood as one of several forms of narrative tale (Van Maanen, 2011), performance (Conquergood, 2013) or production (Pink, 2014). In this case, my understanding of ethnographic research is that of ethnography as method: an active engagement with and in a world. This is supported by Brewer’s definition of “ethnography-understood-as-fieldwork” (2000, p. 17), rather than the use of ethnography as a term that defines qualitative research as a whole.

Ethnographic studies of the working practices of cultural producers form one of many branches of the field of workplace and organizational ethnography: a field which provides an ‘insider’ view into the ways that routine jobs are complex, that complex jobs are routine, and that power, inequality and control are sustained (Smith, 2001, p. 3). As Smith proposes, traditional approaches to workplace ethnography provide “rich
and contextualized understandings of work, workplaces and occupations through observation, participation and/or immersion” (2001, p. 3), demanding sustained and often multi-sited participation in the field, and unique forms of observation on the part of the researcher. Beginning with the workplace studies of the Hawthorne plant  (Rothlisberger & Dickson, 1947) – which Schwartzman (1993) has called the “creation myth” of the field of organizational and workplace ethnography – scholars engaged in workplace and organizational ethnography have explored the ways in which work-life is organized in practice  (Fine & Morrill, 1997) and impacted by structural and political forces (Davis, 2008). In the service of ethnography, researchers have worked on shop floors (Juravich, 1985) and served cocktails  (Spradley & Mann, 1975), enrolled in medical school  (Becker, Geer, & Strauss, 1961) and scrubbed floors (Constable, 1997), investigated the gendered worlds of car sales (Lawson, 2000) and strip clubs (Bruckert, 2002), joined street gangs (Bourgois, 2002), and sat at both boardroom tables with managers (Jackall, 1988) and lab benches with scientists  (Latour & Woolgar, 1986).

The history of workplace ethnography provides the vocabulary and inspiration for contemporary ethnographic studies of cultural producers within the often-overlapping disciplines of cultural studies and media production studies. The use of ethnography to examine what Garnham calls “the cultural producers, the organizational sites and practice they inhabit and through which they exercise their power” (1995, p. 496) allows researchers to describe practices of making, selling and circulating (2014) “the output of media industries” (Miller, 2014), shining a light on the practices of self-characterization through which cultural laborers situate their work within larger social transformations (McDonald, 2013).

Growing from these deep roots of organizational and workplace ethnography, the field of cultural production studies has branched into an array of highly-reflexive ethnographic examinations of a wide variety of cultural communities. Beginning with Powdermaker’s genre-shaping study of Hollywood (1950), ethnographers have examined the personal workspaces of fashion designers (McRobbie, 1998), television producers (Gitlin, 1994), photographers  (Collins & Lutz, 1993), journalists (Schlesinger, 1987; Tunstall, 1971), animators (Morisawa, 2015), computer programming teams (Kunda, 2006), producers within the film industry (McRobbie, 2002), ad creatives (Moeran, 1996) product design and branding teams (du Gay et al., 1997), and talent agents in the music industry (Negus, 2000) to list only a sample.

Of particular interest to the study of designers as cultural producers are ethnographies of architectural and engineering designers (Cuff, 2002; Schön, 1983; Yaneva, 2013), architectural model designers (Oak, 2013), socially and politically conscious product designers in Sweden (Murphy, 2015), design students in their position as novices and as apprentices (Oxman, 1999), advertising teams  (Scherer, J., & Jackson, S., 2008), and computer interface designers (Murray, 1993). Though attention is paid to designers as cultural producers within the world of ethnography, a comprehensive body of ethnographic work focused on graphic, brand and service designers has not yet emerged.

With such strength as an approach, why is ethnography relatively under-used in the study of designers as cultural producers? Though the use of ethnography has clear benefits for the study of cultural producers, and though designers provide a rich and compelling case study for the researcher interested in social and organizational dimensions of cultural production, few studies of design practice take an ethnographic approach. Next, I will claim that the very aspects of the designers’ practice that position them within this fascinating occupational and cultural category also mount barriers to the use of ethnography in their occupational setting. I will examine how the use of ethnography is limited in the study of a boundaried community of guarded cultural elites, limits which are exacerbated by that community’s role as active producers of knowledge through their own reflexive ethnographic practice.

The Limits of Ethnographic Research Among Cultural Producers: Access Among a Guarded Cultural Elite

The position of designers as cultural producers, and more specifically as a community in possession of high levels of cultural and symbolic capital (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 233) presents a unique challenge to the researcher’s requirement of access. In conducting an ethnography of cultural producers such as designers, the ethnographer is presented with a community of individuals and organizations that are able to mobilize the same, if not more, cultural knowledge and resources than the researcher herself: the study of designers is, in this sense, a study of “guarded cultural elites” (Mears, 2013). As one art director describes in Yavuz’s study of advertising agencies, “creatives are experts on culture” (2006, p. 277).

Neyland describes the difficulties this presents to the researcher, noting that without the distancing effect of an “exotic other” lacking control over their own representation, the ethnographer is forced to confront the limitation of their own lack of cultural capital, access and authority (2008, p. 2). As Radway has asked;

“What happens to the subjectivity of the investigator when the object to be known, another individual, is not so easily subdued, when one’s interlocutor has parallel resources and the ability both to resist and to counter the investigator’s representations with his or her own in such a way that they cannot be so easily re-read as the product of an exotic difference?” (1989, p. 5).

The study of designers in the studio setting thus serves as an effort to do what Nader has called “studying up”  – an attempt that she indicates is challenging due primarily to problems of access, suggesting that “the powerful are out of reach on a number of planes: they don’t want to be studied” (1969, p. 302). As Ortner adds, studying up is intimidating, but possible: it simply requires that the researcher “get creative” (2009, p. 182). The study of designers is an investigation of powerful elites who will not easily be ‘othered’ and who have the resources to control their own image and representation – a daunting limitation to access to be placed on any research project. Designers are, in this case, what Ortner has called a “boundaried community” (2009, p. 180), limiting access to researchers, maintaining cultural power and representational control, and creating barriers by rarely allowing researchers to investigate or participate in their community of practice (Davis, 2008). Access and participant observation can be a tenuous request to make of elites of any kind. As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson notes: “participant observation is a research technique that does not travel well up the social structure” (1997, p. 115).

Designers have continually defined themselves as members of a cultural elite using mystery, exclusivity and physical requirements of membership – one only has to briefly review the online footprint of both the Canadian and American professional associations for designers to see references to members-only art directors awards, creative directors clubs and industry exclusive events defined by membership as an insider of the design community (AIGA, 2016; Graphic Designers of Canada, 2016). As demonstrated in Ortner’s account of the difficulties she faced in her study of Hollywood, the boundaried nature of a community of elite cultural producers presents issues of access for the researcher as ‘outsider’; perhaps the reason that the majority of existing studies of design practice are conducted from within the industry using heavily branded and controlled case studies of the researcher’s studio setting as a generalized sample for the industry as a whole  (Beirut, Hall, & Pearlman, 2000; Glaser, 1973; Mau & Leonard, 2004; Wozencroft & Brody, 2001).

Conducting ethnographic study among elites (in this case, cultural elites) provides vital access to “black boxes of elite behaviour” (Rhodes, Noordegraaf, & ‘t Hart, 2007, p. 2), and allows an insider view of decision-making and work practices that can then contextualize cultural production in a new way. However, the elite and culturally powerful nature of the design community also poses issues of representation and control: issues that draw our attention to the consequences of social relationships on data generation and analysis (Brettell, 1996). As Radway warns, ethnography among elites “results in a disquieting encounter with people who often interact with the ethnographer in an unusual and wholly unexpected ways” (1989, p. 9), resulting in ethnographic work about a community who will, in all likelihood, “read what we write” (Brettell, 1996, p. 12). The impact of this power dynamic creates issues of precarity for the ethnographer: as Mear’s has noted in her ethnography of fashion industry elites, the ethnographer is always subject to expulsion by a community who didn’t need her research in the first place (2013, p. 25).

In fieldwork among cultural elites such as designers, limits can be imposed on the researcher’s use of ethnographic methods for reasons of client confidentiality, proprietary information, or social dynamics. An ethnographic study of guarded cultural elites will almost certainly face obstacles to access of the designer’s practice through the use of jargon, in-group codes and obfuscation – aspects of design work honed by cultural producers to justify their work in interactions with clients (Murray, 1993). By definition, the organization of the design studio follows the pattern of all bureaucracy: it is based on secrecy, and organizational knowledge is commonly safeguarded from outsiders of any kind (Rosen, 1991). These limitations place the vital issue of access in jeopardy for a researcher occupying a precarious and limited space in the field and require the researcher to be a “good sport”, complicating the politics of data collection and analysis (Smith, 2001).

The Limits of Ethnographic Research Among Cultural Producers: Ethnography Among “Ethnographers”

The second unique feature of this specific community of cultural producers that poses a limit to the use of ethnographic methods of study is the involvement that designers already have with ethnographic and visual research methods within their own practice, and the shaping force of those practices on their understanding and acceptance of ethnographers within their studio setting. The use of ethnographic methods in design practice has a long history, both naïve and academic, and has recently acquired the focused attention of design studies more broadly  (Rodgers & Yee, 2015). With the growing requirement of empirical research in the generation, justification and promotion of designed services, products and images, the use of hybrid forms of observational fieldwork has become an accepted component of the daily practice of designers  (Anderson, Bell, & Salvador, 1999; Gunn, Otto, & Charlotte Smith, 2013; Laurel, 2003; Lupton, 2011). This does not, however, mean that the practical definition held by designers of what an ethnographer ‘does’, what ‘counts’ as ethnography, and what is accepted and unaccepted practice in this field mirrors that of the researcher. The existence of an industry specific understanding of what constitutes appropriate and effective research practice presents an obstacle within studio-based fieldwork.

This limiting feature extends to the conflicting standpoints held by academic researchers and designers regarding the role and purpose of ethnographic methods. From a design-research standpoint, intervention within the community of study is considered to be a desirable outcome of research practice  (Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Squire, & Newell, 2004), an epistemological perspective challenged by a focus on the observational and non-interventionist goals of ethnographic traditions within the academy  (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011; Gunn et al., 2013). This pre-existing impression of the parameters, application and intention of ethnographic practice extends to complicating the role of researchers and their claim to analysis. Some cultural producers suggest that everyone is already an ethnographer, and that it is merely the deliberate application of the method, not the generating of analytic findings, that differentiates the researcher from the researched (Sharma, 2016).

As producers of original research based on observational methods, designers are positioned within Traube’s (1996) knowledge class – a social group recently updated with Miller’s proposal of the cognitariat (2014). Their position as creators of research using their own ontological and epistemological perspective poses limits on the forms of participant observation and data collection they will expect and accept, as well as the analysis that will resonate with them as a community. Though their membership within either the dominated or dominant factions of Bourdieu’s petite bourgeoisie (1984) may determine the access and control they grant the researcher, their pre-configured understanding of ethnography and fieldwork more generally will pose challenges to the process of data collection and analysis. With this in mind, the study of designers in the studio is akin to the study of social scientists in the academy – carrying with it the additional limitations and pitfalls identified by Meneley and Young (2005).

The unique characteristics of designers as members of a guarded cultural elite present issues of access to the researcher, and their status as producers of ethnographic research in their own right presents the researcher with the difficulties of contested methodological interpretations and application. In the study of cultural elites, ethnographic methods can be limiting to the point of abandonment: Zwick and Cayla go so far as to note that “a rather minor effort has been made to study the growing army of economic actors whose work it is to define markets and give shape to consumer culture as we know it” (2011, p. 13), echoing McRobbie’s 1997 call for more empirical, ethnographic and experiential research into cultures of production and their production of culture (p. 176).[2] However, the use of ethnography is key to understanding the ways that organizational structure, the embodied experience, and the material world come together in determining the practice of cultural producers such as designers. In the following section, I will address a proposed corrective approach to the limits of traditional ethnographic fieldwork within this community. Using Reiter-Theil’s 2004 proposal of “embedded ethnography” as a foundation, I will demonstrate the ways in which mobilizing the subject position of scholar-practitioner, or insider, of the community of study and employing hybrid methods of observational research developed within the design studio to create a collaborative methodological assemblage can compensate for the identified challenges inherent in ethnographies of cultural producers.

Embedded Ethnography and the Researcher as Collaborative Co-Worker

Due to the limiting factors present in traditional ethnographic approaches to the study of cultural producers, an adaptive and reflexive approach to fieldwork is required. In proposing the use of “embedded” (Reiter-Theil, 2004) to describe an approach to ethnography that compensates for the limitations posed by working within a community of cultural producers, I reference a method based on collaboration: embedded ethnography is a form of research conducted as a “member of a team” with the researcher positioned within the field as a team member alongside co-workers in the community of study (Reiter-Theil, 2004, p. 23). In essence, embedded research is a “situationally appropriate way of ‘doing’ ethnography that is founded on the principles and practice of fieldwork while being responsive to working with reflexive collaborators” (Lewis & Russell, 2011, p. 401).

Embedded research, much like its journalistic equivalent of embedded reporting, assumes that the ethnographer will conduct research in collaboration and cooperation with members of the community of study while remaining explicit about their role as researcher. Embedded ethnography is also akin to collaborative (Lassiter, 2005) or engaged (Eriksen, 2005) ethnographic practice – approaches that respond to Marcus’ suggestion that contemporary ethnographic practice focus on ‘doing’ in collaboration with, not as observers of, subjects  (Marcus, 2008, p. 7, referenced in Lewis & Russell, 2011)[3]. Lewis and Russell explain that:

“Embedded research allows the researcher to experience the ‘worldview’ of the organization, its members and their partners … but also requires the researcher to assess that experience in the light of academic knowledge and give the resulting insights back to the organization critically and formatively (as with forms of action research or process evaluations) so that they can make operational use of those insights” (2011, p. 410).

By engaging in embedded ethnography, researchers are able to generate findings that can be used both by the ethnographer and the community of study to construct a “common understanding” of the practice of cultural production  (Siltanen, Willis, & Scobie, 2008, p. 56). This allows the ethnographer to engage with designers in the studio space through what Lewis and Russell call a “Bourdieu-esque collective reflexivity that encompasses all individual practitioners/knowledges, the program itself (with all its aims, objectives, resources and challenges) and their inter-relatedness” (2011, p. 401). An embedded approach to ethnography allows the researcher to occupy a liminal position conducive to access and the development of a sense of community  (Czarniawska & Mazza, 2003), allowing the organization and the research process to shape one another and building off of the affinity held by the researcher for the field of study (Tate, 2015).

Assuming an embedded standpoint as the researcher makes it possible to engage in two other corrective tactics aimed at alleviating the challenges presented to the study of cultural producers in the studio setting: the mobilization of an insider-ethnographic standpoint, and the use of observational and visual research methods generated by, and accepted by, designers as part of the research protocol. In the next section I will outline each of these proposed tactics, their benefits towards ethnographic research in the studio setting, and their impact on the selection and organization of the sample of cultural producers involved in an embedded ethnography of the design studio.

Part of Their World: The Power of the Insider-Ethnographic Standpoint

As Czarniawska and Mazza (2003) have suggested in their examination of organizational researchers as academic/consultants, occupying a liminal ‘insider’ space in a community allows for increased access and a strengthened bond with research participants. As a first tactic designed to overcome the barrier of access presented by research within the guarded cultural elite of the design community, I propose the mobilization of my own subject position of designer-turned ethnographer. Having been educated as a designer, and having worked in the design industry for 12 years, I will be able to assume the ‘betwixt and between’ standpoint of designer-turned-ethnographer, thus mitigating the precarity of my situation as a researcher, and the outlined issues of access presented in studies of cultural producers.

As has been noted in analyses of elite private schools, the activation of insider status can be a corrective measure when issues of access and barriers to participation become impassable (Khan, 2011). This is not, of course, a new approach: as Mears has pointed out, “…many an ethnographer could be called, for example, the boxer-turned-sociologist, in Wacquant’s case, the factory worker (Burawoy 1979), convenience store clerk (McDermott 2006), or hustler-turned-sociologist (Venkatesh 2002)” (2013, p. 21). The embodiment of an insider-standpoint may be even better defined using Bourdieu’s conception of participant objectivation: “a method of comprehending social worlds through practice while interrogating the sociologist’s own ways of seeing”  (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 68)[4].

Mobilizing my own background as a designer may, as Nightingale (2008) has proposed, allow for a perspective more commonly used in fan research (Baym 2003) – acknowledgement as a member of the community of practice will be the basis of an embedded approach, allowing me to gain authorized access to cultural producers with the intent of furthering research interests identified as important by the group itself, thus providing a service to the community of study. As Caldwell’s interviews with scholar-practitioners suggest, trading upon my history and membership as a designer may mitigate the challenge of gaining access to a closely-guarded community, concerns with issues of disclosure to “outsiders” in the field, and the acceptance of the data analysis I present for member checks throughout the research process (summarized in Mayer et al., 2009, p.10).

When in Rome: Using Design’s Methods in the Study of Design Practice

A second proposal for mitigating the methodological limits faced in ethnographic studies of cultural producers draws on the existence of the pre-existing methodological interpretations and applications held by designers themselves. In order to maximize the collaborative aims of my embedded approach, I will make use of the observational and visual research methods generated by, and accepted by, designers as part of my research protocol. Within the studio space, a pre-existing definition of what counts as ethnographic practice, what and who should be participants in ethnographic methods, and what forms of analysis and findings are relevant and acceptable pose a potential challenge to traditional participant observation and interview methodologies.

By using methods familiar to, and accepted by, designers to engage them in discussions of their own practice, I hope to turn the restrictive nature of the pre-existing understanding that designers have of what “counts” as ethnography into a constructive aspect of the field work. As Born encountered in her study of the BBC, access to a field of study does not in itself guarantee that a researcher’s presence is welcome or that cooperation is encouraged, and this can be exacerbated in the presence of competing methodological approaches (2004, p. 12). Working with the methodologies already present in the design studio, including multi-sited, performance-based and iterative data analysis methods  (Crouch & Pearce, 2012), forms of shadowing (Anderson et al., 1999), character development, informance and proxy audience performance methods  (Rodgers & Yee, 2015) and visual storytelling (Laurel, 2003; Pink, 2014) will allow me to collaborate with designers as participants in creating a practice-based description of their work of cultural production.

For example, one method common to both academic and design ethnography in the studio setting today is ‘shadowing’  (Rodgers & Yee, 2015), and in an attempt to make best use of this commonality, I will engage Gill’s “spect-acting” (2011) – a variation on shadowing used in organizational ethnography that allows space for issues of reflexivity, and the observational effect on practice as a way to “follow the practitioner” through the career of a practice form – as a fieldwork method.

This use of ‘local’ and designer-adapted methods of observational and visual research allows for a collaborative and mutually-beneficial research practice, in the spirit of the embedded approach. By using methods selected by, and in some cases created by, my community of study, I will be able to navigate the problematic area of ethnography within a knowledge-producing community of designer-researchers.

Creating a Sample of Cultural Producers: The Selection Process

A final proposed compensating measure aimed at addressing the challenges of applying the ethnographic method in the design studio setting relies on the selection and organization of the sample of cultural producers to be included within the larger study. To alleviate the pressure of barriers to access presented in ethnographic studies of cultural producers, and to maximize the tactical approach of acting as embedded scholar-practitioner, I propose the use of a pilot interview phase conducted using modal-sampling and critical case sampling as a selection method (Patton, 2002). After determining an evaluative guideline for sample subjects (based on the identification of a ‘typical’ designer practicing in a studio setting), I will select interviewees based on these pre-established criteria. As a type of non-probability purposive sampling, modal and critical case sampling strategies present risks related to sampling bias and non-representative sample size, but given the aim of this particular phase within the study they present the best option to mitigate access concerns (Guetterman, 2015, p. 44).

During the second, embedded, phase of study, I will use exponential discriminative snowball sampling techniques – relying on chain referrals and nominations from initial pilot interview subjects – beginning with interview participants to generate access to a community of practice (Guetterman, 2015, p. 44) within which I will conduct an extended period of embedded fieldwork. This technique will allow me to capitalize on my initial interview phase, and will improve my changes of gaining access to a population that is relatively insular and limited in size. [5] Concerns of correlations found within the sample size that are not indicative of the general population, and researcher bias in the generation and evaluation of the referrals, will be addressed (Patton, 2015).


As theorists such as Banks, Gill and Taylor (2014) make clear; there exists fertile ground for continued study of cultural production, and of cultural producers. Acting as a shaping and defining force within the circuit of cultural production and consumption, designers and other cultural producers form fascinating case studies into social and cultural values. However, ethnographers attempting to study the field of cultural production encounter unique challenges, including barriers to access to the boundaried and elite community of producers, as well as conflicting methodological expectations and understandings generated by the designer-adapted research that has become a core component of studio practice. An embedded approach to ethnographic practice strengthened by the use of my own insider status, collaboration using the designer’s own research methods, and critical case and snowball sampling to generate access to an insular community is crucial when compensating for the limits placed on the use of ethnographic methods in the design studio.

Adapting to the unique challenges of the study of designers as cultural producers in this way bolsters the methodological claims that ethnography is the best way to attend to issues of depth, multiple perspectives, and process that run through organizational studies  (Fine & Morrill, 1997). The proposal of an embedded approach to the study of cultural producers serves only as an introduction to the many ways that an ethnographer researching in this field must, as Ortner has encouraged, “get creative” (p. 182). Further investigation of both the shaping impact of designer-adapted research methods within the studio setting, the unique forms of situated knowledge generated in practice (Haraway, 1988) and the definition and creation of the design studio as a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) will shed light on new methods of study, and could provide context for further analysis of the practice of designers in cultural production industries more widely.


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[1] In Investigating Cultural Producers, the examination of research methods in the study of occupational groups such as public relations professionals and journalists, Davis recommends a layered and triangulated methodological approach to counter the limitations of access, control, precarity and reflexivity inherent in the field (2008, p. 52), a process whereby the links between concepts and indicators generated within the data are checked by other indicators (Denzin & Lincoln, 2007, Hammersly & Atkinson, 2007). A key component of data analysis will also involve member-checks to ensure that the research decisions made mirror the ethnographic reality of organizational life for participants (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2001, Fine, Morrill, & Surianarian, 2009, Van Maanen, 2011). By engaging ethnographic methods such as interviewing and participant observation, Davis suggests that the study of cultural producers can examine cultural production in action with less assumptions about individual motivation and practice, and better information about social relations (p. 59).

[2] When examining any culture through the lens of ethnography, we have come to accept that there will be issues of reflexivity, power and the politics of rhetoric that must be addressed. This forms an additional barrier to the use of ethnographic methods when studying cultural producers: the limitations and difficulties of the methodology itself. The field of ethnography has long struggled with issues of reflexivity within the power dynamic of ethnographer/ subject (Hatch, 1996, Law, 2004, Murphy & Dingwall, 2001). The situatedness of knowledge and the notion of the neutral observer has been problematized by Alcoff (1992) and Rosen (1991), forcing researchers to examine their own reflexive stance, and the contested notion that an objective stance is either required or possible. In addition, the production of an ethnographic study poses limitations to the researcher, many of which have been identified by Marcus and Fischer (1999) and Wolcott (1999). In particular, the problematic politics of rhetorical strategies used in ‘making sense’ of a cultural group or organizational community have been examined by Conquergood (1991) and Brettell (1996). Issues of reflexivity and rhetorical politics form a limitation to any ethnographic study, and the examination of cultural producers poses no exemption.

[3] Embedded ethnography differs from collaborative ethnography in many ways, including the manner in which research is disseminated. An embedded approach advocates for collaborative generation of findings in the field, whereas a collaborative ethnography extends that co-work into the dissemination and presentation of research findings (Lassiter, 2005).

[4] This approach falls on the scale of participant observation immersion – the extreme of which is Wacquant’s own proposed observant participation: the immersion of the researcher to the point where their habitus becomes aligned to that of the field of study (2011). Based on Spradley’s 1980 proposal of types of participant observation, my participation as designer-turned-ethnographer would serve instead as “complete participation”, bringing with it challenges of objectivity and data analysis regarding a community of which I am already a part (Spradley, 1980).

[5] The community of designers in Canada remains small: the Alberta chapters of the Graphic Designers of Canada have only 216 members (Graphic Designers of Canada Alberta North Chapter, 2016, Graphic Designers of Canada Alberta South Chapter, 2016). Though graphic designers are but one group of a larger community of designers, their sample size indicates the relatively small sample size of designers in the Canadian context.

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