ethnographic thinking

What is Ethnographic Thinking? Interview with Jay Hasbrouck

in Interviews/Methodology by

Jay Hasbrouck

The book “Ethnographic Thinking” arrives as a required reading in 2018 for all those interested in learning about how ethnographic thinking can help develop culturally informed strategies in organizations, companies and innovation projects around the world. The book is divided into three parts. The first part details some of the core qualities of ethnographic thinking. The second part addresses the praxis of ethnographic thinking through some real case studies. And the last part, entitled “Analysis, strategy, and influence” delves deeper into issues such as the value of certain anthropological tools such as holistic thinking, empathy or Storytelling in strategic innovation processes.

We have spoken to Jay Hasbrouck, anthropologist and author of the book, with a long history working in research and innovation industries such as IDEO or Intel. In his time there he has been involved in research design, innovation management, design management and evaluation or usability research among others.


Hi Jay! Tell us, why do you think it is beneficial to business to incorporate anthropologists into their teams?

Your question reminds me of a story about how a friend once described what we do. I was conducting fieldwork in Los Angeles with a team of two other anthropologists, and we were on a break between field visits. We decided to have lunch with this friend who we met at a local restaurant. As we settled in with our drinks, the waiter came back to socialize before taking our order and asked us how our day was going. One of our team members mentioned “fieldwork” in the course of conversation to which the waiter responded, “What do you mean?” My colleague added, “We’re anthropologists.” The waiter, confused, said, “Like digging up bones?” To which our friend responded, “No, not that kind of anthropologists. They’re cultural anthropologists. These people ask questions for a living.”

Years later, the way our friend described what we do continues to resonate with me. Much of the value we offer as anthropologists boils down to asking skillfully crafted questions in one form or another. Of course, the aim and purpose of our inquiries can vary widely, but we are essentially professional inquisitors (in the most positive sense of the word, I think).

With regard to businesses, our questions help bring the voice of the customer to a company, contextualize the company’s challenges, offer alternative lenses, and cross-pollinate perspectives between differing views. Much of this value is rooted in the ways anthropologists continually strike a balance between insider and outsider status. Our immersive participation allows us to empathize, while our analytical detachment provides perspective. And, because we are continually focused on context and deep understanding, we are able to identify and describe the influence that interconnected relationships embedded within social systems have on our lives. This means that we can help businesses understand how the flows between different cultures (including customer cultures, company cultures, cultures of practice, and others) impact both their operations and how their offerings are perceived — to see their businesses in cultural contexts.



ethnographic thinking

Your book “Ethnographic Thinking: From Method to Mindset” was recently launched. What target audience did you have in mind when you were writing it?

While I think that people interested in practicing ethnography in applied settings will find the book particularly useful, my intention is that it’s just as accessible and valuable for innovation groups, managers, executives, board members, designers, strategists, marketers, and others.

I really wanted to ensure that I demonstrated how practicing ethnography can shape a certain mindset that has value far beyond simply identifying consumer needs for a design process or marketing program. I want people to see that ethnographic thinking is much more far-reaching and powerful—that it is critical for framing business questions and shaping organizational strategies.



Can you give us a short definition of what you consider ethnographic thinking?

I define ethnographic thinking as the thought processes and patterns ethnographers develop through their practice. In the book, I identify three sets of qualities that make up the primary components of ethnographic thinking.

  • First, ethnographic thinking increases openness, which is characterized by attributes like curiosity, expanded awareness, deferred judgment, and flexible adaptation.
  • Second, ethnographic thinking sees inherent value in the process of exploration, which includes characteristics such as learning through active involvement, the ability to facilitate and draw out the opinions of others, and an obsession with diligently documenting experiences.
  • And third, ethnographic thinking is highly interpretive, which is often characterized by holistic thinking, situating insights strategically, and highly-attuned storytelling that conveys complex ideas in formats adapted to different audience perspectives.


How can ethnographic thinking propel innovation?

I actually cover this at length in the conclusion of my book. Many companies struggle with innovation because they have no strategy to guide and shape their work. Among other benefits, ethnographic thinking can help them understand the cultural dynamics and interplay of interactions between customers, company, stakeholders, and analogous cultures to provide a holistic view that directs innovation projects in ways that optimize for success. For example, in addition to driving the human-centered design of a product or service, ethnographic thinking can help a company assess its internal culture and identify ways to achieve better cultural alignment between it and the company’s customer cultures. This knowledge can be used to create clear internal pathways within a company that both map to its customers’ cultures and provide internal incentives for the kinds of norms, customs, and dynamics that encourage employees to create culturally aligned offerings. Ethnographic thinking can also shed light on how key stakeholders influence the dynamic between company and customer cultures, as well as find ways to most appropriately and ethically leverage that influence. Finally, ethnographic insights from exploring analogous cultures ensure that companies don’t get caught up in a myopic focus on a closed system or challenge. They bring in fresh ideas from other models of interaction and help inspire companies to create new offerings that fit into their customers’ lives.

When ethnographic thinking is applied in these ways, it lays the basic foundation for an innovation strategy framed in cultural terms. It also ensures that companies or organizations are gathering relevant and useful data, and constructing pathways for driving customer-centered, innovative ideas into a multi-faceted and ever-evolving marketplace.


Why do you think then, that the ratio of anthropologists in companies is so small compared to the number of designers or engineers?

I think there are a few reasons that the ratio of anthropologists is comparatively low in business settings.

First, we’ve done a poor job of communicating the benefits of our work outside of the academy. Some of this is historic and specific to the ways in which anthropology developed as a discipline (particularly its funding sources, but also the political leanings it tended to prioritize).

Second (and related), with the exception of a few early pioneer anthropology programs, only very recently have we begun to see courses or other training in the application of ethnography or principles of anthropology in business settings. I can’t tell you how many anthropologists have told me that their training never addressed applications beyond the academy.

Third, while design thinking has been instrumental in raising the profile of ethnography, it has also tended to subsume it within the design process in the public imagination by relegating it to the “discovery” phase of design that focuses solely on deriving insights from observations of consumers. This sequesters ethnographic insight and reduces it to a fraction of the kinds of benefits ethnographic thinking can actually offer in a wide range of business practices, including strategy, communications, mergers and acquisitions, Human Resources, and many other critical functions. These benefits are, in many ways, the focus of my book: a shift from a focus on the usefulness of ethnographic practice as a tool to the strategic advantages of ethnographic thinking and the cultural insights it can provide within many critical business functions.


Thank you, Jay! It was great talking to you.


Thank you again for the opportunity to contribute to Antropologia 2.0.


Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Latest from Interviews

Go to Top