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Francis Müller



Epistemology and


Translated by Anna Brailovsky

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SpringerBriefs in Anthropology

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Francis Müller

Design Ethnography

Epistemology and Methodology

Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong

Francis Müller
Zurich University of the Arts
Zurich, Switzerland
Translated by
Anna Brailovsky
Los Angeles, CA, USA

ISSN 2195-0806 ISSN 2195-0814 (electronic)
SpringerBriefs in Anthropology
ISBN 978-3-030-60395-3 ISBN 978-3-030-60396-0 (eBook)
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© The Author(s) 2021
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This book is an abridged version of Designethnografie. Methodologie und
Praxisbeispiele [Design Ethnography: Methods and Practice], which was published
by the Social Science division of Springer Verlag (Germany/Wiesbaden) in 2018. I
would like to take the opportunity to thank Springer Nature Switzerland for making
this English edition possible and for their productive and enjoyable collaboration.
Particular thanks are due to Anna Brailovsky for the translation of the text.

Zurich/Mexico City Francis Müller


Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong


1 Introduction: Design as a Discipline of Alternation ............... 1
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 4
2 The Blind Spot .. .. ... .. .. .. ... .. .. .. ... .. .. .. ... .. .. .. .. 7
2.1 The Incorporation of Everyday Knowledge ........... ....... 9
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 11

3 The Everyday World and Intersubjectivity ....... .............. 13
3.1 Symbolic Interaction and the Generalized Other . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
3.2 Professional Indifference and Lack of Moral Judgment .... ..... 17
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 18
4 Design Research: Immersion and Intervention ... .... .... .... ... 21
4.1 Warm, Involving, and Risky ......... ............ ....... 23
4.2 Research Through Design . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
4.3 Contingency and Serendipity . .... ... .... .... ... .... ... .. 26
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 27

5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research .. .... .... ... .... .... .. 31
5.1 The Foreign Worlds Next Door and Defamiliarization ...... .... 32
5.2 Focused Ethnographies and Design Anthropology . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
5.3 Access to the Field . . .... .... .... ... .... .... .... .... .. 37
5.4 Researcher’s Role in the Field . ...... ...... ..... ...... ... 39
5.5 Observation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
5.6 Dimensions of Observation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
5.7 Front and Back Regions . . . ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ... 42
5.8 Interviews and Conversations ....... ........ ........ .... 45
5.9 Narrative Interview . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
5.10 Ethnographic Interviews . ...... ..... ..... ...... ..... ... 47
5.11 The Senses . . . .... ... ... ... .... ... ... ... ... .... ... .. 48
5.12 Things and Material Culture . . . . . . .... ... ... ... .... ... .. 50
5.13 Consumption Is Not Superficial .... .... ..... ..... ..... ... 51
5.14 The Contingency of Things .............. ............... 53

Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong

viii Contents

5.15 Field Notes . . . ....... ....... ...... ....... ....... .... 53
5.16 Sketches and Illustrations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54
5.17 Photography and Video . . . ..... .... .... ..... .... .... ... 55
5.18 Factors that Influence Production of Visual Data . . .... ..... ... 57
5.19 Participant Produced Images ...... ............... ....... 58
5.20 Digital Ethnography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59
5.21 Participatory Action Research . .... ..... ..... .... ..... ... 61
5.22 Participatory Photography and Cultural Probes ...... ......... 62
5.23 Photo Elicitation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64
5.24 Interventions .... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ...... ... 65
5.25 Withdrawing from the Field ..... ...... ....... ....... .... 66
5.26 Ethics . . ............ ........... ............ ....... 67
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 68
6 Analysis ... .... .... ... .... .... .... ... .... .... .... .... .. 77
6.1 Transcriptions ....... ............ ............. ....... 78
6.2 Grounded Theory .... ......... ......... ......... ..... 79
6.3 Ethnosemantic Analysis . . . .... ... .... .... ... .... .... .. 80
6.4 Structured and Narrative Interviews ....... ...... ....... ... 81
6.5 Computer-Based Analysis ...... .......... ......... ..... 82
6.6 Visual Data ...... ........ ....... ........ ....... .... 82
6.7 Things and Material Culture . . . . . . .... ... ... ... .... ... .. 84
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 85
7 Representation and Reporting ..... ...... ...... ..... ...... ... 87
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 89
8 Epilogue ........... .......... ........... .......... ..... 91
References ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ... 92

Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong

About the Author

Francis Müller works as lecturer for design ethnography and sociology in the
subject area Trends & Identity in the Design Department, Zurich University of the
Arts (ZHdK), Switzerland. He also has lectureships in the School of Humanities and
Social Sciences of University St. Gallen (HSG) and in universities in Mexico and


Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong

Chapter 1
Introduction: Design as a Discipline
of Alternation

Abstract Design is never creating out of nothing—it always has specific cultural
points of reference. Design alters and adapts, whereby the discipline always takes
what exists as a reference point, which also makes it heretical. Design requires and
generates knowledge, because designers always need to engage with specific
lifeworlds. Through methods such as ethnography, this knowledge can be made
explicit, which makes the discipline of design capable of connecting with other
academic disciplines. Ethnography in the context of design differs from ethnography
in the social sciences: it is quicker and embedded in the iterative processes that
designing involves.

Keywords Alternation · Design · Ethnography · Knowledge · Research

The use of the term “Design” is today downright inflated. A Google search for it
immediately returns 25,270,000,000 entries. It is associated, among other things,
with beautiful furnishings, flashy fingernails, cars, sneakers, and sex toys. It can also
refer to systems, events, interfaces, and processes. The term can be traced back to the
Latin designare, which led to the Italian disegnare, which initially meant to describe
and later came to mean to draft. From an anthropological perspective, design is an
expression of appreciation for the new: It is neither manual skill nor handicraft, in
which artifacts are produced through the replication of traditional manufacturing
techniques. Tradition may well be an important point of reference, since design
never creates from nothing (Latour 2008, p. 5), but design does alter traditions,
however. It is a heretical discipline—a discipline of transformation, to which Bruno
Latour even ascribes revolutionary powers (2008, p. 2).
Design requires and at the same time generates knowledge. Designers create
things or systems that are later used by people about whose lifeworlds or native point
view they know very little (Blomberg et al. 1993, p. 141 ff.). Accordingly, they
assimilate project-specific knowledge. Claudia Mareis describes design as a

Accessed 26 May 2019.
© The Author(s) 2021 1
F. Müller, Design Ethnography, SpringerBriefs in Anthropology,
Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong

2 1 Introduction: Design as a Discipline of Alternation

“knowledge culture” (2011). Designers incorporate stores of implicit knowledge
through their practice, which they often do not reflect upon (Mareis 2010, p. 126 ff.;
Schön 1983, p. 51 ff.). The consequence is an intuitive approach to design that is
guided by internalized experiential knowledge. This knowledge remains bound to
the individual, or at best, to the social environment with which they interact (Mareis
2010, p. 125). If design is to become an accessible knowledge culture capable of
connectivity then it must free itself of its dependency on the individual.
Design is situated within a diverse field of disciplines that influence it (Götz 2010,
p. 55 f.): Engineering, natural sciences, sociology, anthropology, psychology, eco-
nomics—to name just a few. At the same time, design is not an academic discipline,
even if there have been efforts to establish it as such (which incidentally has given
rise to some heated debate). The thesis of this book is that the frequently implicit
knowledge of design must be made explicit. This will allow design to make
connections to other disciplines (Milev 2011, p. 46; Schultheis 2005, p. 68). Artic-
ulating and reflecting upon design knowledge strengthens the position of design.
Since design is still a practice, however, it cannot become a scientific discipline in a
true sense. At issue, rather, is the fact that design is a discipline of exploration and
inquiry. Design should understand its own generation of knowledge as “reflection in
action” (Schön 1983, p. 76 ff.). This requires methods: a term that goes back to the
ancient Greek word for “pursuit.” Methods such as ethnography are procedures that
should not simply be applied dogmatically, but rather are meant to lead to reflection
about one’s own actions. It is only when these procedures are explicitly articulated
that it becomes possible to consciouly adapt and transform them.
The term ethnography also goes back to ancient Greek and means someting like
“description of a foreign people.” It was not until the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries that ethnography became a method of cultural sociology and
social anthropology. Ethnography presupposes foreignness—lack of familiarity
between the ethnographer and the people and lifeworlds they investigate. This
suggests that ethnography is actually a common practice in design research: As
soon as designers leave the libraries and the on-line databases to enter the field—and
they must!—they are ethnographically active. Every observation of an everyday
situation, no matter how trivial, that is made in the course of a design project is
already a simple form of ethnography. This occurs often without any awareness that
a research method is already being used.
It should be noted, however, that ethnography is not an academic discipline, but a
method situated in various (partly academic and partly applied) disciplines—cultural
sociology; social and cultural anthropology; organizational science; business admin-
istration; development aid; pedagogy; art; gender, cultural, and queer studies; and of
course design. Ethnography has been adapted in each of these disciplines. Design
ethnography is accordingly also grounded in cultural-sociological and socio-
anthropological approaches (Gunn et al. 2013; Milev 2013), though these are
adapted in rather design-specific ways. While in cultural sociology and social
anthropology, ethnography happens through long-term immersion in foreign
lifeworlds, design ethnographies are often of far shorter duration—as in other

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1 Introduction: Design as a Discipline of Alternation 3

applied disciplines—due to time constraints. Such approaches are known as “quick
and dirty ethnography” (Hughes et al. 1994, p. 433 ff.; Knoblauch 2001, p. 128;
Plowman 2003, p. 34), “short-term ethnography” (Pink and Morgan 2013), “rapid
ethnography” (Norman 1999), and of course, “design ethnography” (Crabtree et al.
2012; Nova 2014; Müller 2018; Salvador et al. 1999). Corresponding approaches
have emerged in the Anglo-Saxon world in the context of workplace studies
(Knoblauch 2000; Knoblauch and Heath 1999; Suchman 1987), in which anthropo-
logical methods have been combined with engineering and technical sciences to
investigate workplace situtations that have been transformed by technological
Ethnography is a more complex, unstructured, and chaotic process than scientific
research. It is an experiential, explorative research method in which the physical
presence and sensory experience of the researcher play a part as they move corpo-
really (apart from on-line ethnographies) through other realities (Goffman 1989,
p. 125). For the “empirical world must forever be the central point of concern”
(Blumer 1986, p. 22).
This book is an attempt to shed light on design ethnography at the epistemolog-
ical and methodological level. In this endeavor, design ethnography is not under-
stood as a self-contained method, but rather as a starting point for opening up new
perspectives and thinking about new methods that lead in iterative steps to the
creation of form. Such processes can certainly also lead to discontinuities that are
inherent to research. For those who know from the start what they are looking for
observe their field of investigation through tunnel vision. If a research project is
guided from the beginning by hypotheses that do not change during the process, then
this prevents true exploration from taking place (Malinowski 1932, p. 16 f.). That is
why research is genuinely risky (Latour 1998, p. 208): One leaves one’s comfort
zone, which can occasionally shake one’s own worldview. The “art” consists of
reflecting on and mapping these processes and constructing from them a “mosaic”
(Prus 1997, p. 27 ff.) of the reality under investigation.
The world cannot be observed neutrally from a box seat, especially since the
observer is always themselves situated in it (Maturana and Varela 2003, p. 5 ff.;
Denzin 2014, p. 70 f.; Haraway 1988). Realization does not occur passively and
objectively, in the way the natural sciences suggest. It is the natural sciences in
particular that exhibit a highly constructed character (Dellwing and Prus 2012,
p. 206): The laboratory, the measuring instruments, etc., are constructed and
man-made. A certain style of thinking manifests itself in them (Fleck 1986, p. 147
ff.). They are not neutral. Rather, they are cultural constructions—just like the idea
of objectivity, which originated in Western philosophy of science and is not an
anthropological constant. For man is “an animal suspended in webs of significance
he himself has spun” (Geertz 1973, p. 5). The sciences are part of this man-made
While scientific research obscures its own constructed character behind an ethos
of objectivity, design ethnography can and should expose it. It does not need to strive
for objectivity. Its methods are not applied dogmatically but playfully. They can be

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4 1 Introduction: Design as a Discipline of Alternation

adapted, varied, and transcended on a case-by-case basis and situationally. This does
not, however, mean it is completely arbitrary: The methods must be reflected upon
and made explicit, at least if design research is to become compatible with other
disciplines. The aim, then, is not to imitate the natural sciences proper, but rather to
arrive at interesting and surprising findings through playful ethnographic methods.
While in social science research, ethnography is usually concerned with investi-
gating “natural” situations—that is, situations that have not been prompted by the
researcher (Dellwing and Prus 2012, p. 54 ff.)—design is interested in disturbing
such “natural” situations: It intervenes, it gives form, it is “research through design”
(Findeli 2004, p. 44). Giving form thus takes on an epistemic quality (Ammon and
Froschauer 2013, p. 16), which makes visible design-specific modes of knowledge.
Such modes consist in quick, iterative processes in which a sharp line cannot always
be drawn between investigation and form-giving. This is confirmed in a statement by
the Chilean epistemologists Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco L. Varela, who
wrote that every action is a realization and every realization an action (2003, p. 13).


Ammon, S., & Froschauer, E. M. (2013). Zur Einleitung: Wissenschaft Entwerfen. Perspektiven
einer reflexiven Entwurfsforschung [An introduction: Designing science. Perspectives of reflex-
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forschenden Entwerfen zur Entwurfsforschung der Architektur [Designing science: From
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Blomberg, J., Giacomi, J., Mosher, A., & Swenton-Wall, P. (1993). Ethnographic field methods and
their relation to design. In D. Schuler & A. Namioka (Eds.), Participatory design: Principles
and practices (pp. 123–155). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Blumer, H. (1986). Symbolic interactionism. Perspective and method. Berkeley: University of
California Press.
Crabtree, A., Roucefield, M., & Tolmie, P. (2012). Doing design ethnography. London: Springer.
Dellwing, M., & Prus, R. (2012). Einführung in die interaktionistische Ethnografie. Soziologie im
Außendienst [Introduction to interactionist ethnography: Sociology in the field]. Wiesbaden:
Springer VS.
Denzin, N. K. (2014). Interpretative autoethnography. London: Sage.
Findeli, A. (2004). Die projektgeleitete Forschung. Eine Methode der Designforschung [Project-led
research: A method of design research]. Swiss Design Network Symposium. HGK Basel,
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Fleck, L. (1986). To look, to see, to know. In R. S. Cohen & T. Schnelle (Eds.), Cognition and fact:
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Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
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Götz, M. (2010). Design als Abenteuer [Design as adventure]. In F. Romero-Tejedor & W. Jonas
(Eds.), Positionen zur Designwissenschaft [Positions in design science] (pp. 53–57). Kassel:
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Gunn, W., Otto, T., & Smith, R. C. (2013). Design anthropology: Theory and practice. London:

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Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of
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Hughes, J., King, V., Rodden, T., & Andersen, H. (1994). Moving out of the control room:
Ethnography in system design. In R. Futura & C. Neuwirth (Eds.), Transcending boundaries:
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Knoblauch, H. (2000). Workplace Studies und Video: Zur Entwicklung der visuellen Ethnographie
von Technologie und Arbeit [Workplace studies and video: on the development of the visual
ethnography of technology and work]. In I. Götz & A. Wittel (Eds.), Arbeitskulturen im
Umbruch: Zur Ethnografie der Arbeit und Organisation [Work cultures in transition: On the
ethnography of work and organization] (pp. 159–174). Berlin: Waxmann.
Knoblauch, H. (2001). Fokussierte Ethnographie [Focused ethnography]. Sozialer Sinn [Social
sense], 1, 123–141.
Knoblauch, H., & Heath, C. (1999). Technologie, Interaktion und Organisation: die Workplace-
Studies [Technology, interaction and organization: The workplace studies]. Schweizerische
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Latour, B. (1998). From the world of science to the world of research? Science, 280, 208–209.
Latour, B. (2008). A cautious Prometheus? A few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special
attention to Peter Sloterdijk). In Proceedings of the 2008 annual International Conference of the
Design History Society—Falmouth, 3–6 September 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from http://
Malinowski, B. (1932). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: George Routledge & Sons.
Mareis, C. (2010). The nature of design. In C. Mareis, G. Joost, & K. Kimpel (Eds.), Entwerfen—
Wissen—Produzieren. Designforschung im Nwendungskontext [Design—knowledge—produc-
tion: Design research in an application context] (pp. 121–143). Bielefeld: Transcript.
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seit 1960 [Design as a culture of knowledge: Interferences between design and knowledge
discourses since 1960]. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (2003). El árbol del conocimiento. Las bases biológicas del
entendimiento humano [The tree of knowledge: The biological basis of human understanding].
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6 1 Introduction: Design as a Discipline of Alternation

Schultheis, F. (2005). Disziplinierung des Designs [Disciplining of design]. In
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tion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Open Access This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License (, which permits use, sharing,
adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate
credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and
indicate if changes were made.
The images or other third party material in this chapter are included in the chapter’s Creative
Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not
included in the chapter’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by
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Chapter 2
The Blind Spot

Abstract In our everyday world, we operate within a reality that we experience as
“normal,” and which we do not question further, although it is actually man-made
and designed. In design ethnography, however, we need to define this reality not
simply as given, but as constructed and contingent. We need to make blind spots
visible and decompose the reality that we classify on the basis of received knowledge
in a phenomenological way, which is epistemologically relevant. We must deliber-
ately alienate ourselves from the familiar in order to seek new connections of
meaning in it.

Keywords Classification · Ensemble · Everyday knowledge · Gaze ·

In October 1974, the French writer George Perec set himself down for 3 days in a
café at the Place Saint-Suplice in Paris, where he observed the goings-on and made
notes. In his Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010), he records among other
things: “Asphalt,”“Some sort of basset hound,”“Human beings,”“Bread
(baguette)” (2010, p. 6). He does not see the square as an ensemble or the bus as a
means of transportation; rather he sees individual living beings, things, and signs. He
doesn’t comment, doesn’t interpret. His intention consists in describing “[...] that
which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no
importance: what happens when nothing other happens than the weather, people,
cars, and clouds” (2010, p. 3). Perec inventories the things and people of everyday
reality. He wants to suspend the certainties with which we classify everyday reality.
Of course, this can only go so far, especially since Perec does speak of “cars” and not
of colorful metal shells moving forward on wheels (and even this description is
based on an arbitrary language). It is thus accurate to speak of an attempt, and in
particular of a phenomenological one—that is, one that investigates reality as it
reveals itself to us aesthetically—and not an ontological one. It is of course not as if
Perec leaves Plato’s cave by means of his experiment; rather, he is simply sitting in a
café and playing just a little bit with the reality that presents itself to us.

© The Author(s) 2021 7
F. Müller, Design Ethnography, SpringerBriefs in Anthropology,
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8 2 The Blind Spot

Even if Perec seems like a purely passive observer, he is active. He may not be
altering what is happening on the square, but what happens alters him. By shifting
his gaze and seeing “other” things, or seeing the same things differently, he delib-
erately perceives the world differently. Perec is not simply a visitor to the café; he is
an observer, an author. He lingers in the café to write a literary text. His gaze is open
and paradoxically intentional at the same time: by seeing something, he does not see
something else. Seeing always produces “blind spots” (Maturana and Varela 2003,
p. 13). Perec demonstrates that we do not necessarily need to travel to the Amazon in
order to enter another world. A visit to the nearest café on a square in our familiar
city, a pen, a notebook, and some time are sufficient. The other, strange world is
here. We are in its midst.
By putting his observations into written form, Perec draws on a pre-fabricated
language that classifies through naming (Strauss 2017, p. 17 ff.). Thus Perec brings
forth a world through language: an experimental literary text; a text of the OuLiPo
movement. At the same time, his text has an epistemic quality. Perec recognizes
something—namely, that the reality in our everyday world is contingent. This
recognition can be neither generalized nor translated into hypotheses that could be
verified or disproven.
Perec’s experimental process—“experimental” not in the strictly scientific
sense—is relevant to design ethnography for the following reasons. First, it is
focused, because Perec observes a very specific section of reality—Place Saint-
Sulpice. Second, the process, which can seem paradoxical with regard to the first
point, is open: Within the selected section, Perec observes more or less “everything.”
Of course, this openness does not necessarily lead him to see “more,” much less to
see “objectively”: the latter could be achieved, for instance, by means of quantifica-
tion. One might count the number of cars, pigeons, and people—but that is not the
point. Perec simply sees something else—a blind spot that is hidden in everyday life.
Third, his observation period is relatively brief: 3 days, which is not long in
comparison to typical ethnographic studies, in which researchers spend months or
even years immersed in other lifeworlds. The fact that a book was produced on the
basis of 3 days in a café presupposes a large amount of notes. Thus, his observation
is—fourth—data intensive. And fifth, finally, Perec communicates his observation.
It is only possible for us to consider Perec and his experiment here because we have
his text. Only this written form makes the inner world of his thought accessible to
intersubjective connection. Without text, whatever Perec observed would remain a
fluid event in his subjective consciousness—without the possibility of communica-
tive connection.
Instead of asking what Perec sees, one might ask what he doesn’t see: Perec no
longer sees everyday reality in aggregate as an ensemble—or at least, he attempts to
detach himself from it. Ensemble in this context means that when we see certain
things and signs, we complete them to form a larger whole. We see a vehicle passing
by quickly and know that it is a car. We do not see the car in its entirety—not every
one of its four wheels, not the hood (much less what is under it), probably not the
make of the car, and perhaps not even its color. We see (or hear) only a few

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2.1 The Incorporation of Everyday Knowledge 9

individual elements and fill in the rest. The Polish immunologist and philosopher
Ludwig Fleck describes this completion of the everyday as follows:
We walk around without seeing any points, lines, angles, lights, or shadows, from which we
would have to arrange ‘what is this’ by synthesis or reasoning, but we see at once a house, a
memorial in square, a detachment of soldiers, a bookshop window, a group of children, a
lady with a dog, all of them ready forms. (Fleck 1986, p. 134)
This completion takes place in our unconscious, but it comes about through
knowledge that we have acquired and internalized in a process of socialization.

2.1 The Incorporation of Everyday Knowledge

The sociologists Hans-Georg Soeffner and Jürgen Raab write: “We do not perceive
the world around us ‘as such,’ but rather, through seeing, we ‘clip’ it into shape for
ourselves” (2004, p. 266). To illustrate this with an example from our everyday
world of consumption: Shopping in a supermarket is a perfectly ordinary act for
people in Western societies. If we shop frequently in the same supermarket, it
becomes purely routine. We know what we are looking for and go automatically
toward the right section. For instance, we want to buy a six-pack of beer, so we head
for the appropriate area of the beverage section and look there for our favorite brand.
We ignore the wine, just like we ignore the salad and the dairy products—unless we
are tempted by clever marketing psychology to buy more than we originally wanted,
but that is not at issue here. The point, rather, is that the routine act of “buying beer”
delimits our perception and reduces complexity. Ultimately, we get our six-pack and
bring it to the register. We pay in cash or with a credit card. We do not need to
understand the monetarization of the economy or the credit system in order to
complete the payment transaction. It suffices to have the money or a credit card.
As mundane as the experience of the supermarket is in everyday life, it is
nonetheless a rather complex phenomenon dependent on a wealth of preconditions
that already begins outside on the street with the signs (for instance, the logos),
which indicate what is inside—that there, we will find food, beverages, household
items, etc. It includes a very specific, often somewhat sterile, arrangement of the
interior space and a taxonomic organization of products (all the different kinds of
beer, for instance, in one place). It includes too a very specific material culture:
shelving, registers, shopping carts, shopping baskets, products labeled with prices
and bar codes and organized into specific categories. There are, roughly speaking,
two types of people in a supermarket: employees and visitors. The first are identified
by a particular uniform and by the fact that they are performing different activities in
the supermarket than the visitors and are behaving differently. The second type
includes customers, but also thieves and window-shoppers.
A supermarket depends on many preconditions: It could not exist without a
capitalist market economy, industrial production, a monetarized economy, logistics,
transportation, and advertising. A multitude of historical and cultural contingencies

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10 2 The Blind Spot

has led to the existence of supermarkets. We do not need to know this historical and
cultural background in order to shop in a supermarket in everyday life. We use
merely an implicit everyday knowledge—a knowing-in-action (Schön 1983,p.51
ff.) or skilled practices (Ingold 2011, p. 60).
We come into the world more or less as a blank slate and develop our identity or
habitus—by which is meant patterns of perception, classification, and interpretation
of the world—though socialization (Bourdieu 2010, p. 257 ff.). We have internalized
such knowledge and have no need to either reflect upon it or articulate it, since it
resides in the self-evident features of everyday life (Soeffner 2004, p. 25). In the
supermarket and in the reality of everyday life we operate to a certain extent
“blindly.” This reality of everyday life is only breached by a disruption. It is
“interrupted by the appearance by a problem” (Berger and Luckmann 1967,
p. 24). In the context of the supermarket, this happens for instance when the manned
cash register is 1 day replaced by a self-service scanner. As long as both check-out
systems exist in parallel, I can refuse the scanner—in the worst case, I will have to
accept a longer wait for the register. But when the last register is closed, then I must
learn to deal with the scanner despite my reluctance. The first interaction with the
scanner forces me to reflect upon the routine nature of the act of shopping. Crises and
disruptions can therefore lead us to reflect upon situations that we usually experience
as “normal” (Schön 1983, p. 59 ff.).
One might now wonder what all this has to do with design. One initial answer is
offered by the American Nobel Prize winner Herbert A. Simon. His thesis in his
1969 book, The Science of the Artificial, posited among other things that we live in
an artificial—that is, man-made—world: We spend most of our time in spaces that

have an artificially regulated temperature of around 20 C and artificially pipe in or
take away humidity. Even the impure air we inhale is something we produced
ourselves (Simon 1996, p. 2).
Our world is artificial and designed. The longing for nature, so particularly
widespread in the German-speaking world, is itself also something artificial—that
is, a cultural construction that goes back to the reverential appreciation of nature in
German Romanticism. And it does little or nothing to change the fact that we use
smartphones, light switches, and refrigerators; that we wear clothes, get haircuts,
take care of our bodies, ride bicycles, fly to other cities in airplanes, etc. That is to
say, we are socialized into a designed world.
Socialization turns our reality into the reality of everyday life, which is the subject
of the next chapter. This refers to the portion of reality that we experience as
“normal”—which would include the Place Saint-Suplice in Paris, or any other
place in the world that we walk through without giving it a second thought. We
come from somewhere and are on our way to somewhere else. We know where we
are. The place is simply there—we pay no attention to it.

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References 11


Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology
of knowledge. New York: Anchor.
Bourdieu, P. (2010). Distinction. Oxon: Routledge.
Fleck, L. (1986). To look, to see, to know. In R. S. Cohen & T. Schnelle (Eds.), Cognition and fact:
Materials on Ludwik Fleck. Dordrecht: Springer.
Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. New York:
Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (2003). El árbol del conocimiento. Las bases biológicas del
entendimiento humano [The tree of knowledge: The biological basis of human understanding].
Buenos Aires: Lumen.
Perec, G. (2010). An attempt at exhausting a place in paris. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflexive practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York:
Basic Books.
Simon, H. A. (1996). The sciences of the artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Soeffner, H. G. (2004). Auslegung des Alltags—Der Alltag der Auslegung [Interpretation of
everyday life—The everyday life of interpretation]. Konstanz: UVK.
Soeffner, H. G., & Raab, J. (2004). Sehtechniken. Die Medialisierung des Sehens: Schnitt und
Montage als Ästhetisierungsmittel medialer Kommunikation. [Techniques of seeing. The
mediatisation of seeing: Editing and montage as means of the aesthetization of media commu-
nication]. In H. G. Soeffner (Ed.), Auslegung des Alltags—Der Alltag der Auslegung [Interpre-
tation of everyday life—The everyday life of interpretation] (pp. 254–284). Konstanz: UVK.
Strauss, A. (2017). Mirrors and masks: The search for identity. New York: Routledge.

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Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong

Chapter 3
The Everyday World and Intersubjectivity

Abstract We have learned through processes of socialization how to name and
identify things, which helps us continually reduce complexity and bring order to the
contingent world around us in our everyday life. At the same time, we move within
many “small” social lifeworlds, or “multiple realities,” that are disconnected from
one another and each have a particular cultural grammar in which “things” are
loaded with quite a variety of meanings that impact and alter our identities. Design
ethnographers also move within these small social lifeworlds. They should neither
judge these morally nor overwrite them with their own values, but rather meet them
with openness and sensitivity.

Keywords Everyday world · Identity · Multiple realities · Language · Professional

The concept of the Lifeworld was introduced into the philosophical discourse of
phenomenology by Edmund Husserl. The background to this was the dominance of
positivism, founded by August Comte in the nineteenth century (1908). Positivism
required the sciences to exclude anything metaphysical and limit themselves only to
what is verifiable. Physics came to be the dominant discipline and was regarded as a
universal science. In his Physique Sociale (2010a, b), for instance, Adolphe Quetelet
wanted to use physical methods to explain society. Husserl denounced this ethos of
objectivity for lacking the experiential dimension: What people experience as real
had, on his account, nothing to do with mathematical and physical formulas, but with
our subjective being in the lifeworld (Husserl 1996, p. 54). Husserl’s phenomenol-
ogy was then developed further by existential philosophers such as Martin Heideg-
ger and subsequently Jean-Paul Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. More interesting in the
ethnographic context is Alfred Schütz’s introduction of the concept of the lifeworld
into sociology, where the world of everyday life is described as paramount reality
(Schütz and Luckmann 1973, p. 3). Paramount reality is not to be understood
ontologically. Rather, it is produced through stores of knowledge: from the way
we tie our shoes to the operation of a light switch or the interface of a smartphone—
we have internalized implicit knowledge. When we move around in our own city on

© The Author(s) 2021 13
F. Müller, Design Ethnography, SpringerBriefs in Anthropology,
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14 3 The Everyday World and Intersubjectivity

public transport, we do so by rote. A ticket vending machine in Tokyo or a microbus
ride on the outskirts of Mexico City, on the other hand, can pose an existential
challenge. What we experience as “normal,” then, has arisen out of the social context
of our lifeworld. This social, intersubjective level is one side of the reality in which
we live. The other is our individualized consciousness.
From a phenomenological point of view, consciousness is separate from the
world (Husserl 1995, p. 66) and at once intertwined with it. Thus, it is not for
instance possible for us to actually communicate our inner being through speech
because all communication is based on a previously existing language. And lan-
guage “typifies experience” (Berger and Luckmann 1967, p. 39). The difficulty of
communicating dreams demonstrates this: It is not possible to definitively translate a
dream into the form of language (Berger and Luckmann 1967, p. 40). What should
one describe? The moods and images that can only be conveyed through language to
a limited extent? The actions, which are often diffuse? When we tell the events of a
dream, this narrative is not a depiction of the dream but rather something produced
through the act of the telling.
Language can also transcend the here and now: It can describe reality (“This is a
tree”) or negate it (the sentence “This is not a tree” can also be said of a tree). In the
language of religion, there are many terms that refer to the transcendent, which is at
once absent and made accessible through naming the experience: “paradise,”“hell,”
or “angel” are such terms. Phenomenology refers to this as appresentation, which is
a kind of concomitant visualization of what is not there (Husserl 1995, p. 111;
Schütz and Luckmann 1973, p. 11). In design theory, this term means that aesthetic
phenomena evoke certain meanings and images: We see a house at night with a beer
logo on it and hear music playing inside—so we know there is a bar in there without
even looking inside. We even know what kind of bar it is: a hipster bar, a red-light
bar, a jazz bar. We see individual signs and elements and complete the rest based on
social knowledge.
There are “multiple realities” (Schütz 1945): the reality of quantum physics, art,
religion, etc. But when we speak of the world of everyday life, we mean the segment
of reality that we experience as “normal.” A lecture hall is one example: It is
designed in such a way that the attention of the majority of those present is directed
to the front, where a professor gives a lecture. This hierarchy manifests itself in the
seating arrangement, the tables, the projector, the screen, etc. A lecture hall obvi-
ously resembles a theatrical space, which makes it a “front region” (Goffman 1956,
p. 67). The design of the lecture hall manifests, among other things, humanistic
educational ideals and a politics that ascribes value to these ideals. A lecture hall
elicits a specific behavior and social roles from the lecturers, the students, the
janitorial staff, etc. A lecture hall is therefore a cultural construction. Construction

Heidegger says that it is no longer the person who speaks, but language itself (1997, p. 143).
Consider the well-known painting La trahison des images by René Magritte, which depicts a pipe
and the sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The point is that this is not actually a pipe, but rather
only an image of a pipe.

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3.1 Symbolic Interaction and the Generalized Other 15

here does not mean something arbitrary, but rather something binding—or at least, it
is the consequence of what was suggested by the Chicago sociologist William
S. Thomas in his famous pronouncement: “If men define their situations as real,
they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928, p. 572).
One critique of the classical phenomenological theory of the lifeworld and
everyday life is that the term is formulated in the singular, which suggests the
above-mentioned notion of Paramount Reality, which is superior to other realities.
The sociologist Benita Luckmann has remedied this deficit by pluralizing the
concept of the lifeworld: On her account, modern man does not live in one lifeworld,
but in many that cannot be hierarchized. Luckmann speaks of “small lifeworlds” that
often have no relation to one another and exist only for a limited time (1978, p. 282
ff.). People thus operate in single-purpose-communities: A student, for example,
operates in her parents’ house, in her shared flat with her roommates, at a university,
at a Kung Fu school, in a relationship, at a bar, where she works on weekends, etc.
These “places” constitute specific social identities: She behaves differently at her
parents’ house, in her flat, and at the university. All these social “places” or situations
are designed. They conceal a script and lead to specific role behavior. The descrip-
tion of these lifeworlds as small is not due to the number of people involved or the
territorial size of the field, but to the fact that the complexity of possible redundan-
cies is reduced to a certain system of relevance (Hitzler 2008, p. 136). These “places”
can also be described as sub-universes (James 1921, p. 283 ff.) or microcultures
(Cranz 2016, p. 40).

3.1 Symbolic Interaction and the Generalized Other

The fact that small social lifeworlds are experienced by individuals as “normal” is “a
product of intersubjectivity, not of the individual” (Soeffner 2004, p. 22). The
concept of intersubjectivity can be traced back to the pragmatism of George Herbert
Mead. In his work, MIND, SELF & SOCIETY, Mead makes a distinction between a
personal I and a social Me (2015, p. 173 ff.). The I is a spontaneous sensation, while
Me is social patterns. Mead also distinguishes between Play and Game (2015, p. 152
ff.). In play, roles can be changed spontaneously in response to the situation, the way
children do. In a Game, on the other hand, a generalized other is established, which
may be demonstrated by the example of boxing. The only thing allowed in boxing is
punches (straight, hook, and upwards hook) to the head and upper body—no low
punches, no kicking, and no biting. Fighting takes place in an area delimited by a
ring during a time delimited by acoustic signals, and not in the breaks in between.
These rules are made binding by the generalized other. The boxer does not just
expect his opponent to obey the rules, but he himself complies with them and
incorporates them because his opponent, the trainers, referees, organizers, audience,
sponsors, TV stations, boxing associations, etc., all expect it from him. If a boxer
bites off his opponent’s ear, then he substantially damages his identity as a boxer.
The generalized other is thus something like an abstract and normative identity foil

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16 3 The Everyday World and Intersubjectivity

on which the boxer orients himself. This leads, on the one hand, to empathy—
especially since one’s own consciousness is simultaneously reflected in the gener-
alized other and in the opponent. George Herbert Mead thus shows how human
consciousness emerges; namely, on the basis of the reflection between a personal
and a social identity. Similar approaches can be found in the thought of other
representatives from the field of American Pragmatism—such as, for instance,
Charles Horton Cooley, who called on sociologists to practice empathy toward
people from other lifeworlds with his notion of “sympathetic introspection” (1909,
p. 7) and who speaks of the “looking-glass-self” (1922, p. 184), in which the other
becomes the mirror of the self.
On the basis of Mead’s theory, Herbert Blumer developed symbolic
interactionism—a micro-sociological theory relevant to design, which is founded
on three premises (1986, p. 2):
1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have
for them.
2. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction
that one has with one’s fellows.
3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process
used by the person in dealing with the things they encounter.

With its anti-essentialist positions, symbolic interactionism often functions as a
theoretical starting point for ethnographic field research (Prus 1996, 1997; Rock
2009). Harold Garfinkel advocates for a similar micro-sociological approach with
his ethnomethodology, which also investigates how people constitute reality in their
everyday worlds (Garfinkel 1967; Suchman et al. 2019). In conversational analysis
(Sacks 1984), individual sequences of everyday communications are transcribed and
analyzed in detail. This process aims to lay bare at the sociolinguistic level how
everyday reality arises and becomes experienced as a certainty. In his now famous
so-called breaching experiments, Garfinkel (1967, p. 35) challenged his students to
behave in ways that differed from the norm—for instance, to act as guests in their
own parents’ home. In this way, deviant behavior is used to attempt to explore the
limits of that which is considered normal. These disturbances of “natural” situations
correspond to the interventions of design ethnography (Otto and Smith 2013, p. 11).
Situations are “natural” when the researcher has not done anything to alter them
(Dellwing and Prus 2012, p. 54 ff.). A design intervention, on the other hand, or a
natural science experiment are “artificial” situations that have been evoked by the
Goffman observes everyday situations guided by the question: “What is it that’s
going on here?” (1986, p. 8). In this way, he seeks to find out how we ever got to the
point where certain situations are experienced as normal to begin with. His assump-
tion is that situations have certain frames that organize them in their existence as
events. For instance, as is evident in how we handle physical proximity, we behave
completely differently in different situations in which proximity arises. Western
society has certain standards regarding what degrees of proximity are allowed in
what situations, on which Goffman’s studies on the territories of the self shed light.

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3.2 Professional Indifference and Lack of Moral Judgment 17

At a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school, we have very close physical contact with other
people, with whom we otherwise have no contact at all outside that place. In an
elevator, on the other hand, we might feel quite uncomfortable when it is crowded.
An individual thus has certain Territories of the Self (Goffman 2010, p. 28 ff.): These
are: (1) Personal Space, which is contiguous with the individual and can feel
threatened in crowded elevators or vehicles. (2) The Stall, which is the visible and
spatially delimited area that an individual has at their disposal, for instance on a bar
stool or in a theater seat. (3) The Use Space, which is the space around the individual.
(4) The Turn, which is a sequential position that an individual takes up in relation to
others—for instance standing in line at a supermarket. (5) The Sheath, which is the
skin that covers the body and the clothing that in turn covers the skin. (6) Professional
Territory, which includes the objects that surround the body and are identified with
the self—such easily portable possessions as jackets, hats, gloves, packs of ciga-
rettes, matches, purses with their contents. (7) The Information Preserve, which is
the store of information to which an individual would like to control access in the
presence of others (this could be aspects of their biography as well as personal
objects in pockets and purses). And (8) the Conversational Preserve, which means
that an individual can decide with whom to enter into conversation.
These are informal rules that are culturally variable (Collier 1967, p. 39) and lack
of compliance with them is understood as a violation of one’s private sphere. This,
however, depends on how the situation is framed. Thus, nakedness, for instance, can
mean something different depending on the situational context—at the doctor, in
public, in a sexual relationship, or in a life drawing class at an art studio. A naked
model, according to Goffman, is in a certain sense not naked, but rather an “embodi-
ment of the body” (1986, p. 78).

3.2 Professional Indifference and Lack of Moral Judgment

In the context of ethnography, we should turn to the aesthetic world with as unbiased
a gaze as possible. Of course it is not possible to see the world from a neutral
perspective, because there is no such thing as neutral and value-free knowledge.
Nonetheless, Robert E. Park’s premise—“A moral man cannot be a sociologist”—
still applies (quoted in Girtler 2001, p. 82). Anyone who goes through the world in a
moralizing and normative way is hardly likely to find out anything new about a
lifeworld, but will at best confirm their own prejudices. This is clearly evident in the
ethnographic research of the social anthropologist Sarah Pink on Spanish bullfight-
ing (1997, 2013, p. 76 ff.). If she had either condemned or idealized bullfighting,
then her point of view would have been one-sided and she would have found out
very little about the cultural grammar in which bullfighting is embedded. Pink’s
impartiality is what allows her to open up different perspectives onto bullfighting.
This is why Crabtree et al. emphasize “professional indifference” (2012, p. 70 ff.)
in design ethnography. Design ethnography aims to explore the grammar and
patterns through which the reality of the lifeworlds it investigates is produced, not

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18 3 The Everyday World and Intersubjectivity

to colonize those worlds with their own values. It is especially important not to
moralize when dealing with popular and everyday culture, such as online games, fast
food, fashion, commerce, pornography, alcohol, selfies, and of course advertising.
The value attached to these can be traced back to bourgeois educational ideals and
the Frankfurt School, which distinguishes between a serious and a popular culture,
whereby the former is “good” and the latter naturally “objectionable.” This assess-
ment is normative, which is not tenable from the perspective of cultural


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Chapter 4
Design Research: Immersion
and Intervention

Abstract Research is part of any design praxis. But there is no consensus about how
exactly research should be conducted. This is in part due to the fact that the
disciplines of design have varied historically and are today greatly differentiated
from one another. This chapter sketches out how design ethnography does research:
it does not test previously constructed hypotheses, but rather explores and leads into
new territories, which makes it risky and adventurous. It concerns itself with
singularities, which means it does not necessarily need to generalize its findings. It
can break with convention, push boundaries, and expand conceptual horizons. It is
abductive, constructivist, and reflexive. It develops hypotheses that can be trans-
ferred into design.

Keywords Abduction · Design discipline · Research through design · Risk ·

Designers primarily create something new. They see reality—and in it the potential
for change (Fulton Suri 2011, p. 31). But a design process never starts from scratch,
because “to design is always to redesign. There is always something that exists first
as a given, as an issue, as a problem” (Latour 2008, p. 5). Design makes reference to
something preexisting from which it must differentiate itself. Design requires and
generates knowledge.
Generally, the concept of design is associated with industrialization and the
division of labor. These are the processes that led to the decoupling of conception
and production. Products are designed first and then mass-produced afterward.
Industrially produced things are “made more beautiful” and “given a form.” In the
German-speaking world, until the 1970s designers were referred to as “form-givers”
(Krippendorff 2013, p. 29). Design-specific functionalism should be mentioned in
this context. In 1896, the architect Louis H. Sullivan, of the architectural (not to be
confused with the sociological) Chicago School, formulated the famous dictum
“form ever follows function” (1896, p. 408). The form thus aesthetisizes the intended
use, as illustrated in an exemplary manner by an aerodynamic car. Functionalism
was taken further by the Bauhaus, where the focus was on eschewing all ornament

© The Author(s) 2021 21
F. Müller, Design Ethnography, SpringerBriefs in Anthropology,
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22 4 Design Research: Immersion and Intervention

and flourish and practicality stood at the center (Gropius 1996, p. 149 ff.). Klaus
Krippendorff criticizes functionalism as “an expression of blind acceptance of the
role assigned to designers by society, and especially by their industrial clients”
(2013, p. 28). Krippendorff pleads instead for a semantic shift: “People can neither
see nor react to the physical properties of things. They always act in accordance
with what the things mean to them” (2013, p. 75).
Other theorists have also criticized the notion of design as “form-giving.” In the
1970s, Bazon Brock called for a “socio-design” and an “expansion of the concept of
design” that would emancipate itself from the industrial production of goods to focus
on the formation of ways of life, values, and linguistic gestures (1977, p. 446). With
this idea of socio-design, Brock formulated something that is inherent in design
itself: Design is something genuinely social, which is why Brandes et al. speak of the
“sociality of design” (2009, p. 90 ff.). The cultural sociologist Yana Milev criticizes
the fact that “the utilitarian and doggedly functional view of design” ideologizes
design as a progressive force for consumer goods (2011, p. 46). She calls for “an
anthropological and participatory form of design research” (Milev 2011, p. 46).
Undoubtedly, the concept of design has been undergoing an explosive expansion
for some time now, which is reflected in the proliferation of differentiated disciplines
such as game design, interaction design, experience design, event design, fashion
design, graphic design, communication design, system design, spatial design, cul-
tural design, knowledge visualization, etc. Design has thus emancipated itself from
thingness and form-giving. According to the design theorist Claudia Mareis, the
concept of design encompasses “an immense spectrum of discourses, methods,
activities, and artifacts, from the design of mass-produced goods to individually
formed unique objects to generalized planning and problem-solving processes”
(2014, p. 37).
This “cultural technique of ‘designing’” (Mareis 2014, p. 152 ff.) is therefore
situated between different disciplines—which is precisely why perspectives within
design can be ascribed to distinct individual disciplines. A design problem may be
defined as social, economic, ecological, political, formal, ergonomic, technical, or
atmospheric—whereby these definitions already say something about the direction
in which the solutions will be sought (Götz 2010, p. 55 f.).
The sociologist Franz Schultheis argues for a disciplining of design so that it can
“transform itself [...] from an ‘illegitimate art’ into a legitimate field of scientific
theory and research” (2005, p. 68). Anthropologist Lucy A. Suchman calls for
design to find its “place”—“to locate itself as a one (albeit multiple) figure and
practice of change” (2011, p. 3). The fact that theory and practice play a part in
design does not make this search for location any easier. Although design is
fundamentally practical, it is not free of theory. This is evident from scholarly
journals such as Design Studies and Design Issues, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für
Designtheorie und -forschung ( and die English Design Research
Society. Mareis speaks of Design as Knowledge Culture (2011) and traces the
interpositioning of the discourses of design and knowledge since the emergence of
the Design Methods Movement in the 1960 (Gregory 1966; Mareis 2010, p. 17 ff.,
2011, p. 34 ff., 2014, p. 162 ff.). Sydney A. Gregory defines Design Science as a

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4.1 Warm, Involving, and Risky 23

discipline that deals with the study, investigation, and accumulation of knowledge in
design processes and their essential operations (1966, p. 323). In his book
Designerly Ways of Knowing, design theorist Nigel Cross proposes the thesis that
individual figures such as Le Courbusier had already laid the foundation for the
Design Methods Movement of the 1960s back in the 1920s (2007a, p. 119 ff.). Cross
distinguishes between three categories of design research (2007b, p. 48): (1) Design
epistemology—study of designerly ways of knowing; (2) Design praxeology—study
of the practices and processes of design; and (3) Design phenomenology—study of
the form and configuration of artifacts.

4.1 Warm, Involving, and Risky

Bruno Latour writes: “Science is certainty; research is uncertainty. Science is
supposed to be cold, straight, and detached; research is warm, involving, and
risky” (1998, p. 208). Research leads into unknown territory. The knowledge it
generates is particular and based on experience, not universal. This is especially the
case for ethnography: “Ethnographic truths are thus inherently partial—committed
and incomplete” (Clifford 1986, p. 7).
In contrast to Science the term Research implies that previously existing knowl-
edge functions as a reference point, given that something is being searched for again.
This knowledge can be explicit or implicit. We have recourse to explicit knowledge
if it has already been articulated—for instance, when we access cultural studies texts
in libraries, or search on-line databases for e-papers. Implicit knowledge signifies
internalized practical knowledge—it is the everyday knowledge discussed above,
which we use among other things to move about in the supermarket. Uriel Orlow
At stake, then, is not chiefly a form of new knowledge that is teleologically targeted, but
rather a reticulated, branched feeling out of latent knowledge that is in part already there, but
is not immediately visible or graspable, and which is made accessible again and combined
anew in the process of research. (Orlow 2014, p. 201)
This aligns with the thesis that people know more than they can articulate (Schön
1983, p. 51 ff.). By observing, articulating, and translating into text practical and
everyday knowledge, we make it explicit—and make it possible to reflect on it. In
her various studies, Sarah Pink, for example, has ethnographically investigated how
long-standing everyday practices—such as those in the kitchen (2012, p. 48ff.), the
laundry (2012, p. 66 ff.), or the garden (2012, p. 84 ff.)—are carried out and what
specific knowledge the relevant actors possess.
Design ethnography has many possibilities to experiment with methods. It can
intervene, disrupt situations, develop and test prototypes. It does not have to adhere
to a linear research process, but rather involves iterative processes and increased
awareness. Designers should operate with reflective practices (Schön 1983)and
quickly switch between the roles of researcher and designer. In research, they

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24 4 Design Research: Immersion and Intervention

attempt to shed light on the things and connections of our social and cultural world
from as many perspectives as possible. This requires openness, empathy, sensitivity,
exploration, and participatory approaches undertaken with the people in the field of
inquiry. In design, on the other hand, they adopt an attitude that focuses as much as
possible on a small, identifiable, and changeable portion of reality—that is to say, a
“place” where design can have an impact and change something. Design always
pertains to something that does not yet exist and is therefore speculative—in contrast
to descriptive ethnography in social research. Design wants to change the world.
Every change is driven by assumptions that are prospective. Design is always
directed towards an (uncertain) future and helps shape it: “Everyone designs who
devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”
(Simon 1996, p. 111). In a design ethnography, these two dimensions—the descrip-
tive and the prospective—come together. These are “Ethnographies of the Possible”
(Halse 2013), which do not simply investigate social lifeworlds but also ask: “What
happens if we look at it this way?” (Halse 2013, p. 182). Design thinks in alterna-
tives. Design is speculative. Speculation requires avoiding prejudices and moral
judgments and striving for an unbiased view. Design proceeds from empirical
observations and hypotheses that change people’s behavior, interactions, and even
identities. Design holds a conception of mankind that to a certain extent it itself
brings forth.

4.2 Research Through Design

There is a typology occasionally called upon in the context of design research that
originally goes back to the art theorist Herbert Read (1944) and was adapted for art
and design by Christopher Frayling: research into art and design, research through
art and design and research for art and design (Frayling 1993, p. 5). Alain Findeli
has modified this typology specifically for design, replacing the focus on art history
with a present-oriented orientation on popular culture (2004, p. 42). He proposes the
following three types of design research (2004, p. 41 ff.):
• Research for design: These are projects at design schools in which students do
research before designing a product or system. It is also applied in professional
design practice—for instance, in the research departments of design firms. This
research often draws on existing knowledge.
• Research on design: This category is mainly practiced at colleges and universi-
ties. Here design is put in the context of academic theory (economics, art history,
technology, sociology, etc.).
• Research through design: This research centers on people and is active. Design
here operates as a method to generate knowledge. It requires praxis, exploration,
and self-reflection.
Findeli criticizes the first two approaches. Research for design has no memory. It
begins anew with every project and because for the most part it draws on already

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4.2 Research Through Design 25

existing knowledge, it is not accepted in the sciences. The converse is the case for
research on design, which may have a place in scholarly discourse, but has no
relevance for design praxis. Findeli favors research through design, which he
describes as “project-led research” (2004, p. 44). He emphasizes the potential of
interpretive (hermeneutics, phenomenology, personal history) and active methods
(participatory research, action research, grounded theory, etc.) (2004, p. 45).
Design ethnography corresponds to what Findeli calls “project-led research.” It is
interpretative, qualitative, engaged, active, constructivistic, interactionistic, phenom-
enological, explorative, and abductive. It is—to use Bruno Latour’s differentiation
between research and science—a risky research method. It can disrupt conventions,
push boundaries, and expand mental horizons. Design ethnography can mean
passively observing social situations in order to alter them afterward through inter-
vention, and then observe them again, etc. It is not a linear but an iterative process, in
which observation, analysis, and conception are inextricable:
Design ethnography offers a powerful way to examine the circulations of meanings, objects,
and identities in diffuse time-space and bring these to fruition, not in new description of
localities, but in new objects and services that will make sense to these localities. (Salvador
et al. 1999, p. 41)
The design ethnographer observes actions—and acts. They generate knowl-
edge—through praxis. Design ethnography not only investigates designed reali-
ties—it also brings them forth.
This explorative approach eludes inductive and deductive methods. Proceeding
inductively leads to generalizing one’s own observations—even though these may
have no universal relevance at all but are only specific to the case. If I observe white
swans on the lake shore, this does not mean that many swans are white (Popper
1935, p. 1). The hypothesis that all swans are white is therefore only valid until a
gray swan comes along; then it is falsified (Popper 1935, p. 5 ff.). Those who
proceed deductively from the start of their research project will construct and test
their hypotheses. This begs the questions, however—where did the preliminary
knowledge for the construction come from, given that there is still very little
knowledge available about the research field at the start of the investigation. Much
of what we know comes from self-referential peer-group discourses, digital bubbles,
and mass media. It would be banal to “test” this pre-given knowledge in the context
of a social lifeworld. Anyone who knows from the start what they are looking for
will view reality through tunnel vision and will therefore fail to see many phenomena
that might turn out to be relevant (Blumer 1986, p. 21 ff.). Hypotheses constructed in
advance carry the risk of narrowing one’s perspective in the field. At best, hypoth-
eses should be understood as tools that lead one into the field but become obsolete
there through serendipity:
If a man sets out on an expedition, determined to prove certain hypotheses, if he is incapable
of changing his views constantly and casting them off ungrudgingly under the pressure of
evidence, needless to say his work will be worthless. (Malinowski 1932, p. 16)

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26 4 Design Research: Immersion and Intervention

4.3 Contingency and Serendipity

The founders of Grounded Theory described their methods as inductive (Glaser and
Strauss 1995, p. 114). Strübing describes this as an “inductivist self-misunderstand-
ing” and assigns Grounded Theory to abduction (2008, p. 44 ff.). Abduction, which
was introduced into the social sciences by Charles S. Pierce (2004, p. 209 ff.), is
intended to lead to new insights specifically through experience, not through paths
charted by logic. In the context of abduction, Jo Reichertz puts emphasis on the new,
which flares up as an idea: “[...] abduction is sensible and scientific as a form of
inference, however it reaches to the sphere of deep insight and new knowledge”
(2007, p. 216). The phenomenologist Thomas S. Eberle sees abduction as an attitude
that consists in curiosity, intense observation, and the openness to bracket one’s own
convictions (2011, p. 41). The design theorist Michael Erlhoff points to the potential
of fuzziness and undogmatic approaches in the context of design research (2010,
p. 41). The sociologist Anne Honer insists that an ethnographer must always be
ready to allow themselves to become confused, experience shocks, and set aside
their moral judgments for a time (2008, p. 203).
An abductive process entails a kind of chaotic interplay of induction and deduc-
tion, in which observations and internalized implicit practical knowledge
(of participants in a field) are continually made explicit. It is an immersive process
in which one becomes sensitized to a lifeworld to the point that one discovers
something about its “cosmology” (Goffman 1986, p. 27). The point is that the
researcher does not simply find something in the data, but also adds something to
it, which makes abduction constructivist (Bryant and Charmaz 2007, p. 44 ff.). With
abduction, new hypotheses can be developed that could be transferred into the
process of design.
Methods therefore must not be applied dogmatically—rather, they may and
should be adapted and developed further. Ton Otto and Rachel Charlotte Smith
emphasize the potential for interventions in and disruptions of natural situations in
the context of design ethnography (2013, p. 12). To prevent the research from
becoming completely arbitrary, these methods must be made transparent, that is to
say, they should be reflected upon. Only then can the demand for intersubjectivity in
research be satisfied. In this respect, design research resembles a voyage of discov-
ery—but one that is very well documented, charted, and reflected upon, so it is
always comprehensible to those who were not a part of it.
In the context of abduction, it is important to consider serendipity. Serendipity
refers to what Ludwig Fleck described as the “Columbus Effect” (1980, p. 91):
Columbus was looking for a new route to India and discovered America. The history
of science can point to many such examples: for instance, penicillin, LSD, or Viagra.
It is in the nature of searching that one enters into new territory. “The fundamental
problem of such a process of searching consists in the fact that it is not possible to
precisely determine what one doesn’t know” (Rheinberger 2014, p. 232). For this
reason, Peter Friedrich Stephan suggests that not knowing should no longer be seen
exclusively as a deficit, but rather also as a resource (2010, p. 85). Michael Dellwing

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References 27

and Robert Prus posit the thesis that very open, interactionist ethnography is per se
serendipitous. At the same time, however—as the examples from the history of
science demonstrate—the pure natural sciences are not free of it either, although they
are not allowed to show it, since they do not ascribe any meaningful role to chaos and
contingency (Dellwing and Prus 2012, p. 206). Thus, what is hidden in the pure
sciences may be revealed in design ethnography. Dealing with serendipity requires
openness, attentiveness, and sensitivity.


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Perpustakaan SMA Negeri 2 Cibinong

Chapter 5
Methods and Aspects of Field Research

Abstract This chapter lays out the history of ethnography, which began with travel
narratives in antiquity and came to be used as a method in anthropology and urban
sociology in the early twentieth century. Discussed, among other things, are the
researcher’s role in the field and ethical considerations, as well as methods such as
observation, interviews, digital, visual, and participatory ethnography, and the
question of the documentation of design ethnography research. These are dealt
with here within the specific context of design ethnography, which is usually
significantly shorter in duration than the typical ethnographies in anthropology and
cultural sociology and may seek not only to investigate a situation but also poten-
tially to alter it.

Keywords Participatory action research · Defamiliarization · Digital ethnography ·
Ethnographic interview · Ethnographic observation · Visual research

The term ethnography can be traced back to the ancient Greek éthnos (foreign
people) and graphé (writing). A description of a foreign society presupposes two
things: First, people who are engaged in ethnography must be mobile in order to
have come into contact with foreign societies to begin with. Second, they require
media such as writing, drawing, images, etc., in order to record their observations.
The oldest ethnographies are travelogues, some of which had already been com-
posed in ancient Greece: The geographer Skylax, the merchant Pytheas von
Massalia, and the historian Herodotus reported on their journeys to the Near East.
In the fourteenth century, the Muslim scholar Ibn Battûta wrote about his travels to
Mekka, India, and China. Marco Polo’s reports of his travels in China—the authen-
ticity of which, by the way, was doubted at the time because there were too few
marvelous creatures described in them—are of course well known. Equally disputed
was the travelogue of the German adventurer Hand Staden, who journeyed to Brazil
in the sixteenth century with Portuguese conquerors and was supposedly held
captive there by cannibals.
Later, ethnographic reports were written by missionaries, who explored indige-
nous societies in order to Christianize them. It was not until the nineteenth century

© The Author(s) 2021 31
F. Müller, Design Ethnography, SpringerBriefs in Anthropology,
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32 5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research

that such investigations would be liberated from missionary ambitions, thus clearing
a path for actual anthropological research. In the late nineteenth century, ethnogra-
phy became a sociological and anthropological method. The American anthropolo-
gist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who spent many years during the 1880s with the
indigenous Zuni tribes in New Mexico, was one of the first to write ethnographic
reports in the social scientific sense (1988). The actual foundation of the method as
such is ascribed to the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who conducted
long-term field work on the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea in the
1910s (1932).

5.1 The Foreign Worlds Next Door and Defamiliarization

The ethnographic method was also developed around the same time, in the early
twentieth century, by the Chicago School of sociology—although here the encounter
with the foreign took place not on the far-off Trobriand Islands but just next door
(Deegan 2009, pp. 11–25, 119–164). Robert E. Park, on of the founders of the
Chicago School, said to his students:

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and
liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find
musty stacks of routine records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats and
filled out by reluctant applicants for aid or fussy do-gooders or indifferent clerks. This is
called “getting your hands dirty in real social research.” Those who counsel you are wise and
honorable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needful; first hand
observation. Go and sit in the lounges of luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the
flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and the slum shakedowns; sit in the orchestra
hall and in the Star and Garter burlesque. In short, gentlemen, go to get the seat of your pants
dirty in real social research. (Park, cited in Prus 1996, p. 119)
It is not by chance that Park calls on his students to go out to the luxury hotels and
to the emergency shelters in the slums. In the late nineteenth century, migration led
to a great degree of urbanization and pluralization of society, particularly in the
northeast of the USA, but also in other major centers. Cities like Chicago and
New York developed into gigantic metropolises in the span of a few decades. But
it was not only the quantitative dimension of these urbanization processes that was
new. The influx of immigrants also altered society qualitatively. It undermined the
cultural dominance of the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) in the northeast.
The predominantly Protestant society was now confronted with Jews from Ukraine,
Catholics from Ireland and Italy, and Germans, who were thought to be beer-
guzzling atheists. To this day, the China Towns and Little Italies in Chicago,
New York, and other major cities bear witness to the exoticization of society from
within that was just beginning then. The next side street could lead to another world.
The emerging Penny Press showed interest in this social pluralization. It “dis-
covered what was close at hand, but at the same time deviant and curious, as
newsworthy material” (Lindner 2007, p. 19). Reporters began to investigate

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5.1 The Foreign Worlds Next Door and Defamiliarization 33

mortuaries, bordellos, factories, and slaughterhouses. Jacob A. Riis (Harper 2012,
p. 24 ff.), who emigrated to New York from Denmark, exemplifies this development.
The police reporter, who is regarded as the founder of social photojournalism, took
pictures of subcultural lifeworlds in Lower Manhattan in the 1880s, which first
appeared as illustrations in newspaper and were later published in the photography
book How the Other Half Lives (1997). Riis shows social realities that are geo-
graphically close but culturally far away. His work consists of ethnographic life-
world analyses, mapped spaces and photographic portraits of street boys, Chinese
opium smokers, bohemians, and Jews. Riis was however not only an ethnographer,
but also a social reformer. His aim was to point out social grievances.
Even more radical were the “girl stunt reporters” who published social reportage
in major American daily newspapers in the late 1880s. On commission from the
papers, they went undercover to the prisons, factories, and poorhouses of large cities
and reported on the abuses there. Elisabeth Cochrane, writing under the pseudonym
Nellie Bly, was the most famous representative of this women’s movement. In 1887,
she had herself admitted to a New York psychiatric clinic. Her report, Ten Days in a
Mad-House (Bly 2009)—which revealed inhumane conditions and triggered a
political scandal—helped develop the participatory, covert practice of undercover
research. Lindner points out the reciprocal influence of urban reportage and ethnog-
raphy (2007, p. 115): Both thematize the foreignness that is found next door; both
are explorative and based on experience. This development was anticipated by
reporters in the nineteenth century and not taken up by the social sciences until
some decades later.
Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess of the Chicago School of sociology
understood the metropolis as a laboratory in which human behavior could be
investigated (Park and Burgess 1967, p. 1). Within the Chicago School milieu, the
primary concern of study was societal marginality: thieves (Sutherland 1989),
migrant workers (Anderson 1998), ghettos (Wirth 1998), slums (Zorbaugh 1929),
vice (Reckless 1969), ethnically mixed marriages (Adams 1975), or the Italian
quarter in Boston (Whyte 1981). Just as in investigative journalism, research was
conducted by going undercover. Frances R. Donovan, for instance, worked as a sales
girl in a department store for 2 months and wrote a report about it (1988). This
tradition was continued by others, such as James P. Spradley, who wrote—among
other things—about urban itinerants and alcoholics (1999), the deaf (Spradley and
Spradley 1985) and barmaids (Spradley and Mann 1975). The immersive approach
was also followed by Loïc Wacquant, who spent several years training at a boxing
gym on the South Side of Chicago (2006).
Ethnography aimed to map the processes through which people created their
world (Dellwing and Prus 2012, p. 53). The main focus of ethnography is: “What
people do, what people know, and the things people make and use” (Spradley 1980,
p. 5). Fundamentally, ethnography is an empirical process that involves linguistic,
mental, visual, sensory, and corporeal aspects (Pink 2015, p. 26 ff.). To investigate
ethnographically means collecting data by exposing oneself—that is, one’s own
body—to the unpredictable influences of another lifeworld (Coffey 1999, p. 59 ff.;
Goffman 1989, p. 125). In contrast to ethnographic field work in anthropology,

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34 5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research

design ethnography usually takes place in the context of one’s “own” society. We do
not have to travel like Malinowsky to the Trobriand Islands in order to experience
the foreign. A “journey” to a nursing home, or a Thai boxing club, or a hole-in-the-
wall bar will lead us to an adventure around the corner.
In this context, George E. Marcus poses the question of whether lifeworlds can
still be conceived of as closed, microscopic entities at all, as in Malinowski’s work.
Marcus proposes a multi-sited ethnography, which follows ensembles of people,
things, metaphors, scripts, biographies, and conflicts that circulate globally (1995,
p. 106 ff.). This may be illustrated with reference to a research project I conducted
together with the designer Bitten Stetten on landmine victims, disability, and
creative practices in Angola (Müller 2016). The energetic Kuduro music produced,
sung, and danced in the musseque —the slums in Luanda—is a mixture of western
Techno and Angolese Kilapanga and Semba. The long fingernails, rhinestone
earrings, and knee socks with flip-flops that we observed on young Kudoro dancers
in Sambizanga (a musseque in Luanda) (Stetter 2016, p. 90) are not an isolated
phenomenon, but can be read in a global context. Here, elements of a global pop
culture are mixed with Angolan culture. Many young people in Angola have a
smartphone and a Facebook profile. They know the football stars from Madrid and
Barcelona. They are connected with students in Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon. Because
socialization still continues to occur in microsocial contexts, however, societies still
develop differently as before. This is why a globally uniform culture has not
emerged (Tilley 2009, p. 267). Consumer goods and global brands are inculturated,
adapted, and imbued with new meanings. For this reason, globalization leads not to
uniformity but rather to transformation.
In her understanding of ethnography, Sarah Pink links knowledge gained from
field work with individual experience. She defines ethnography “as a process of
creating and representing knowledge or ways of knowing that are based on ethnog-
raphers’ own experiences and the ways these intersect with the persons, places and
things encountered during that process” (Pink 2013, p. 35). When we are familiar
with a lifeworld, it is all the more challenging not to classify things prematurely and
instead to observe the familiar with a phenomenological gaze, which is also referred
to as “defamiliarization” (Bell et al. 2006).

5.2 Focused Ethnographies and Design Anthropology

A fundamental distinction may be drawn between classical and focused ethnography
(Knoblauch 2006). Classical ethnography in the tradition of the Chicago School is
characterized by long-term immersion in the field, openness, and description of
impressions and experiences. Focused ethnographies are practiced in applied fields

The concept comes from Kimbundu (Mu-seke) and means something like a sandy place, which
describes the unpaved ground of the Luandan slums (Moorman 2008, p. 32).

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5.2 Focused Ethnographies and Design Anthropology 35

such as architecture (Cranz 2016), business and marketing (Salvador et al. 1999),
Human Computer-Interaction (HCI) (Bannon and Bødker 1991; Nardi 1993;
Suchman 1987) and Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) (Crabtree
et al. 2009; Hughes et al. 1994, 1995; Shapiro 1994). In contrast to the knowledge-
oriented classical ethnographies, the goal of focused ethnography consists in the
implementation of a new technology, a system design, and artifact, a building, etc.
While classical ethnographies are intensive in terms of time and experience, focused
ethnographies are data-intensive. Technical recording devices are used to gather
detailed data from specific lifeworlds within a relatively brief period of time
(Knoblauch 2001, p. 130). Accordingly, these data-intensive approaches are also
known as “wired ethnography” (Knoblauch 2001, p. 127). In business contexts—for
instance, innovation management—ethnographic investigation can take as little as a
single or even half a day (Salvador et al. 1999, p. 36).
In the 1980s, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California produced
Workplace Studies: Lucy A. Suchman intertwined cultural anthropology with engi-
neering in her dissertation, Plans and Situated Actions: The problem of human-
machine communication (1987), in which she argued that human behavior cannot be
determined by machines but that it arises in situ. Suchman introduced into techno-
logical discourse the ethno-methodological concept of situated action, which posits
that actions deviate from plans. One of the findings is that human action does not
conform to what the engineers conceived but rather follows from specific situations.
In the 1980s, there were some collaborations between anthropologists from the
USA and design researchers from Scandinavia (Bloomberg and Karasti 2013, p. 87),
where participatory design research had already developed in the late 1960s and
early 1970s, as visionary social models and new technologies began to receive more
attention (Bjerknes et al. 1987; Kensing and Greenbaum 2013, p. 27 ff.; Mareis et al.
2013). Alison J. Clarke notes that starting as early as 1968, anthropological
approaches had already entered into design discourses, which had previously been
oriented strongly on industrial productivity (2016, p. 71). This is the environment in
which participatory Action Research arose (Blomberg and Karasti 2013; Reason
2004; Reason and Bradbury 2008). At that time, designers were conducting work-
shops with users, testing new technologies, developing mock-ups, and constructing
future scenarios. Design ethnography established itself in the 1990s in this rather
technology- and market-driven environment (Nova 2014, p. 29 ff.). In the article
“Ethnographic Field Methods and Their Relation to Design” Jeanette Blomberg
et al. identifies the central reason why ethnography is important when it comes to the
implementation of new technologies in workplaces (Blomberg et al. 1993, p. 141 f.):
because designers create artifacts for workplace contexts about which they know
very little—and will therefore pursue their own needs and conceptions.
This accords with the notion of User-Centered Design, which became a topic of
discussion in the 1980s (Gould and Lewis 1985): the center is, so to speak, the
lifeworld of the user and the “member’s point of view,” which the researcher closes
in on through methods such as on-site observation, informal interviews, and video
recording (Blomberg et al. 1993, p. 127 ff.). Hughes et al. described four types of

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36 5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research

ethnographic approaches (1994, p. 432 ff.) applied in CSCW that also have
potential for design ethnography:
• Concurrent ethnography: A technical system or a “rapid prototype” is introduced
into praxis at the same time as it is observed ethnographically, whereby iterative
loops, such as field research—debriefing—design of a prototype—field research,
are played through several times. The observations are focused on the human-
object or human-interface interactions. This type of research usually lasts a year
or a little longer.
• Quick and dirty ethnography: This refers primarily to quick forays into the field.
Such ethnographies are “dirty” because they are not very detailed. This process
can provide an overview of an area that has been defined in advance. Length: 2–3
• Evaluative ethnography: This ethnography is performed after the implementation
of a new technology or system. It is focused. Various forms of interview are
utilized as the main method. Length: 2–4 weeks.
• Re-examination of previous studies: This refers to analyses of earlier ethno-
graphic studies. It is therefore purely desk research with no visit to the field.

Yana Milev criticizes the kind of applied design research that serves to generate
prospering branches of industry and multiple labels as “design governance” (2015,
p. 144). In contrast, the design anthropology she proposes places “the complex
habitat of cultures as well as the anthropological techniques of constructing meaning
and survival at the center of the theory and practice of design” (2015, p. 145).
Keith M. Murphy and George E. Marcus have mapped out the similarities
between design and ethnography in social research, which they describe as follows
(Murphy and Marcus 2013, p. 257 ff.): (1) Design and ethnography exist as product
and process, (2) Design and ethnography are focused on research, (3) Design and
ethnography are people-centered, (4) Design and ethnography are at the service of
more than the thing itself, and (5) Design and ethnography are reflexive. At the same
time, differences come into play that are related to the fact that design is character-
ized by being future oriented, interventionist, and collaborative (Otto and Smith
2013, p. 3 f.).
Ethnography in the social sciences is primarily interested in observing the
“naturalistic backdrops of foreign groups” (Dellwing and Prus 2012, p. 54 ff.) and
deriving theories from this. This is why structured interviews, which are “artificial”
situations, are perceived as a problem and “conversations” are preferred (Dellwing
and Prus 2012, p. 117). Design intervenes and orients itself on the future, which to
some extent it itself creates (Yelavich and Adams 2014). Future, in this context,
should be understood less as a linear exploration of the present than as a multitude of
ideas, critiques, and possibilities that is embedded in the narrative, objects, and
practices of our everyday world (Kjærsgaard et al. 2016, p. 1). In design

These four types of ethnographic approaches are also described in Crabtree et al. (2012, p. 77 f.)
and Knoblauch (2001, p. 128).

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5.3 Access to the Field 37

ethnography, situations are disrupted, data is interpreted more quickly, and the
processes are iterative. Moreover, fieldwork, analysis, and the transfer to design
cannot always be sharply distinguished (Bratteteig et al. 2013, p. 134 f.). In this
context, Crabtree et al. posit:
Fieldwork is not about going out and looking at what people do, gathering some “data,” and
then analyzing it when you get back to the ranch. Analysis is part and parcel of fieldwork. It
permeates fieldwork. When you go into a field—into a setting—you should be doing
analysis. (Crabtree et al. 2012, p. 130)
In the context of design ethnography, iterative processes continually produce
hypotheses, out of which prototypes, workshops, mock-ups, future scenarios, etc.,
are developed. Murphy and Marcus postulate that it is not just that design can learn
from ethnography, but that enrichment also flows in the other direction: ethnography
can also learn from design—for instance, from its iterative, less linear and more
playful approach to the field and the data (2013, p. 253 ff.).
The design researcher Nicola Nova provides a descriptive treatment of ethnog-
raphy in his book Beyond Design Ethnography. How Designers practice Ethno-
graphic Research (2014). Nova interviews designers about how they apply the
methods in practice. To distinguish design ethnography as compared to ethnography
in the social sciences, Nova lists the following characteristics:
The time spent in the field is shorter, the focus is more narrow, the analysis of the material is
closely linked to the design practices with the production of intermediary objects [.. .], the
field data are widely heterogenous, the ways that ‘results’ are presented are so distinct from
anthropology that it’s sometimes difficult to draw a clear line between “field results” and
“design work”. (Nova 2014, p. 117)
Design ethnography is not about a fixation on methods, but rather about immer-
sion in social lifeworlds. Curiosity and a fundamentally open attitude toward people
and social lifeworlds is paramount. It is about a radical attentiveness to social
realities, whereby the methods for achieving this are only a means and not an end
in themselves (Charmaz and Mitchell 2009, p. 161). Crabtree et al. even maintain
that methods should be eschewed completely (2012, p. 67), which on a philosophical
level accords with the epistemological anarchism of Paul Feyerabend (2010).
Salvador et al. plead for using methods creatively, by always developing them
specifically for an individual field context (1999, p. 41). Nonetheless, there are
certain aspects—such as for instance access to the field or the researcher’s role in
the field—that are relevant to any field research and which will therefore be
discussed in more detail in the next sections.

5.3 Access to the Field

To explore a particular lifeworld, it is best to simply go where it is located (this could
be a digital as well as a physical space). This, however, might turn out to be a
considerable challenge, depending on the place. While there are some lifeworlds that

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38 5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research

one can simply enter spontaneously, for others—such as for instance “total institu-
tions” (Goffman 1961) such as prisons or mental hospitals—a formal permit would
be needed. While certain groups are very accessible, other react to foreign visitors
with hostility or even aggression. Robert Prus proposes four ways of accessing the
field: (a) utilizing our own experiences, (b) accessing mutual settings, (c) finding
sponsors, and (d) making “cold calls” (1997, p. 216 ff.).
In each of these cases, it is important to have a gatekeeper—that is, a person who
knows the field and is trusted there in ways that can carry over to the ethnographer.
The impression one makes when entering the field is also critical. In certain areas, to
enter the field without a gatekeeper is dangerous or nearly impossible. For our
fieldwork in Angola, we made use of the contacts of a half-Angolese architect
with whom I have long been personally acquainted. This man accompanied us
during our first 3 days in Luanda and introduced us to important people to whom
he had previously reached out—such as leaders of an NGO that assists victims of
war and people with disabilities. Together with these officials, we could go into the
field and conduct interviews within the local lifeworlds with those who were affected
(Müller 2016, p. 69 ff.). In the case of Larissa Holaschke, who investigated the
subversive strategies of women in Iran in her master’s thesis, couch surfing turned
out to be a successful mode of entry into the field. In this manner, Holaschke came
into direct contact with people from the liberal-minded milieus that were the focus of
her research (2016). She gained direct insight into the lifeworlds and limited spaces
of freedom that were found behind closed doors.
The situations looks different when it comes to experiments, focus groups, and
interventionist methods such as cultural probes. In those cases, test subjects must be
identified in advance. This raises the question—particularly with qualitative
methods, which are used with small groups—of what criteria should be used to
select them. Nicholas Nova asked designers what process they used to form their test
groups and encountered the following methods of selection (Nova 2014, p. 48 f.):
• Random: Arbitrary people chosen from the population
• Homogenous: A focus group of people with common characteristics
• Comparative method: Various groups for comparison
• Extreme cases: People and groups with patterns of behavior or characteristics that
deviate sharply from the norm
• According to reputation: Recruiting test subjects based on recommendation
• Beyond-users: non-users or abstainers as a focus group
• Analog situations: Focusing on situations similar to what is characteristic for the
field being investigated
When selecting test subjects, it is important to consider what is motivating them
to participate. In some field work, there may be little understanding for a research
project. People in certain environments might not even understand that there is
something like a specific research interest in them. If they are willing to collaborate,
then, this mainly has to do with a liking for the researcher. Or they may see possible
economic advantages in participation, which should be openly discussed and

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5.4 Researcher’s Role in the Field 39

5.4 Researcher’s Role in the Field

The researcher’s role in the field has been variously handled in anthropology, and
there has been no lack of self-critical and occasionally ironic judgment. The anthro-
pologist John van Maanen describes ethnographers as “dull visitors,”“meddlesome
busybodies,”“hopeless dummies,”“social creeps,”“anthropofoologists,”“manage-
ment spies,” and “government dupes” (2011, p. 2). In some societal milieus,
anthropology is a foreign concept—and consequently, the presence of researchers
in the field can be alienating. The situation in the field thus ceases to be “natural,” as
the researcher in fact wants it to be. Their presence alters the field.
It is rather rare for designers to conduct fieldwork in Angola or the south of
Mexico. Mostly, they operate in environments that are not entirely remote from
them. But even those who deal with the milieus of computer games, rock climbing,
dementia, or insect eaters are challenged to engage with the genuinely specific
aspects of the corresponding lifeworlds and realms of consumption. And if they
are no strangers to these worlds—for instance, if they themselves are active
gamers—they will attempt to distance themselves artificially.
When I was conducting fieldwork in a Ghanian and a Swiss evangelical commu-
nity in the greater Zurich area (Müller 2015), I was received openly by both. On my
first visit to the Ghanian Sunday service, I was asked to come to the front and
introduce myself to the attendees. In the course of my visits, I was able to convince
the pastor of the relevance of my research and could move about freely throughout
the spaces. However, not everyone was aware of my role as an ethnographer. My
attempts to maintain distance at ceremonies such as healings and exorcisms were
often ignored by the faithful because they saw me as a potential convert and
encouraged me to participate. One day, when I was attending a baptism, a pastor
wanted to baptize me alongside. She said I had been there long enough after all and
knew enough about the faith. As an agnostic who personally has no use whatsoever
for evangelicalism, I of course declined.
Distance and proximity, among other things, are thematized in the sociology of
religion in connection with methodological agnosticism. This refers to an attitude
that brackets the content of religion as ontological truth. For example, whether
religious testimonials—such as conversion narratives—are “true” cannot be deter-
mined by the sociologist of religion, but only within the limited social lifeworld of
religious practice. There—in the field—is where the “truth” that is of interest to the
researcher will be intersubjectively negotiated. For “[.. .] the task of the ethnogra-
pher is not to determine ‘the truth’ but to reveal the multiple truths apparent in
others’ lives” (Emerson et al. 1995, p. 3).
Dellwing and Prus note that ethnography has “hot” phases of participation, during
which one is passionately involved and contrasting “cooler” phases, in which one is
calmer and more distanced (2012, p. 69). Goffman advocates for an immersive
The sights and sounds around you should get to be normal. You should be able to even play
with the people, and make jokes back and forth [.. .]. The members of the opposite sex

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40 5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research

should become attractive to you. You should be able to engage in the same body rhythms,
rate of movement, tapping your feet, that sort of thing, as the people around you. (Goffman
1989, p. 129)
This leads to a temporary immersion in specific lifeworld contexts. Ethnographers
adapt to situations. They are chameleons. Fieldwork alters them. It is important to set
aside one’s own values, at least temporarily, and conform to the field. Within
intercultural constellations, in particular, one’s own convictions and ideologies
could become obstacles. For instance, Marimar Sanz Abbul and Mariam Bujalil
reported at the MX Design Conference in Mexico City:
When a group of students from Mexico City visited an indigenous community in the
mountains and did not touch the food because it had meat and many of them were
vegetarians, the target community’s trust toward the class immediately broke down and
the project had to be prematurely terminated. (cited in Sierach 2016, p. 57)
Ethnographers should be open, curious, empathetic, adaptable, and ready to
revise their opinions, preconceptions, and values—at least to a certain extent.
Anne Honer advocates taking people in the field seriously and not overwriting
them with one’s own moral ideals (2011, p. 87). Those who only judge and are
not prepared to reconsider their own opinions are rather unsuitable for ethnographic
fieldwork. Salvador et al. therefore write about design ethnography: “We will study
people. It’s their voice, their story, not our own [...]” (1999, p. 41).

5.5 Observation

Observations are always intentional. We cannot see everything. Our biological
make-up does not allow us to see the world in 360 . Even within our field of vision,

we only see a portion in sharp focus and the rest is unclear. Maturana and Varela
have called attention to the epistemological consequences of this biological struc-
ture. They speak of a blind spot: “We do not see that we do not see” (2003, p. 8). The
gaze is singular, given that it originates in the consciousness of a biological individ-
ual whose body is situated in a particular place. Ethnographic observation is always
based on selection (Katz 2019).
What do these epistemological considerations mean for ethnographic observa-
tion, which Roland Girtler calls the “queen of fieldwork methods” (2001, p. 147)?
For one thing, they relativize the faith in objectivity. Objectivity is based on
reduction. I can, for instance, count the number of people in a certain space. This
number is objective. But this objectivity obscures a universe of other attributes—for
example, the gender, age, ethnicity, etc., of the people in the room, the clothes they
are wearing, their behavior, whether they are meditating, sitting on chairs, boxing,
working at computers, dancing, etc. Obviously, I can operationalize each of these
individual attributes in turn. I can quantify the gender, ethnicity, age, etc. and capture
these statistically, but this does not overcome the basic problem that objectivity is

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5.6 Dimensions of Observation 41

attained only through reductionism. Seeing is thus always a form of classification.
Seeing is based on prior knowledge:
We, people of today, directly see a railroad station, a form that a primitive man would be
unable to see. He would look at the mass of ironwork in tangled “laths” fixed to the ground,
at houses on wheels, at a hard-breathing monster exhaling fire and smoke, and he would
probably see his own forms: the dragon, the devil, perhaps many other things, but not our
good old railway. (Fleck 1986, p. 137)
When we observe ethnographically, then, we should attempt to set aside such
acquired knowledge, at least partially. In this process, the familiar is particularly
problematic because it is classified all too rapidly. That is why Manfred Lueger calls
for the familiar and the mundane to be transformed into an unfamiliar state “by
decomposing it, treating it as something new, looking for conceivable connections of
meaning” (Lueger 2000, p. 111).

5.6 Dimensions of Observation

On epistemological grounds, then, we cannot see everything and therefore always
define a focus. Lueger distinguishes three possible areas of focus in observation
(2000, p. 107 ff.): (1) actors, (2) events and actions, (3) objects and products. These
three dimensions can be used to describe any social situation, since they are found in
all of them. There are people involved who are carrying out actions (even if they are
passively meditating, that is an action) and there are always objects—for instance
clothing—on hand. Even in places where people are naked—doctor’soffices,
swinger clubs, and nude beaches—there are culturally specific objects present.
James P. Spradley descries ethnographic observation as follows: “We observe
what people do (cultural behavior); we observe things people make and use such
as clothes and tools (cultural artifacts); and we listen to what people say (speech
messages)” (Spradley 1980, p. 10).
Spradley differentiates between grand tour observations and mini-tour observa-
tions (1980, p. 77 ff.). He compares grand tour observations with a tour of a house, a
school, or a business, in which someone is shown the basic structure of the building.
If one then goes into the individual rooms and examines them, to stick with the
building metaphor, then those are mini-tour observations. Spradley emphasizes that
the observations are actually made in an identical manner, but the main difference is
that the focus is on units of a different scale. He distinguishes between nine
dimensions of observation (1980, p. 78):
• Space: the physical place
• Actor: the people involved
• Activity: a set of various actions
• Object: the physical things
• Act: individual acts carried out by the people
• Event: a set of activities carried out by the people

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42 5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research

• Time: the chronological sequence
• Goal: the aims people wish to accomplish
• Feeling: the emotions that are expressed
Spradley is interested in the interactions between the nine dimensions, which he
presents in his descriptive question matrix (1980, pp. 82–83), which results in
81 fields (Table 5.1).
These 81 fields create a grid that is an effective way of bringing to light the
complexity in a social situation on the one hand and reducing it analytically on the
other. Along the diagonal line of the matrix, where the same two categories meet, is
where the detailed description of that category takes place—which Spradley calls the
“grand tour questions” (1980, p. 81). Next to this, in the fields in which the
interdependencies between the various dimensions are investigated, are the “mini-
tour questions” (Spradley 1980, p. 81). Such a matrix can be helpful in looking for
certain dimensions. It could be used to more closely examine a relevant focus—for
instance, time, objects, or emotions. This focus might arise during the fieldwork, or it
could already be determined in advance. If the design project consists in creating a
new object, it makes most sense to intensively investigate all the questions that are
related to objects.

5.7 Front and Back Regions

Goffman called attention to some other dimensions relevant for observation: A
setting has what he called a front and a back stage (Goffman 1956, p. 66 ff.),
which should be understood as relational and not substantive entities. The classic
example is in the theater. While on the front region of the stage, the actors play a
specific role and are exposed to a great degree of scrutiny, backstage they act more
relaxed, make jokes, or rest. This is similar in expensive restaurants: there, the
servers behave toward the guests in accordance with particular rules, while back in
the kitchen the interaction is gruff. The servers alter their behavior depending on the
space in which they find themselves. The speak a different language, use different
words, carry themselves differently, etc. In short, place determines social identity.
These categories are, as mentioned, relational. If we define the church service as
the front stage, then the bible study group can be defined as back stage. At the front
stage, normative identities are constituted through sermons, while in the bible group,
as a back stage, communication can be personal and intimate (Müller 2015, p. 146
ff.). Within the bible group itself there are also front and back stages. The front stage,
for instance, can be the entire space in which interaction happens among the group.
The back stage could be the kitchen, where snacks are being prepared, or the office
where the bible group is organized. The theatrical metaphor suggests that the identity
on the front stage should be seen as “played” while the one back stage is “authentic.”
But in American Pragmatism and symbolic interaction theory there is no such thing

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5.7 Front and Back Regions 43

Table 5.1 Spradley’s descriptive question matrix
Space Object Act Activity
Space Can you What are all the What are all the What are all the ways
describe in detail ways space is orga- ways space is orga- space is organized by
all the places? nized by objects? nized by acts? activities?
Object Where are Can you describe in What are all the What are all the ways
objects located? detail all the objects? ways objects are objects are used in
used in acts? activities?
Act Where do acts How do acts incor- Can you describe in How are acts part of
occur? porate the use of detail all the acts? activity?
Activity What are all the What are all the What are all the Can you describe in
places activities ways activities ways activities detail all the
occur? incorporate objects? incorporate acts? activities?
Event What are all the What are all the What are all the What are all the ways
places events ways events incor- ways events incor- events incorporate
occur? porate objects? porate acts? activities?
Time Where do time What are all the How do acts fall How do activities fall
periods occur? ways time affects into time period? into time period?
Actor Where do actors What are all the What are all the How are actors
place ways actors use ways actors use involved in
themselves? objects? acts? activities?
Goal Where are goals What are all the What are all the What activities are
sought and ways goals involve ways goals involve goal seeking or
achieved? use of objects? acts? linked to goals?
Feeling Where do the What feelings lead to What are all the What are the ways
various feeling the use of what ways feeling affect feelings affect
states occur? objects? acts? activities?
Event Time Actor Goal Feeling
What are all the What spatial What are all the What are all the What places are
ways space is changes occur over ways space is ways space is associated with
organized by time? used by actors? related to feelings?
events? goals?
What are all the How are objects What are all the How are What are the
ways objects are used in different ways objects are objects used in ways objects
used in events? times? used by actors? seeking goals? evoke feelings?
How are acts a How do acts vary What are the What are all the What are all the
part of events? over time? ways acts are ways acts are ways acts are
performed by related to linked to
actors? goals? feelings?
What are all the How do activities What are all the What are all the How do activi-
ways activities vary at different ways activities ways activities ties involve
are parts of times? involve actors? involve goals? feelings?
Can you describe How do events How do events How are events How do events
in detail all the occur over time? Is involve the vari- related to involve
events? there any ous actors? goals? feelings?

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44 5 Methods and Aspects of Field Research

Table 5.1 (continued)
Event Time Actor Goal Feeling
How do events Can you describe in When are all the How are goals When are feel-
fall into time detail all the times? times actors are related to time ings evoked?
period? “on stage”? periods?
How are actors How do actors Can you describe Which actors What are the
involved in change over time or in detail all the are linked to feelings experi-
events? at different times? actors? which goals? enced by
What are all the Which goals are How do the vari- Can you What are all the
ways events are scheduled for ous goals affects describe in ways goals
linked to goals? which times? the various detail all the evoke feelings?
actors? goals?
What are the How are feelings What are the What are the Can you
ways feelings related to various ways feelings ways feelings describe in
affect events? time periods? involve actors? influence detail all the
goals? feelings?

as “authentic” identity. Identity is always produced through naming and classifica-
tion (Strauss 2017, p. 17 ff.)—and is therefore contingent.
A situation will not necessarily be conclusively understood through observation
alone, which is why ambiguities might be cleared up through interviews (Honer
2011, p. 31).That observation can have its limits is something I would like to
illustrate by an example from my own fieldwork, which involved a visit to the
Sunday service at a Ghanian evangelical church in Zurich (Müller 2015, p. 122). It
was Pentecost, and the mood of the worshippers was excited from the start. The
pastor invoked the Holy Spirit. He called on everyone—including me—to come up
front, where we all stood close together in a semicircle. He went from one to another
and put his hand on their brow. One woman at the start fell to the ground and began
to speak in tongues. Other women followed. The mood was ecstatic. Then a young
woman walked quite calmly up to the front. She seemed completely untouched by
the ecstatic mood. She did not fall to ground after the pastor laid hands on her, but
rather lay down gently and slowly. Finally, she lay motionless on her stomach while
another woman put a white cloth on her back. I could describe these actions, but the
meaning was not conclusive. Why were there such obviously different reactions to
the workings of the Holy Spirit? Why did it have an ecstatic effect on most, while
this young woman was contemplative in behavior? At a later point, I asked the pastor
about this situation. He explained to me that the Holy Spirit manifests in different
ways. If a person twitches sharply after the laying on of hands, as most women did,
then this indicates a conflict taking place inside them between evil spirits and the
Holy Spirit. The young woman who lay down calmly did not have any evil spirits
inside her—and accordingly, the Holy Spirit manifested itself gently. The Holy
Spirit could even be at work while someone was deeply asleep. Only now did
another observation that I had made repeatedly for some time finally become

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