Nothing motivates empathy like your life depending on it. As learning professionals, we’re rarely dropped into a jungle to make contact with a new society to learn about their language and culture— rarely are our lives at stake. However, our livelihood can depend on our ability to understand others and create programs that enable real organizational change. If we want to survive in the corporate jungle, there is much we can learn from the discipline of anthropology.
Originally published in 1979, The Ethnographic Interview by James Spradley contains a framework for developing an understanding of others even when it’s hard. The framework starts by looking for the big picture and then gradually moving into more detail and precision until you become an expert on the new culture. There are seven aspects to Spradley’s framework, each with a wealth of questions and conditions that achieve the goal of better understanding. A quick look at the seven aspects of his framework can help us more quickly and accurately understand the culture inside our organization.
Aspect 1: Grand Tour
The grand tour is asking the person about the grand arc of their experience. It’s asking about the big picture, so whatever our specific objectives are can be fit into the existing environment. Grand tour questions can be about an ideal day, a specific day, or even a difficult day. These form the foundation for understanding how large—or small—the problem is that we’re helping to solve.
Aspect 2: Mini Tour
Inside the grand tour are specific details about the challenge that we’re being asked to engage with. Asking subject matter experts about an aspect of their day related to our work is an opportunity to move from the broad to the narrow and provide more details about our specific area of interest. Often, asking for the typical, the best, the worst, and a specific recent random day (like yesterday) can create a quick sense for what we’re talking about.
Aspect 3: Examples
John Dewey explained that we only understand the abstract through means of the concrete. That is, for us to understand abstract patterns and systems, we must first have concrete examples of them to consider. In this aspect of the interview, we ask for the specific examples that the subject matter expert or team can provide to help us understand exactly what they’re saying. It’s from these examples and the broader tour that we’ll develop and reflect how we believe things work.
Aspect 4: Experience
Examples provide a mechanism for the detailed and concrete experience—but it’s often hard to understand what the experience is like. We can understand the mechanical details of a bicycle without understanding what it’s like to ride one. Asking about what the experience is like opens the possibility for a deeper understanding of the meaning—beyond the cataloging of components.
Aspect 5: Native Language
Words matter. Using the wrong words or phrasing can make the difference between “us” and “them.” By asking subject matter experts to express concepts in their own language, it’s possible to record—and later reflect—the language that resonates with them and their students.
Aspect 6: Structure
Invariably, the relationship between concepts will rear its head. Experts will speak of related concepts in different contexts, and structural questions help establish the relationship between those concepts. For example, we know that “vehicle” is a term that encompasses cars, boats, and airplanes. Understanding what can be placed in the same category and what cannot exposes the situation’s structure.
Aspect 7: Contrast
The ability to distinguish between two different, related concepts is an advanced skill that we often teach. We need to know how subject matter experts differentiate between the two related concepts. This fine-grained understanding helps to guide precision language.
When you put these aspects together, you can move from the first to the final conversation and from confusion to complete empathy.
We’ve put together some productivity aids to help you with your ethnographic interviews. Use the aspects we discussed here bef