Ethnographic methods resonate with a theme that runs throughout the Academy curriculum: maximize the world's opportunity to talk to you (vs. design things based on your brain's capacity to simulate reality). The term comes from the Greek word ethnos (ἔθνος) meaning people or folk and grapho (γράφω) meaning "to write" and so comes to mean the study of the life of a group or category of people. Ethno here is etymologically related to the ethni in ethnic but ethnography as a method does not assume cultural heritage, ancestry, language, rituals, or customs as its subject matter.


Cards - Tools - Categorize. (0) Think of all the categories of tools on a farm. (1) Think of all the tools you might find on a farm.


6. What other info can we extract from simple list?

  • Use distance between mentions as measure of cognitive separation
  • Use top entries as input for pile sort exercise


See Borgatti on pilesorts


  1. Write terms on cards
  2. Shuffle and present to informant with request to sort in one of several ways
    1. Split in 2 and then further into 2, etc.
    2. As many separate piles as needed.
    3. As many separate piles as needed and then collect piles together and then piles of piles (bottom up)
  3. Record data as follows: any two cards are given a score the represents the number of levels they are in same pile.

In this diagram A and B are in one pile, C and D in a second, E and F in a third, and G in a pile of its own. Then the AB pile is piled together with CD and then this is put together with EF and finally G is added. We can score these on similarity as follows:

AB 3
CD 3
EF 3
AC, AD, BC, BD 2


Fun Examples

Student Projects at Illinois



Suggested Readings

Borgatti, Steve. MDS
Borgatti, Steve. Ethnographic Toolkit at Analytic Technologies

IDEO Method Cards

File nameFile typeSize
csvFile.pngPNG image data47.96 kBInfo
datacleaning.pngPNG image data76.46 kBInfo
distribution-of-list-length.pngPNG image data133.28 kBInfo
ETK_DATA.xlsxNo description235.88 kBInfo
google-form-data.pngPNG image data45.97 kBInfo
google-form.pngPNG image data15.41 kBInfo
PILES.pngPNG image data24.01 kBInfo
positionVfrequency.pngPNG image data118.7 kBInfo
positionVfrequencyQuadrants.pngPNG image data46.4 kBInfo
sampleMDS.pngPNG image data9.76 kBInfo
word-frequencies.pngPNG image data100.91 kBInfo
xlstatMac.zipZip archive data79.98 MBInfo