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Howto: Urban Ethnography (Research & Fieldwork)

Researching a neighborhood

Ethnography is the systematic, qualitative study of people and cultures. As a methodology, it has been historically utilized by anthropologists since the early 20th century, and since then it has been popularized among other domains within the social sciences (like a range of qualitative approaches in sociology, etc.), as well as more practice-oriented domains, like the arts (after the “ethnographic turn”), design, communication technologies, marketing, etc.

What follows is a brief guide for approaching urban space for research purposes, and learning from an area in the city and its residents. You will find applied methodologies and ideas, that can be followed before and during your field-research. Playful improvisation on the proposed methods is strongly encouraged!

A. Do your research before going to fieldwork, trace prior references and sources:

  1. Go through academic references of the neighbourhood in question, in themes you desire to address in your game, particular social/ethnic groups you want to include. It’s quite unlikely that you are the first one to conduct research in the neighbourhood or on similar topics. *[] and [] are good sources for academic literature for non-university affiliates.
    *Check Clifford Geertz’s reference to the Balinese cockfight:
    What kinds of cultural norms are manifested through the particular playful experience in context?
  2. Contemporary issues: check online sources (news sites, blogs, social media etc), local initiatives and stakeholders, for current issues at play and interest groups.
  3. Look into archives: architectural, photographic, urban planning and map archives, like museums, architect associations, town registries, notaries, all can provide you a good idea of what the neighbour looks like, and how it used to look.
  4. Literature: What’s written for/from the neighbourhood is a strong resource you can work on, maybe more in terms of narrative than design. Visit the local bookstore, the person in charge can point you to the right direction.
  5. Form a set of questions, out of what you read and what you intend to do in your game. The questions will lead your field investigation –either addressed to your local interlocutors or to yourself, as explained below.

B. During fieldwork: this part is a breakdown of the main facilities that constitute participant observation, namely the main research framework of ethnography. Observing while partaking in a social group’s life is an immersive experience, and the longer you stay on field the more information you will gather. It is strongly advisable to set a time-frame for your fieldwork, organize and reflect on your observations and, if necessary, go back to the field with renewed or more focused questions. The described headlines inevitably overlap.

*make sure you are carrying some medium to record your impressions and findings. Notebooks and sketchbooks are preferable, you don’t want to be sucked into your screen while things play out in physical space. Use your phones, camera and/or audio recorder for photos, sounds and interviews, for more advanced mapping applications, or for keeping in touch with your interlocutors for further communication later.

  1. Learn through your senses: look, listen, touch, smell, taste. Walk and observe, and keep track of your impressions and your itinerary. If you are working in a group, you can assign a sense on each person – “tuning in” might need a bit of exercise, but you will be surprised by the things you perceive with an active focus. For survival reasons, we learn to “filter out” the senses that we don’t need, but for design purposes we might need to reactivate them.
    *check out Roy Lichtenstein’s study on the Manhattan façade patterns.
    Can such a design study approach help you integrate your game design in a particular urban setting?
    *also check the long tradition of sound mapping within the Acoustic Ecology scool, and the World Soundscape Project (eg. Hildegard Westerkamp’s listening walks.
  2. Learn from spaces: observe the social life as played out in its physical setting: streets, roads, squares, parks and local hangouts foster particular activities, but acquire social meaning by their use. What’s written on the walls? What stories do monuments tell? How people make use of their neighborhoods’ public spaces?
    (*check the seminal, old-school work of Louis Mumford:
  3. Learn from participation: A local community’s social life, like gatherings, local rituals (including games), even everyday practices and trends, all constitute the diverse portrait of a neighbourhood. They also provide access to people, so use your social skills to mingle and introduce yourself to people you find common grounds with. If you are researching in a neighbourhood you are already acquainted with, look outside your comfort zone. Different people can provide you with perspectives you were unaware of.
  4. Learn from people. (Interviews)
    This is probably the most complex part of participant observation, that relies on the relations you gradually build through your participation, but also to the things you want to find out. Different interview structures can be used in regards to your specific questions, the number of people you want to address, whether you are interested in quantitative, or qualitative (numbers or qualities) data collection, and so on…
    Interviews are discussions based on sets of questions. You can decide in advance whether you are going to use a structured, semi-structured, or unstructured interview approach.
    A great guide for interviews by the Sociology Dept. of Harvard University:
  5. Learn from props. An established tradition of interviewing or observing people through their engagement with material artifacts (such as photographs) is nowadays enhanced by emerging technological media. You can participate in games, as props, or even employ your prototype game design (even in a pre-final version) in order to
    (i) learn about people, places, and the particular function of artifacts (be it technologically sophisticated or not)
    (ii) learn specific things that will help your participatory design practice. Consider your playtesting as a community-oriented design research strategy.

The last suggestion (#5) is a very fresh approach into Urban Design approaches. A distinction between Research for Design, and Design for Research, is highlighted in recent academic writing and publications, such as dearest Martijn de Wall & Gabrielle Ferri’s innovative collaborations (, as well as other examples emerging from the Urban Resilience and Participatory Urban Design initiatives
***See also “Playtesting” suggestions
(may need more, but prone to become too heavy)

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add some open ended questions:

  • Do you have any experience with social research?