Ethnographic Methods in Support of Architectural Practice

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Forthcoming. In: Shauna Mallory-Hill, Wolfgang Preiser, Chris Watson (Ed.) Enhancing Building and Environmental Performance. 2011. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley


The ultimate goal of teaching social and cultural architecture courses is to improve the design of buildings for inhabitants. To achieve this goal, the authors combine what anthropologists called the etic (outsider) and emic (insider) points of view in assigning an ethnographic field research project to learn from inhabitants’ experiences of buildings. Literally, ethnography means describing (graphing) the people (ethno), and in practice this means describing the behavioral and material expressions of culture, including architecture. Combining the etic and emic perspectives is accomplished through photo-elicitation, an ethnographic interview technique that relies on photographs to elicit inhabitants’ points of view.

Students provide this information to administrators responsible for managing a building and to the architects who designed it. Giving feedback to architects makes them more aware of inhabitant experiences in designing future buildings, while helping facility managers make appropriate adjustments. This field project has consequences for architectural education, professional practice, and social science research. Research becomes useful beyond the confines of the classroom by providing data from the field and literature reviews to the research sponsor who uses and evaluates it, thereby demonstrating to students the value of social and cultural research in practice.

Architect sponsors facilitate student research by providing scale drawings and insights into initial design considerations, commenting on program changes after the building went into operation, and helping gain access to administrators who run the building. The architects’ involvement also helps motivate students to do their best work. In return, student work helps motivate busy architects to find time to meet with students.