Cognitive ethnography

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Cognitive ethnography is one of the tools which could be used to study effective manners for instruction of BMI in professional schools. A study to delineate the present state of informatics curricula at healthcare professional schools, the present status of BMI knowledge held by students, at the beginning and completion of their healthcare professional education, and a systematic analysis of what should be included in a standardized, structured BMI curriculum to meet the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) standards would benefit from the use of cognitive ethnography.


Ethnographic research comes from the discipline of social and cultural anthropology where an ethnographer is required to spend a significant amount of time in the field. Ethnographers immerse themselves in the life of people they study [Lewis, 1985] and seek to place the phenomena studied in their social and cultural context. Given that much of the recent HIS research focused on the social and organizational contexts of information systems [Avison et al., 1993, Lee et al., 1997, Ngwenyama et al., 1999, Nissen et al., 1991], ethnographic research emerged as one important means of studying these contexts [Harvey and Myers, 1995, Myers, 1997a, Prasad, 1997].

Cognitive ethnography is rooted in traditional ethnography but differs from it in a fundamental way. Whereas traditional ethnography is concerned with the meanings that members of a cultural group create, cognitive ethnography is concerned with how members create those meanings. Because cognitive ethnography is a tool for studying situated activity, it is particularly apt for investigating the nature of instruction in real-world contexts, whether formal or informal, such as that found in medical instruction - in the classroom or on the wards [Williams, 2006].


Edwin Hutchins is a professor and former department head of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. Hutchins is one of the main developers of distributed cognition. Hutchins was a student of the cognitive anthropologist Roy D'Andrade and has been a strong advocate of the use of anthropological methods in cognitive science. He is considered the father of modern Cognitive Ethnography. His early work involved studies of logic in legal discourse among people of the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea. For a time, he worked in the Navy doing research on how crews of ship can function as a distributed machine sharing the cognitive burden of ship navigation between each member of the crew. He was a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur "Genius Grant".

In 1995, Hutchins published Cognition in the Wild, now a classic in Cognitive Science. CITW provides a detailed study of distributed cognitive processes in a navy ship, and as with other works related to distributed cognition, criticizes disembodied views of cognition and proposes an alternative, which looks at cognitive systems that may be composed of multiple agents and the material world. Other areas of his work include the study of airline cockpits, the development of cognitive ethnographic methods and tools, and human-computer interaction. He currently, in collaboration with James Hollan, runs the Distributed Cognition and Human Computer Interaction Laboratory at UC San Diego.[Wikipedia,]

Principal Use

Cognitive ethnography employs traditional ethnographic methods to build knowledge of a community of practice and then applies this knowledge to the micro-level analysis of specific episodes of activity. The principal aim of cognitive ethnography is to reveal how cognitive activities are accomplished in real-world settings. Cognitive ethnography is a particularly apt method for studying instruction in both formal and informal settings. Cognitive ethnography looks at process: at the moment-to-moment development of activity and its relation to sociocultural (often institutional) processes unfolding on different time scales. Traditional ethnography describes knowledge; cognitive ethnography describes how knowledge is constructed and used [Williams, 2006].


Ethnographic research is one of the most in-depth research methods possible. Because the researcher is at a research site for a long time - and sees what people are doing as well as what they say they are doing – an ethnographer obtains a deep understanding of the people, the organization, and the broader context within which they work. Ethnographic research is thus well suited to providing information systems researchers with rich insights into the human, social and organizational aspects of information systems.


One of the main disadvantages of ethnographic research is that it takes a lot longer than most other kinds of research. Not only does it take a long time to do the fieldwork, but it also takes a long time to analyze the material and write it up. Another disadvantage of ethnographic research is that it does not have much breadth. Unlike a survey, an ethnographer usually studies just the one organization or the one culture. In fact, this limitation is a common criticism of ethnographic research - that it leads to in-depth knowledge only of particular contexts and situations. Some go further and argue that it is impossible to develop more general models from just one ethnographic study [Myers, M. D. 1999].

Examples in Informatics

Ash, J. S., Gorman, P. N., et al., (2003) “A Cross-site Qualitative Study of Physician Order Entry,” JAMIA 10: 188-200.

Hazlehurst, B., McMullen, C., Gorman, p., Sittig, D. (2003), “How the ICU Follows Orders: Care Delivery as a Complex Activity System.” AMIA Annu Symp Proc: 284–288. Forsythe, D. (1992) Blaming the User in Medical Informatics, Knowledge and Society: The Anthropology of Science and Technology 9: 95-111 Many of Forsythe's papers - including the above two - are now gathered in Forsythe, Diana (2001) Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence, Stanford University Press


  1. Lewis, I. M. (1985) Social Anthropology in Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Avison, D. E., J. E. Kendall, and J. I. DeGross (eds.) (1993) Human, Organizational, and Social Dimensions of Information Systems Development, Amsterdam: North Holland.
  3. Lee, A. S., J. Liebenau, and J. I. DeGross (eds.) (1997) Information Systems and Qualitative Research, London: Chapman and Hall.
  4. Nissen, H.-E., H. K. Klein, and R. A. Hirschheim (eds.) (1991) Information Systems Research: Contemporary Approaches and Emergent Traditions, Amsterdam: North-Holland.
  5. Ngwenyama, O. K., L. D. Introna, M. D. Myers, and J. I. DeGross (eds.) (1999) New Information Technologies in Organizational Processes: Field Studies and Theoretical Reflections on the Future of Work, Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  6. Harvey, L. and M. D. Myers (1995) "Scholarship and Practice: The Contribution of Ethnographic Research Methods to Bridging the Gap," Information Technology & People (8) 3, pp. 13-27.
  7. Myers, M. D. (1997a) “Critical Ethnography in Information Systems,” in A. S. Lee, J. Liebenau, and J. I. DeGross (Eds.) Information Systems and Qualitative Research, London: Chapman and Hall, pp. 276-300.
  8. Prasad, P. (1997) “Systems of Meaning: Ethnography as a Methodology for the Study of Information Technologies,” in A. S. Lee, J. Liebenau, and J. I. DeGross (Eds.) Information Systems and Qualitative Research, London: Chapman and Hall, pp. 101-118.
  9. Williams, R. F. (2006) “Using cognitive ethnography to study instruction,” Proceedings of the 7th International Conference of the Learning sciences, Bloomington, Indiana: pp. 838 – 844.
  10. Myers, M. D. (1999) “Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research,” Communications of the Association for Information Systems, (2)23, pp. 1-20.