Does this job exist? If so, what is it?
November 10, 2021 6:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious about careers involving ethnographic research. I like my current career, so I’m just dreaming here! I’m wondering if roles like this exist (I suspect not or I would’ve found it by now. :))

I'm looking for careers that:

- involve researching groups of people (e.g., people with cerebral palsy)
* if it makes a difference, researching lived experiences of people with disabilities is an area of interest

- I know about the research process in my current social science field (i.e., running a lab) and that’s not what I really imagine. Ideally, I would be at my desk combing through (census?) data of some kind — I like the idea of looking at existing data and finding patterns, rather than data that I have to go and gather via recruiting people for studies) At most, I could see myself doing fieldwork and interviewing people. I guess I'm saying I wouldn't want to run a lab.

- working in academia, education, non-profit, government would probably the best fit for me… I’m not super interested in working in more applied/business side of things (like UX research)

It seems like this would be sociology or anthropology. I think what Brené Brown does (research-wise) is interesting and she’s a social work PhD. Is there another field I’m missing?

Thanks for your help!
posted by metacognition to Work & Money (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How about social impact assessment?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:26 PM on November 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Design Research is a field you might want to look into. You do have to recruit yourself, for the most part, but you would get to observe and interview groups of people in order to uncover their unmet needs, which get addressed in the product design process.

For instance, if you were working for a healthcare company you could research people with cerebral palsy to learn about any hurdles they face in complying with treatment regimens, and then make recommendations about the opportunities to help with adherence through products, services, or changes to the treatment process.

Design Research involves both qualitative and quantitative methods, and the capability to synthesize learnings into insights and recommendations that can be acted upon.
posted by nadise at 6:32 PM on November 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

This study used an ethnographic approach and was conducted by a team of physicians (also the subjects of the study) and sociologists. Searching 'ethnography' on PubMed also turns up a lot of possibilities.

These are not jobs, but might give you an idea of who is conducting this type of work, and where.
posted by lulu68 at 7:04 PM on November 10, 2021

Best answer: I'd suggest reading through the website for EPIC, which is "a global community of practitioners doing ethnography for impact in businesses and organizations." I know one of the ethnographers in their profile series, and I think the career paths they describe say a lot about what's possible / typical / etc. Their job board may also be helpful.

For disability studies in particular, I'd suggest reading Faye Ginsburg & Rayna Rapp's "Disability/Anthropology: Rethinking the Parameters of the Human," which introduced a special issue of one of the main journals in anthropology last year. Ginsburg & Rapp also published a widely-read review article in 2013, but it's not free online.

I'm sure there must be a path to this via sociology too, but those are representative starting points in cultural anthropology.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:04 PM on November 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

There are tons of research organizations, but they can be hard to find. You might be interested in the "rare diseases" area. Here is one and here's another. No idea how much staff they have, but definitely worth taking a look at them and looking for other similar organizations.

You might also look at some of the larger drug manufacturers who are developing new medications. They will be doing ongoing clinical trials that will have tons of data coming through for review. I'm familiar with Biogen, and I know they've got a lot of research going on right now, even for medications that have already rec'd FDA approval. But I'm sure many other biotech firms are similar.
posted by hydra77 at 8:34 AM on November 11, 2021

Best answer: Hello! I'm an applied anthropologist/ethnographer, and happy to follow up on any additional questions you have via DM.

First, there's a bit of a disconnect between "ethnography" and what it sounds like you want to be doing. Ethnography by definition is field research, and yields qualitative data sets that require a lot of manual coding/analysis. Most qualitative researchers/ethnographers are responsible for both collecting and analyzing the data, which means recruiting research participants, conducting observation in the field, interviewing, etc. If you would rather focus on analyzing quantitative data sets, you probably want to steer away from ethnography as a search term.

There's lots of good advice above about where to start your search if you ARE interested in anthropology, ethnography, and/or qualitative research. Design Research, for example is a growing field (and happens to be my area of expertise). I love it, but from what you've described, it doesn't sound like what you're looking for. The social/public sector is also a bit behind when it comes to using Design Research, so a lot of jobs in that area are going to be in UX and other for-profit industries.

I would definitely look into social impact assessments, policy research, nonprofit evaluation, and public sector research. For degree/training programs, I would look to sociology, public health, and public policy/administration.

Are you looking more for job titles/industries? Or fields of study? I think the answer to your question is "yes, LOTS of these roles exist," it's just a matter of narrowing down what type of research you want to do and which industries you want to do it in.
posted by a.steele at 10:31 AM on November 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Program Monitoring and Evaluation is one field to look at seriously. Read around on the American Evaluation Association website for background, they just had a blog series on decolonizing evaluation that was pretty great. I've been in the field for around 3 years now, coming out of a Cognitive Psych PhD, and while it's nothing like running a lab, there's a lot of overlap and your research skills will be highly valued. There are a ton of M&E consulting companies out there, some of whom are very subject-matter or funder specific (UN and USAID evaluation requirements are a pain in the neck, so it makes sense that nonprofits would outsource this work). My position as in-house M&E director is pretty rare for an organization this small (~100 employees). Most of my colleagues on the program side are social workers, although I kinda wish we had more MPH representation. Another field I considered for a while was Institutional Research, which is essentially evaluation focused on colleges and universities.
posted by All hands bury the dead at 10:59 AM on November 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, there's so much more out there for me than I thought. I had been looking for either job titles or general fields, thinking I should cast a wide net. This is exciting! I have been looking into the resources posted all day.

I liked learning about design research, but I think I am imagining less consumer/patient interaction (although maybe I am overestimating how much time I'd spend doing this?) A.steele, you were spot on -- I thought I was interested in ethnographic research, but it seems like what I really would enjoy doing isn't that... unless a position involved just recording and coding someone else's data, and analyzing those data, which I'm sure isn't helpful to most organizations. :)

Social impact assessment sounds super cool! I had never heard of it before. I'm looking more into it, as well as program monitoring and evaluation, policy research, nonprofit evaluation, and public sector research. (As a side note, are any of these different words for the same thing?)

Thank you so much, everyone. After a decade of training for, and working in, healthcare, this is new territory for me. This community is so awesome and helpful -- I am very grateful for your replies.
posted by metacognition at 5:41 PM on November 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would say there is a lot of overlap in those terms and would def suggest searching for different combinations of all the terms ppl have thrown out. Program monitoring and evaluation is the same as (or at least similar to) nonprofit evaluation, which I would say are both types of impact assessments (or maybe even vice versa)? Policy research and public sector research are both huge terms that encompass a lot of overlapping areas but are slightly different in my mind? But none of these are like, Capital Letter type terms that mean something specific.

Essentially, it sounds like the sweet spot for you is analyzing/interpreting quantitative data collected from/about groups of people. Public Policy informs how and where tax money gets distributed for social programs, and part of implementing these programs means monitoring and evaluating how well the program is achieving its desired outcomes. Similarly, nonprofits (which are sometimes funded through federal/state grants, but also through donations and philanthropic grants) are also required to report outcomes/impact to their funders. The range of policies and programs that need evaluating is HUGE. You could be working with the CDC on a clinical trial to measure the efficacy of a drug on blood pressure, or you could be working with a nonprofit that serves homeless youth to understand how well their programs impact long term housing stability. Or you could be working with a state government to evaluate workforce/economic data. The possibilities are endless!

Regarding ethnography and design research: larger companies/orgs may have different roles for the people collecting the data and the people analyzing it, but for qualitative research (generally) the people collecting the data are the only ones with the context and experience to make sense of it.
posted by a.steele at 6:44 PM on November 12, 2021

Best answer: There are lots of jobs focused on 'big data' and health statistics that sound like they fit with what you want to do- using existing data sets to identify patterns, answer questions, etc.
For example, the CDC runs BRFSS, which is a massive and really interesting survey program whose data is used both by CDC and state health departments. There are similar programs for youth, nutrition etc. Kaiser Permanente does this sort of work as well. Generally this work is considered part of epidemiology, heath statistics, behavioral health, or public health. Might be something else to look into- I'm sure there are ways to conduct this sort if public health surveillance and research with a focus on disability or other particular populations. There are also things like cancer registries/cancer council focused on specific diseases or conditions.
posted by emd3737 at 4:50 AM on November 13, 2021

Population health is another term/field related to what I described above.
posted by emd3737 at 4:56 AM on November 13, 2021

Best answer: Just echoing what a few other folks have said, I can see a few possible paths here in qualitative market research, design research and program evaluation. If you are particularly interested in research for folks with disabilities, you may be able to find firms specializing in that, though you might have to cast a wider net initially.
posted by taltalim at 11:55 AM on November 13, 2021

Response by poster: I've been coming back to your answers and resources all weekend as I learn more about these fields. I feel like I'm starting to make sense of it! Thank you for your follow-up reply, a.steele. Program monitoring and evaluation has piqued my interest and I've loved learning more about it.

Thank you very much again for your thoughtful, helpful replies!
posted by metacognition at 7:02 PM on November 14, 2021

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