Ethnography can be applied to real world problems in diverse ways, but it is often the job of other people (not necessarily the ethnographer) to decide how and where to act on what it teaches us about different situations, groups, or phenomena.
Ethnography is relevant for policy makers, for organizations, for institutions, indeed for anyone seeking to take action to make the world a better place. This is because it gives us a special, in-depth understanding of how social life unfolds on a daily basis, how people understand the decisions they make, how they feel about their actions, and the complex structures that shape the minutiae of daily life.
Many ethnographies (especially critical ethnographies) draw attention to inequalities, injustice, exploitation, to how power is enacted by those who have it, and taken for granted (and sometimes resisted) by those who don’t. Some ethnographers engage in participatory action research. This invites participants to be involved in the research from design through data collection and analysis right through to the practical application of findings. Though it goes by various names, it has been around since the 1960s. Participatory research is considered particularly important in the field of health, especially because of the gap that often exists, especially in ‘majority world’ settings, between professional and community conceptions of health and illness. Jan Savage explains how ethnography can provide evidence of value to health workers.
There are many, many cases where ethnography has had practical outcomes.
Valerie Jenness, for example, used in-depth interviews and other ethnographic methods to study transgender issues in a California prison. This was not an easy piece of work as even identifying such a hidden population in the first place is a challenge, without also encouraging them to talk openly about their experiences. The work took time, patience and commitment, but in the end Jenness achieved a complex and nuanced understanding of transgendered identities that later helped prison managers make decisions about where and how to house transgender prisoners.
Apparently German military personnel undergo ethnographic training to encourage them to think critically about their own cultural backgrounds and their role in relating to others, for example in Afghanistan.
Anyone wanting to help solve a problem, repair a tension, deal with difficulties, or improve a situation, should find ethnographic methods useful because they really work to understand the situation from the perspective of those involved.
Jenness, V. (2010) ‘From policy to prisoners to people: a “soft mixed methods” approach to studying transgender prisoners’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39(5): 517–53.
Savage, J. (2000) ‘Ethnography and Health Care; British Medical Journal 321: 1400-02