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Eating at the Table of Slow Research

Interview with Rachel Carmen Ceasar, Health+Tech Anthropologist, Blog by Sophie Jasson-Holt

On a cool San Francisco evening in Potrero Hill, Rachel and I met for dinner in a friendly Turkish restaurant. We slowly savored meze -- dipping trio and kofte -- while talking about all things ethnographic.

Sophie: How do you explain ethnographic research to an audience that may not be familiar with it?

Rachel: Ethnography is not just about “studying” or observing what people are saying and doing. It’s about picking up the social and historical patterns of what’s surrounding all the saying and doing--of figuring out the context of a person’s living.

It’s also about being curious and taking a moment to be uncomfortable with views entirely different (and sometimes even starkly in contrast!) to what you believe in. It’s a very humbling practice--to try to understand someone else.

Sophie: So how is ethnography practiced today?

Rachel: Ethnographic researchers adapt to the needs of the research opportunity. Often, we adjust our study to fit the context of where people are at. A lot of clients I work with say, “We don’t have time to do ethnography.” But having even an one-hour conversation with someone in their home--it can be very humbling. It’s an incredible research moment, even if it's for a short amount of time.

Sophie: What are the major differences between practicing ethnography in academia versus the private sector?

Rachel: From the private sector perspective, “academic” research seems slow. Clients see it as a luxury to have all that time and money for ethnographic research.

But there are ways to practice slow research in the private sector. Slow research, like the slow food movement, can serve up meaningful value to businesses. And it can also save companies a lot of money down the road from moving forward with a product or service that no one wants!

I’m a big advocate of slow research. There’s so much demand--in the private sector as well as in academia--to do more, to do it faster, to scale it up, and to come up with something completely new. We’re obsessed with the need to innovate for innovation’s sake.

Sophie: What are the benefits of slow research?

Rachel: Slow research gives pause to the process, the mise en place, the how, not just the end product. It values and preserves what’s already working, it listens to what people are saying and the contexts that they’re saying it in. It strives for gaining knowledge and understanding, and not just acquiring more data. Slow research--designers will be familiar with this--is about building iterative loops to inform the overall work. You can think of the research of understanding people as seasonal--always changing, never constant.

Sophie: Are slow and fast research at odds?

Rachel: I don’t see slow research being necessarily opposed to fast research, but offering an alternative to how research is done and how it is valued. I also want to be careful not to say that  “academics do this and they do it the real way” and everybody else is not doing research. There’s a lot of cool tools and creative ways to do rigorous research and analysis--we don’t need to limit ourselves to doing research “the academic way.”  

Sophie: The question is can slow really work?

Rachel: Yes, absolutely. It’s about taking the time to listen--with or without the use of technology in order to extend your reach.

For example, one time I was asked to do a study using a mobile ethnography app to understand people’s perceptions of fandom. The app wasn’t a shortcut nor a less rigorous way to do research, but offered a different angle of people’s life, a different slice of it. Using mobile ethnography could be used instead of me being in their house for 3 hours interviewing and observing them. It offered a different way of understanding someone’s experiences and values and needs, in the comfort of their home, on their own time.


If you’re thinking about going from fast to slow and want to take the next steps to uncovering your users’ needs and perspectives, let’s chat!. Please reach out to Rachel Ceasar for a free 30 minute consultation.

Rachel Carmen Ceasar, PhD, is a medical anthropologist, educator, and the founder of Culture of Health+Tech. Her research and design work examines the redesign of clinical information needs, AI symptom checkers, urban air mobility, and opioid prescribing in the safety net. For her next project, she’ll be looking at the marijuana market and its impact on growers’ health.