Using Ethnographic Methods in Empirical Software Engineering Research

Ethnographic methods are a powerful qualitative empirical approach to understanding and hence improving work practice. Ethnographic methods are widely adopted in the Social Sciences but software engineering researchers mostly adopt quantitative methods. As with many inter-disciplinary methods, ethnographic approaches can be misunderstood and misapplied, leading to results being dismissed with a so what? response.

At this year's IASESE we will share our experience of using ethnographic approaches in empirical software engineering research, and pass on the lessons we have learned about how to make the most of ethnographic studies, illustrating how these methods can lead to interesting and insightful research results.

Part 1: The basics of ethnographic studies: what? when? why?

Part 2: Qualitative methods in empirical software engineering research

Part 3: How to conduct an ethnographic study: data collection and analysis

Part 4: Translating findings into insights

Throughout, examples from the presenters' own experience and that of other software engineering researchers, together with lessons learned and practical activities will be used to illustrate and amplify the points being made.

Learning Objectives

The goal of the International Advanced School on Empirical Software Engineering (IASESE) is to provide attendees with the opportunity to learn about ethnographic studies of software practice from leaders in the ESE community. Attendees will learn how an ethnographic approach can be used to understand peoples' work practices, and hence how they can be used to motivate and complement other research approaches and inform the development of processes, methods and tools. The course is aimed at researchers interested in deepening their knowledge and skills in qualitative empirical research.

Participants in this year's school will:

  • identify the context necessary to perform an ethnographic study;
  • conduct data collection and analysis in the ethnographic tradition;
  • make sure the ethnographic study meets quality criteria;
  • use the results of the study to inform the development or refinement of processes, methods and tools and improve the work where the study was conducted;

Who should attend?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of empirical studies in software engineering, who is interested in increasing his/her repertoire of empirical methods. The course is especially appropriate for those wanting to study the complexities of software practice.

What will participants take away?

Participants will come away with a realistic appreciation of the role of ethnographic methods in Software Engineering research, an understanding of how the use of ethnographic methods can provide an in-depth understanding of the socio-technological realities surrounding everyday software development practice and how to use the knowledge gained to improve processes, methods and tools as well as to advance the observed industrial practices. Further reading and pointers to example studies will also be provided.


The International Advanced School of Empirical Software Engineering 2010 will be presented by:

Helen Sharp
The Open University

Helen Sharp is Professor of Software Engineering at The Open University, UK. Her main research interest focuses on understanding the social nature of software development, and she has been conducting qualitative studies of software practice since the early 1990s. More recently, her focus has been on agile software development. She is also joint author of a leading textbook on Interaction Design, which includes coverage of ethnographic methods in software development.

Yvonne Dittrich
IT University of Copenhagen

Dr. Yvonne Dittrich works as an associate professor the IT-University of Copenhagen. Her research interests are use oriented design and development of software and software development as cooperative work. She has been applying ethnographically and ethnomethodological inspired empirical methods since 1997 and has developed an empirical research approach Cooperative Method Development together with industrial partners which is based on problem oriented software process improvement as a learning cycle both for the industrial partner as well as for the researchers involved. In a recent project, she applied this approach to investigate the development, customization, and appropriation of software products.

Jennifer Ferreira
The Open University

Jennifer Ferreira has been doing practice-based research with Agile software development teams since 2005. She is interested in the details of Agile practice - the day-to-day realities of Agile development teams in industrial settings - and how this relates to academic perspectives. As part of her PhD research she has conducted in-depth observational studies of small to medium-sized Agile teams based in the UK. The results from a qualitative analysis of those studies have been published at XP2010 (a leading Agile conference) and accepted for an upcoming issue of the journal Software: Practice and Experience.

Cleidson R. B. de Souza

Cleidson R. B. de Souza is a Research Scientist at IBM Brazil studying IT service providers and software engineers. Before joining IBM, Cleidson was an Associate Professor at Federal University of Parà, Brazil. He has conducted ethnographic studies of software developers at large multi-national corporations and published his results at major journals and conferencesin the CSCWand SE communities. He holds a Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science and M.Sc. from University of California, Irvine, a M.Sc. in Computer Science from State University of Campinas, Brazil and a B.S. in Computer Science from the Federal University of Parà, Brazil.