Cognitive Ethnography

Cognitive ethnography is the primary methodology for ““Engineering Ethics as an Expert-Guided and Socially Situated Activity” project. Video data and field notes were analyzed through qualitative, micro-scale discourse analysis based on cognitive ethnography (Hutchins 1995; Kelly & Crawford, 1997; Williams 2006). Cognitive ethnography is developed from traditional ethnography, but it focuses on cognitive process of people. While traditional ethnography focuses on the meanings that the observed cultural group create, cognitive ethnography focuses on how members of the observed cultural group create those meanings (Williams, 2006). Thus, cognitive ethnographic research combines traditional ethnographic methods, such as participant observing, interviewing, and artifacts analysis, with micro-analysis of specific occurrences of events and practices to conduct process analysis (Alac & Hutchins, 2004).

The micro-scale discourse analysis based on cognitive ethnography was mostly used for the data analysis in our engineering ethics project. You can see a few examples at the posts in this blog. A micro-scale video data analysis can be another example of cognitive ethnographic data analysis. The pictures presented below showed a part of micro-scale video analysis. These pictures show a part of the lab training, an interaction between the instructor and the trainee. There are pictures, descriptions for both verbal and non-verbal expressions, highlighting of important parts, and other markings to help analyze the activity.




For more information or readings, visit

Dr. Matthew J. Brown’s Cognitive Ethnography course website

Distributed Cognition and Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory

Studying Cognition in the Wild



  • Alac, M. & Hutchins, E. (2004). I see what you are saying: Action as cognition in fMRI brain mapping practice. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 4, 629-661.
  • Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.
  • Kelly, G. J. & Crawford, T. (1997). An ethnographic investigation of the discourse processes of school science. Science Education, 81, 533-559.
  • Willams, R. F. (2006). Using cognitive ethnography to study instruction. Proceedings of the 7th Interntaional Conference of the Learning Science, Mahwah. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.