Cognitive Ethnography Projects

Page under construction on January 2, 2011


The projects in this class will give you experience using a variety of methods from simple observation, to photo documentation, interviewing, transcription, cultural models content analysis, and finally the analysis of videotape records of collaborative activity. These are useful tools, and you will have to put in some effort to master their use, but you should also have fun doing these projects. They are your license to look at your world in a new way. The later projects in the course require you (possibly together with other students in this class) to make contact with a community of people on campus or in the local community (see projects 2, 3, 4, and 5 below). If you are planning to take CogSci 102c Cognitive Engineering next quarter, you should begin thinking very early in the course about a community to work with and a small team of other students to work with. The Professor and the TAs will be happy to talk to you about potential field sites.

The evaluation of your projects will be managed in the Calibrated Peer Review system. Here are some general tips on how to write a paper for this class.


Project 1. Cognitive Diary and Everyday Task Description

Text Due January 11, 2011; Reviews Due January 16, 2011


To see some part of your own life through the cognitoscope.


1. Keep a "cognitive diary" for an entire day. Whenever you do a task that requires thinking or remembering, try to notice it and jot it down (or dictate to tape recorder). This will give you some idea of the cognitive texture of everyday life, and give you a collection of cognitive activities to choose from. You are not required to turn in the diary itself. But DO record one.

2. Choose an everyday cognitive activity from your diary to describe in detail. Choose carefully. Keep it small and simple. It may be part of your job, or part of a recreational activity, or part of your everyday routine. It should be something that you would have done even if you were not taking this class. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DESCRIBE A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP, OR A PRIVATE ACTIVITY, OR YOUR REASONING ABOUT IT. Do NOT attempt to design an "experiment." DON'T WORRY ABOUT HOW REPRESENTATIVE THE ACTIVITY IS.

3. Describe the cognitive activity as carefully as you can. Begin by describing ONLY those things that could be captured on video.What is "cognitive" about the activity? That is, how does it accomplish a cognitive function such as planning, problem solving, decision making, understanding, control of action, etc. Some of the questions you might be able to answer include the following: How does the activity take advantage of or interact with structure in the environment? If the activity is engaged in frequently, is there evidence that it has become "routine " in the sense described by Lave and her colleagues? Look for cognitive shortcuts - ways of making a complicated computation into a simple one. Do not attempt to describe “what is going through my mind” or “what was going on in my head.”  You DO NOT know. We will investigate this problem in more depth in poject 3.

The Activity: What is the activity being described?

Description: Your careful and detailed description of the activity.

Maximum 800 words of text. Additional figures, sketches, images and so on, e.g. structure that was used in the environment, are not included in the page count.

Your job is to produce a document that makes it easy for us to see that you did the reading, thought about the issues, and did some real research. Work on making it concise. Please proofread your papers.

Project 2. Photo Documentation of an Everyday Activity

Text Due January 23, 2011; Reviews Due January 28, 2011

Goal: To learn how to attend to the details of the everyday world.


  1. In this project you are going to take photos of an everyday activity. First, choose an activity. It should be something that interests you and something to which you have access. It could be something you do with your family or with your roommates or friends. It could be an activity at your workplace, or in someone else's workplace (see below). You should choose an activity in which you can get close to the action. If you are unsure about your choice, send email to the Professor or TAs. They will be happy to consult with you on the choice of activity. You must obtain the informed consent of participants in the activity before you take photos. The procedures for obtaining informed consent are described on the informed consent page. While you are obtaining that consent, also find at least one participant in the activity who will agree to talk to you about the activity later.
  2. Look ahead in the course. This could be a good time to make contact with a working community that will provide the data for the remainder of the class projects.
  3. If you donít already have access to a camera, buy a disposable camera. If the activity you have chosen takes place indoors or at night, be sure your camera has a flash.
  4. Take pictures of the activity. Try to capture interesting aspects of the activity and the social and material environment in which it takes place. Shoot an entire roll of film - at least 15 frames.
  5. Get the film processed. Use a quick turn-around service, so you can get on to the fun part of the assignment.
  6. Carefully look at your pictures and choose 2 of them that you find most interesting.
  7. Carefully describe what you see in the two photos. Stick close to the data and pay attention. Look for evidence of cognitive activity. Hopefully, you will see things in the study of your photos that you did not see while observing the event live.
  8. Write up your description.

Maximum 800 words of text. Additional figures and tables (if they contribute to the description) are not included in the page count. Note: NO INFORMED CONSENT = NO GRADE.  

Project 3. Cultural Models Analysis of an Interview

Part 1. Collect and Transcribe an interview (this is a two part assignment, don't forget to do part 2)

Goal: To learn how to conduct an interview, and transcribe an audio recording.


  1. For this project you will need an audio tape recorder and a blank tape.
  2. Contact a participant in the activity who is willing to talk to you about the activity.
  3. Set up a time and a quiet place to talk to your informant.
  4. Obtain informed consent for interview recording from your informant using the interview consent form.
  5. Turn on the tape recorder and interview your informant about the activity you took photos of. Start with the photos you used in project 3, but feel free to use other photos as prompts in the interview. Ask your informant to explain what is going on in the activity. You should consult our list of interviewing tips and potential interview questions before you schedule the interview.
  6. Record at least 30 minutes, but no more than one hour of interview.
  7. Listen through your interview and make an index of what it contains. This should be a list of topics discussed or events in the conversation with some indication of where they appear on the tape. Then choose one or two passages to transcribe.
  8. Transcribe about 1000 words using relaxed transcription techniques. For this, you should just try to get all of the words that are said, including false starts and other disfluencies.
  9. Here is the url for a free download for a handy transcription tool. The tutorial for Express Scribe is at
  10. Write up the index for your interview. Be sure to indicate on the index which sections of the interview were transcribed. Type up the transcription in clean form. Here is an example of an excellent Index and Transcript.
  11. Turn in your your signed informed consent forms in lecuture or in section on or before Feb 8..


Project 3. Cultural Models in Your Interview

Part 2. Describe and Analyse Cultural Models

Text Due February 8, 2011; Reviews Due February 15, 2011

Goal: To find and document cultural models used in the construction of meaningful passages in your interview.


  1. Search: Look through your interview transcript for evidence of cultural models. It may be necessary to go back and listen to your whole interview again to find passages that contain clear cultural models. Choose a passage that makes it easy for you to find and document the cultural models involved.
  2. Analysis: Describe the cultural models that are required to make sense of, or establish the meaning of, the passage. Make sure that your description is accurate and clear. You might consider expressing it in a diagram or some other notation. Show how these models are used in the passage and how the passage relies on the listener having access to these models. Describe any inferences that the passage suggests. How is the listener expected to go beyond what is literally present in the passage? If possible, provide other evidence (beyond the inference or interpretation that is to be explained) in support of the claim that these models are cultural models.
  3. Write it up including all of the above. Include a link in your CPR text to a file containing the portion of the transcript that you analysed. When you make a claim about the presence of a model, you may wish to include brief excerpts from the transcripts in the body of the text in support of your claims.

Maximum 1000 words of text. See the CPR assignment for more instructions. You can include links to additional figures and tables if they contribute to the description.

A checklist to help you ensure you did everything correctly.


Project 4 Transcription of Activity in Video from Your Setting

Text Due February 22, 2011; Reviews Due February 27, 2011

General project guidelines

video consent form

Goal: The goals of this project are to document how real people on campus or in the local area engage in some meaningful activity.You should have already made contact with the people in an interesting activity setting for projects 3 through 5. If those contacts are still working, collect your video there.If, for some reason you cannot, or choose not to, collect video in that setting, you should quickly find another setting where you can collect video data. The work done on this project may be the basis for design projects that will be performed in Cognitive Science 102c (Cognitive Engineering) in the spring quarter.

Project 4 Instructions

  1. Remember that you cannot collect any video data until you have obtained informed consent.
  2. Make observations: You may already have observed, photographed, and interviewed some members of the community. In this project you should conduct a more systematic study of the ways that people make meaning in everyday activity. Talk to the people and observe them in the activity. Take notes on their activities, describe their tasks, and videotape a person or, preferably, persons interacting with their environment or with one another. Collect at least 15 minutes of video.
  3. Create an index and select clips for analysis: Using the method introduced in project 4, create an index for your video.Select clips totaling at least 30 seconds duration for analysis.
  4. Transcribe clips: Make a detailed transcription of the activity in your selected clips. Use the assigned readings and the examples provided in lecture by Professor Hutchins for models of ways to transcribe non-verbal aspects of on-going activity. Here is a sample transcript.


Project 5. Analysis of Activity in Video

Text Due March 8, 2011; Reviews Due March 14, 2011

  1. Analysis: Analyze the recorded activity using the concepts presented in the lectures and readings.
  2. Write up the analysis. Be sure your analysis makes use of the concepts in the readings.
  3. Please also turn in a copy of your index and transcription.It is expected that you will have made changes to these during the course of your analysis.Even if you did not make changes to the index and transcription since turning in project 6, turn them in again attached as appendices to your analysis paper.

Maximum 1000 words of text for your analysis. Attach the index, transcript, and any additional figures and tables.