Human Robot Interaction 2018

An Alternative HRI Methodology: The Use of Ethnography to Identify and Address Ethical, Legal, & Societal (ELS) Issues

Overview    Aims    Activities    Topics    Submission    Speakers    More

REELER hosted a half-day workshop at the Human-Robot Interaction conference. See speaker highlights, here.


Speakers from the fields of anthropology, science and technology studies, human development, design, psychology, sociology, and human-computer interaction, came together to present their use of ethnographic research to study human-robot interaction. We were joined by attendees from diverse areas of expertise: tech journalism, system integration, system design, mechatronics, sociology, etc.

Our aim with this workshop was to present ethnography as more than a research method. Ethnography is a methodological approach to HRI research that can lead to more ethical, sustainable, and responsible robotics.

Our presenters shared ethnographic insights into feeding assistive technologies, companion robots, engineering and design practices, etc., with a general focus on the values and ethics cultivated in robotics development, implementation, and research. These insights came not only from the ethnographic methods the researchers used, but also from the analytical perspectives and ethical principles underlying their research.

This workshop brought to the HRI conference concrete methods for addressing ethical issues in actual human practices, for identifying human needs in robotics projects, for eliciting values in design and engineering processes, and for provoking reflection on the images and representations roboticists produce in professional literature and in public spaces.

Despite increasing interest in ethnographic methods, ethnographic methodology had not yet been the topic of an HRI workshop. We have therefore contributed to the field with this discussion of new uses of ethnography and qualitative methods for research and collaboration in HRI, and newly identified ethical issues within HRI which are open to ethnographic exploration.

Special issue

The workshop organizers have arranged with PALADYN Journal of Behavioral Robotics to produce a special issue based on the workshop. The special issue, Ethnography in HRI Research, will emphasize ethnography as a methodology to be used in robot design, development, implementation, and applied research. The deadline for submission is 31 May 2018. There are no publication fees. More details


New perspectives on HRI

Consistent with the theme Robots for Social Good, our aim in this workshop is to present a novel methodological approach to HRI research that can lead to more ethical, sustainable, and responsible robotics. While robotic systems have long been part of industrial automation, over the last decade robots have begun to come out of their cages and into our everyday lives - on our production lines, in our hospitals, in our schools, in our fields, on our roads, in our homes, and in our workplaces.

Ethnographic research provides a close look at real-life experiences of human engagementwith robotic technologies - in use and in design processes.  Ethnography can open up how we study the human needs and societal concerns that are emerging in response to these technologies. Ethnographic methods provide data that, through interdisciplinary collaboration, can help identify and address new ethical, legal, and societal (ELS) issues in robot design and implementation.

This workshop departs from prior HRI workshops by providing concrete methods for addressing ethical issues in actual human practices. Despite increasing interest in ethnographic methods, ethnographic methodology has not yet been the topic of an HRI workshop. Therefore, REELER has organized a workshop that contributes new uses of ethnography and qualitative methods as tools for research and collaboration in HRI.

Workshop Aims

The aim of this workshop is to engage participants in an interdisciplinary discussion of ethnography as an alternative research methodology in HRI research. Together, we will explore how the field of HRI may benefit from an expanded use of ethnography, which goes beyond user testing and user experience research to consider the full effects of robotic technologies on humans - both for the sake of developing more effective HRI and for safeguarding human and societal wellbeing.

We will unfold the benefits and challenges of conducting ethnographic research, drawing on our experiences in REELER and on participants’ experiences in their own research.

We will introduce the novel use of ethnographic research methodologies to: 1) understand and conceptualize users, work, robots, and design practices in new ways; 2) identify and address ELS issues, to ensure that future robot design processes take into account these new understandings.

Our overall purpose is to contribute a methodological approach to HRI that helps to identify ELS issues through ethnographic research methods, that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, and that broadens the scope of existing HRI research and development while providing concrete tools for addressing these ELS challenges.

Workshop Activities

The workshop will open with a presentation of ethnography as an alternative methodological approach in robotics research and development. Presenting REELER as an example, we will describe how ethnography and interdisciplinary collaboration have been integral to our ELS-oriented research; and how this approach might ensure design of robots for the social good.

The interactive portion of the workshop will be organized around the position papers submitted in relation to the topics: 1) Understanding users, work, robots, and design practices 2) Identifying and exploring ELS issues for sustainable and responsible robot development. We will engage participants in thematic sessions consisting of lightning presentations of position papers, and moderated group discussions.

We will wrap up the discussions with a group-work session on how ethnographic research can be used in attendees’ own research, not only instrumentally as a tool in robot design and development processes, but also as a driver in ethical project designs.

Tentative Agenda

9:00-9:10       Welcome and Introduction

9:10-10:00       (Presentation) Ethnographic research - what is it & what can it tell us?
                            Speakers’ experiences in REELER and other projects.

10:00-10:30     (Topic 1) Ethics: What can ethnographic studies bring to ethics in HRI?
                            Lightning talks & moderated group discussion.

10:30-10:50   Coffee Break

10:50-11:20   (Topic 2) Design: What does ethnography tell us about design and designers?
                            Lightning talks & moderated group discussion.

11:20-12:00   (Topic 3) Implementation: How can ethnographic studies benefit implementation processes?
                            Lightning talks & moderated group discussion.  

12:00-12:50   (Group work) How can we incorporate these methods into participants' existing/future HRI
                           research in order to ensure robots for the social good?

12:50-13:00    Sum-up and Workshop closing

The agenda may be adjusted based on the position papers received. See detailed speaker list here.

Workshop Topics

Topic 1: Understanding users, work, robots, and design practices

Position papers under this topic may concern:

  • Ethnographic studies of users
  • Workplace studies of robots
  • Ethnographic studies of robot design
  • Ethnographic data: ’nice to have’ or ’need to have’?

Topic 2: Identifying and exploring ELS issues for sustainable and responsible robot development

Position papers relating to this topic might address:

  • Impact of robots on social/work settings
  • Issues of inclusion/exclusion in e.g. healthcare robotics
  • Policy and legal issues in robotics research
  • Collaboration in design processes
  • Bridging the gap between robot design and users/society

Position paper topics are not limited to these suggestions, but should align with (or challenge) the themes of the workshop.

Expanded call: Challenges in HRI research and/or robot development

We aim for multi-disciplinary participation, including those without experience in ethnographic and/or qualitative studies. We have therefore expanded our call for papers to include submissions on the following (or related) topics:

  • Ethical, legal, or societal issues (ELS) in your own robotics projects or research
  • Challenges in understanding a user group
  • Resistance to implementation: including poor acceptance, destruction of or interference with robotic systems, non-use, etc.
  • Role of the user in the design process
  • Inclusive design (accommodating differences in gender, body type, age, etc.) or value-sensitive designs

If you have encountered or overcome particular ELS issues in your robotics projects, please bring your experiences to our workshop where we will discuss interdisciplinary collaboration and how ethnographic research can used to identify and mitigate potential ELS issues early on and throughout the design process to ensure robots for the social good. 

Call for Position Papers (Closed)

The call for papers is now closed.

The organizing committee aims for cross-disciplinary participation and invites anyone who has encountered ELS issues in their work or can offer insights into the workshop's theme & topics to submit a position paper or extended abstract.

We particularly welcome contributions that concern the use of qualitative methodologies in HRI research, ELS challenges in robotics, perspectives on ethics, interdisciplinary collaboration between the social and technical sciences, or empirical studies of robots and humans/society.

Accepted papers will be published on the workshop website, with the option to be submitted to a Special Issue publication.

Note: Conference participants who choose not to submit a paper are still very welcome to join the workshop to learn more about ethnography in HRI.


Position papers should include the reasons for interest in the workshop and relate to one of the workshop topics or to the following:

    - Ethical, legal, or societal issues (ELS) in your own robotics projects or research - Challenges in understanding a user group
    - Resistance to implementation: including poor acceptance, destruction of or interference with robotic systems, non-use, etc.
    - Role of the user in the design process
    - Inclusive design (accommodating differences in gender, body type, age, etc.) or value-sensitive designs

Emerging Ethnographic Insights

From a comprehensive review of HRI literature, we have found that the bulk of the literature addresses the efficacy and acceptability of human-robot interactions, with significantly less focus on human and societal concerns in everyday life, such as:

  • the discrepancy between how robot designers think about users and how humans actually experience robots in their everyday lives;
  • changes to environments that occur when robots are introduced (e.g. at construction sites and in agriculture);
  • how workplace robots impact pride and workmanship (e.g. masons and physical therapists);
  • how new robotic technologies can affect existing humanhuman interactions (e.g. workplace relations & collegiality); and
  • new demands on education and new forms of learning (e.g. the need for specific ’humanist’ education in robotics, or the need for new skills in the workforce).

These particular ELS issues have begun to emerge through ethnographic studies in the ongoing EU H2020 project, Responsible Ethical Learning with Robotics (REELER).

The REELER project uses ethnographic methods to study how robots are developed and implemented in everyday life. The researchers select cases on the basis of variation (human-proximity, sector, organization type, geography) within the field of robotics. Each robot-indevelopment is explored through ethnographic methods, including participant observation and qualitative interviews with roboticists, users, operators, and other affected stakeholders. Through crosscase analysis, REELER researchers identify ELS issues in the design, development, and implementation of robotics. 

We would like to bring ethnographers’ expertise into the multidisciplinary field of HRI, by sharing how REELER has benefited from an ethnographic methodological approach and an ELS-oriented project design. We will invite other researchers to present their own empirical research and experiences using qualitative methods, and challenge attendees to consider how their research might benefit from such use.

Organizing Committee

The organizing committee is composed of members of the interdisciplinary REELER project. This committee includes ethnographers, but also includes those from different disciplinary backgrounds who acknowledge the value of the ethnographic methodology and are collaborating with ethnographers to ensure a future of more responsible and ethical robotics.

Cathrine Hasse, anthropologist 
(Aarhus University) Professor of anthropology and learning and honorary professor in technoanthropology at Aalborg University. She is the project coordinator for REELER.

Maria Bulgheroni, roboticist 
(Ab.Acus) Electronic engineer and R&D Director at Ab.Acus srl, a research-driven, market-oriented company. Her background is in rehabilitation engineering with specific focus on wearable monitoring devices and robotic rehabilitation.

Kathleen Richardson, anthropologist 
(De Montfort University) Professor of ethics and culture of robots & AI and senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility.

Andreas Pyka, economist 
(University of Hohenheim) Professor and head of the Chair for Innovation Economics and Vice President for Internationalization.

Ben Vermeulen, economist
(University of Hohenheim) Post-doctoral research fellow at the Chair for Innovation Economics.

Karolina Zawieska, research fellow 
(De Montfort University) Research fellow in Ethics and Cultural Learning of Robotics.

Stine Trentemøller, research coordinator 
(Aarhus University) Quality manager and research coordinator for the REELER project. She has a background in communications.

Jessica Sorenson, research assistant 
(Aarhus University) Master's student and research assistant in the REELER project.