Critical Ethnography Lab

The Critical Ethnography Lab (CiEL) is an experimental and collaborative project that studies the future of ethnography to address issues of social significance.

Ethnography is a cluster of qualitative research methods which prioritises the understanding of phenomena in-situ. Ethnographers work closely with participants to understand practices, challenges, aspirations, and spend time contextualising their observation within larger socio-cultural processes.

Increasingly, businesses, governments and not-for-profits are discovering the benefits of ethnographic methods for understanding culture and behaviour, for forecasting trends, and for optimising quantitative research (both in terms of survey design and in the interpretation of results).

The rich and often unusual insights produced by ethnography bring clarity to scattered data points and complexity, and, when done correctly, provide actionable and scalable results and recommendations.

Our Research

CiEL supports research projects that explore the future of ethnography, and integrate student researchers, University of Melbourne staff, and external partners.  

Our research is organised in three streams, which constitute an infrastructure to begin, experiment, and grow research projects and teams.

Group of people with instructor in a cockpit simulator room

AI in Aviation: Digital Flight Assistants

How is AI transforming the Aviation Industry? How do pilots, dispatchers, or controllers relate to automate technologies? And can we design AI systems to help, rather than replace, humans? The project invites participants on a co-design journey, where they can experiment with GPTs and train an AI model. The challenges that emerge create a space to understand the fragility of AI systems and their socio-economic impact. For 2024, we plan on expanding the project and developing an experimental methodology with our flight simulator!

Distributed Intelligence Stream // Researchers: Fabio Mattioli, Joe Brailsford

Stainless steel faucet on white ceramic sink

Hardship and Water

How is the cost-of-living crisis impacting water access – and how can we design systems that mitigate the impact of financial hardship? In collaboration with our partners, we are exploring the lived experience of financial hardship and access to support in Melbourne inner north. In 2024, we plan on studying the social life of financial bills and jump start a series of co-design activities.

Sustainability Stream // Researchers: Cynthia Sear, John Cox, Cindy Stocken, Fatemeh Ebrahimi, Anna Kosovac

Capsules, tablets and syringe in earth against light green background

Sustainability in Hospitals

How can we help hospitals become more sustainable? In collaboration with medical institutions and other partners, this project looks at the reduction of singe use objects in the Parkville precinct. In 2024, we plan on starting with coffee cups. Through participant observation in cafes, co-design sessions with nurses, doctors, and patients, we aim at producing change models that maps and transforms the value chain of coffee consumption in hospitals.

Sustainability Stream // Researchers: Fabio Mattioli, Erin Fitz Henry, Meiling Zhou

Birdseye view of an island at sunset

Perceptions of Nature

How are millennials perceiving Nature – and how do they associate value to enterprises who promote biodiversity and sustainability in commercial projects? With our partners, we plan on using co-design and ethnographic methodologies to map attitudes towards and connection with nature and biodiversity. The project combines ethnographic and quantitative methodologies to develop a change model for caring for biodiversity and natural systems, with commercial partners such as banks. It also tries to understand how nature is commercialized in pop culture through lyrics and imagery of Taylor Swift.

Sustainability Stream // Researchers: Rachel Morgain, Cynthia Sear

AI Generated characters sitting an office

Justice in the Metaverse

How should virtual spaces be designed to enable conflict resolution? What happens to the experience of justice when judges and other participants see and interact with each other as avatars in Web3 spaces? In this project, we interrogate the opportunities and limitations of immersive virtual court technology. Through an experiential and phenomenological ethnography of metaverse spaces, we aim at developing and testing a prototype for virtual courtrooms.

(In)Justice and Equality Stream // Researchers: Tatiana Dancy, Meredith Rossner, David Tait, Fabio Mattioli

Arial view of town

Mapping housing finance inequality

How do Melbourne residents negotiate increasingly unaffordable mortgages? What kinds of emotional responses arise when trying to access or pay mortgage debt, and how does this shape peoples’ perceptions of the future? Drawing from participatory emotional mapping techniques, ethnography, and the construction of envisaged future scenarios, we will investigate the intersections between emotion, housing finance inequality and urban space in Melbourne. These data visualizations will reveal the lived effects of housing finance inequality.

(In)Justice and Equality Stream // Researchers: Rebekah Plueckhahn, Jeff Garmany, Fabio Mattioli

News and Events


Our People

Dr Fabio Mattioli

Dr Fabio Mattioli (Director) is a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the School of Social and Political Sciences and Associated Researcher at the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Ethics. His work focuses on the political and economic dimensions of AI, finance, and innovation.

Dr Cynthia Sear

Dr Cynthia Sear (Director, on leave 2024) specialises in the anthropology of personal finance, gambling, consumption, gender and capitalism and has over a decade of experience using ethnographic methods for consulting and applied settings.

Dr Joanne Byrne

Dr Joanne Byrne (Co-Director, 2024) is a digital anthropologist, interested in the complex interplay between technology and culture. Her work is situated in digital ethnography, cross-disciplinary social media analysis, and investigations into the use, construction, and meaning of digital spaces. Her research interests include: gender, digital social space and identifying methodological intersections between quantitative ‘Big Data’ projects and qualitative social research.

Wajeehah Aayeshah

Dr Wajeehah Aayeshah is a Lecturer in Curriculum Design at the Arts Teaching Innovation. She designs, teaches and evaluates curriculum, and creates meaningful and innovative educational experiences.

Joe Brailsford profile picture

Mr Joe Brailsford is a PhD student in Human Computer Interaction at The University of Melbourne. His interest lies at the intersection of the user experience, product/public policy and business incentives.

Jon Cox profile picture

Dr John Cox is a Social Anthropologist and Development Studies specialist. John has more than twenty-five years’ experience in Pacific Islands countries working as a volunteer, NGO program manager, development consultant, researcher and educator.

Tatiana profile picture

A/Prof Tatiana Dancy's research spans private law and legal theory law, often as those topics bear on questions of digital innovation.

Ana Dragojlovic profile picture

A/Prof Ana Dragojlovic is Associate Professor in Gender Studies and Insight Fellow at the Contemplative Studies Centre at the University of Melbourne. Her research is situated in the intersection of feminist, queer, decolonial, and care studies and investigates the ways in which structural inequalities shape experiences of everyday life.

Erin Fitz-Henry profile picture

Dr Erin Fitz-Henry is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, Discipline Chair of Anthropology and Development Studies, and Co-Convenor of the Politics and Policy stream of Melbourne Climate Futures.

Jeff Garmany profile picture

Dr. Jeff Garmany is Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies and Program Director for the Master of Development Studies. His research focuses on inequality in urban settings.

Rachel Morgain profile picture

Dr Rachel Morgain is an interdisciplinary environmental researcher with interests in biodiversity and climate change, the science-policy interface, nature-based climate solutions, ESG and biodiversity risk for business, knowledge brokering, research effectiveness, science communication, science and technology studies, Pacific studies, decolonising methodologies, gender, race and the practice and study of processes for building large research collaborations.

Rebekah Plueckhahn profile picture

Dr Rebekah Plueckhahn is a lecturer in Anthropology at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She is an anthropologist studying prefiguration, sociality and emerging ethics as people negotiate access to shifting urban infrastructures, housing finance and engage in emerging politics and performance.

Signe Ravn profile picture

A/Prof Signe Ravn is an Associate Professor in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences. Signe’s research explores processes of marginalisation and positions of marginality, with a focus on youth, gender, disadvantage and risk.

Meredith Rossner profile picture

Prof Meredith Rossner's research focuses on emotions, rituals, the built environment, and technology in justice practices.  Past and current projects include investigations into the emotional dynamics of restorative justice, therapeutic courts, the role of courtroom design on access to justice, and the use of video technology in courts.

Cindy Stocken profile picture

Ms Cindy Stocken is currently undertaking her PhD in Anthropology with a specific interest in ritual creativity, death studies and alternative funerary rituals (namely Living Funerals).

Meiling Zhou profile picture

Ms Meiling Zhou is a nurse consultant in head and neck oncology and a Wattle fellow.

Our Collaborators

Paul Green profile picture

Dr Paul Green is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Sciences. He is currently involved in two longitudinal ethnographic projects based on the life experiences of later-life foreigners/retirees and digital nomads, respectively, in and beyond Southeast Asia.

Hannah Gould profile picture

Dr Hannah Gould is a cultural anthropologist studying death, Buddhism, and material culture in Australia and Asia. She holds the Melbourne Postdoctoral Fellowship, for the project "Mobile Mortality: Transnational Futures of Deathcare in the Asia Pacific". Dr Gould works with the DeathTech Research Team. Alongside academic research and publishing, Dr Gould creates public programs to advocate for more equitable systems of deathcare for all.

Tamara Kohn profile picture

Prof Tamara Kohn’s research expertise is in humanistic anthropology, death studies, the anthropology of the body and senses, trans-cultural communities of practice, and methods and ethics in anthropology. She is Professor of Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Sciences and one of the founding members of the DeathTech Research Team.

Adrian Watts profile picture

Dr. Adrian Watts is Sessional Lecturer in Anthropology. He completed a thesis on social inequality and is interested in working on this angle.


At CiEL, we are keen on supporting innovative ethnographic thinking. Our key priorities are:

Supporting student-engaged research that promotes ethnographic experimentation

We offer seed funding, support the development or execution of grants, and organize events tailored to research questions or issues.

Building a pipeline of talent

We offer undergraduate volunteer opportunities (with small reimbursements); for-credit opportunities (e.g. Independent Subjects, Internships); student-focused workshops (such as our ongoing graduate student workshop - Ethnocurious); and PhD scholarships.

Building international networks

We support international workshops, student exchanges, and participation in joint writing and research projects with lab across the world.

Increasing the salience of ethnography for solving issues of social importance

We engage with industry, governments, and non-for-profits, taking ethnographic methods (and anthropologists) more spaces where important decisions are made.

If you are a student interested in getting involved, a staff member looking for support to develop innovative ethnographic ideas, or a partner interested in using ethnography get in touch with Fabio Mattioli at