The Stories WE Tell

When research folks talk to clients about their findings they, we,  frequently take on the role of omnipotent, unseen author and expert. The text, sound clip, or video narrative is filtered through his or her eyes; eyes that are, if trained properly in the tenets of the anthropological discipline, self-reflexive and committed to the honest and ethical treatment of the information gathered.  And in this lie the subtle politics of power and the subject/researcher relationship.  Our words alone, for right or wrong, frequently lack credibility in the minds of business executives and designers who are intent on validating their work or personal views.  What we have to say can be ignored in the light of “common sense” experience held by the business and design teams.  Conversely, while the statements of participants have credibility, their thoughts are often seen as disjointed, irrelevant, or dismissible as singular anecdotal moments.  By constructing stories, both parties (researcher and participant) gain credibility and influence.  The narrator/editor gains the status of author and guide, moving from being perceived as irrelevant to the business situation to a position of authority.  The participant is given greater significance in that he or she is understood as representational of a wider range of meaning, cultural patterns, and behavior.  The participant or participants used in a final work convey a coherent message that can, when the “story” is told well by the author/editor, be implemented by members of the audience.  Video in particular serves to provide specific direction while enticing the audience to tread into deeper waters, thus sparking greater innovation.

In conducting fieldwork, we as anthropologists are asked to share the concrete experiences of the participants’ environment, shared behavior, language, social relations, etc.  In sharing that rich and complex world, new ideas and deeper understanding emerge on the part of the client.  We as the experts see, hear, write, and film what are the most important aspects of the field experience and distill them into something that can be used by the various members of the business, development, and design teams.  And because video is such a potentially influential tool, showing the drama of daily life, the dramatic and artistic side of the story can create waves in the business community that the traditional, omnipotent style of presentation cannot.  Presentation styles, choices of material and stories, lighting, viewing angles, organization, etc. all work to structure the portrayal of a culture or population in ways particular to the ethnographer or team of ethnographers and in ways the client can relate to.  There is an inherent story-like character to all ethnographic accounts of the field.  This is doubly so when research is presented in the video format because of limitations of the lens and the limited timeframe of most cinematic pieces; the convention of film is to present information to an array of senses in a relatively short amount of time.  This does not imply that the videos we create are fictions or that the goal is simply to dazzle the audience.  It simply means that ignoring the story-like nature of the video results in dry, dull work that does little to impact the attitudes, expectations, and development directions of our clients.

As with the impressionist tale (see VanMaanen  1988), the story is recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events.”  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s).  They hear, feel, see what the researcher experienced – the audience is meant to relive the experience, insofar as that is possible, rather than interpret it.  The problems, issues, and meanings have largely been worked through in the background by the ethnographer and the story being told is meant to draw in the audience and build a collaborative solution to design and business issues.  The emotional impact of seeing and hearing such lush descriptions and events sparks interest, forcing the audience to more openly engage with the researcher, the research, and other members of the development team.

Ultimately, this means that the researcher applies conventions of art as readily as he or she does those of science. Tension must build, foreshadowing must occur, contextual details must be condensed without losing their power, and the story must have a logical flow as with a written piece.  Details and subtleties are set aside or given greater attention in regards to how they impact the audience’s ability to engage with and grasp a topic.  The overarching issues are how well the story hangs together, how easy is it to extract information (or inspire the viewer to read the larger report), and how believable the material is.  The issues by which the final material is judged are derived from cinematic and literary worlds as much as they are from the anthropological discipline.

The power of the emotionally influential, dramatic story in the beginning of the design process can mean the difference between seeing innovation and the dismissal of the research.  The story serves as a launching pad for teams attempting to turn qualitative data into something concrete that can in turn be productized or turned into a viable business model.  Bore them and there is almost no chance of affecting change.  Selective packaging of field data to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice, even though the precise empirical situations in which the field data are developed are perhaps far less coherent or obvious than the concepts they serve to illustrate.

Of course, it is certainly possible that less than ideal development and design occur due to mistakes of interpretation, both on the part of the researcher and the audience.  However, businesses are frequently concerned less with perfection than they are with getting a product to market.  If done well, it is unlikely that the story told will result in disastrous business models or product designs.  In the end, the fieldworker must decide whether the risk outweighs the possibility of having the entire piece of research dismissed because he or she failed to engage the audience.  The final decisions as to which stories to tell and how to tell them falls to the ethnographer’s ability to understand the audiences for whom the video will played.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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