Cultural Analysis: or why traditional marketing is for idiots

What anthropologists do is study context and culture.  We study meaning.  We study the interconnectedness between humans, their environments, their institutions, etc.  And yet, somehow conducted a two hour interview has become the standard. I have watched ethnography be co-opted by any lack-whit with access to the internet, a reasonably good smile and an ability to translate the facile into the language of his/her handlers, namely people looking for a quick, cheap, easy answer to a problem they more often than not constructed after glancing at Wired (note I said “glancing,” not “reading”).  “I do my own taxes so now I am an accountant.  Let me do your taxes, too.”  Brilliant.  The catch is that for anyone wanting to actually learn about the people they sell thing to, there is an alternative to anthro-lite.  But part of that recognition begins in understanding that anthropologists and the outcomes of our field work are not about psychographic, demographics or anything quite so limited.  We begin with culture and look for the linkages between actions, meaning and people.  The individual doesn’t mean much when context isn’t factored in.

We begin with cultural analysis.  This means that the kinds of questions we ask of data in most traditional research doesn’t apply. And so the answers are different as well.  By focusing on the sociocultural rather than a construct/demographic dreamed up in a boardroom one afternoon we uncover the symbolic meanings, practices, a situations around people’s lives.  The system is the unit of inquiry, rather than interpersonal emotions and individual psychological processes.  We are all culturally saturated beings and it is in understanding the interplay between people in context that we gain real insights.  Think of a series of hubs and spokes. Traditional research typically looks at the hubs in isolation. A cultural analysis seeks to identify the hubs, the spokes and why they are configured the way they are.  It looks beyond the obvious and explores a much, much broad web of meaning.  Let’s put it into focus, shall we?

Consider something as simple as mouth wash.  Taste is only one element.  We look for the symbolic cultural meanings, categories, creations, contradictions, and practices that govern people’s actions. And so the questions build.  What is clean? How is a clean mouth different from a clean floor?  What can you clean your mouth with? What makes it different from cleaning the floor? What symbolic associations are made with the mouth?  With the dentist? Can your mouth be clean but still produce bad breath? Are there different types of bad breath?  Is mouthwash something you hide? What does it mean to be a good, clean person?

Thinking in these terms starts, hopefully, to move the conversation away from just another form of the survey and turn it into something both meaningful and powerful.  But anyone can do it, right?  Well, yes and no.  I will not go so far as to say the researcher needs advanced degrees in anthropology or sociology (though it does help), but they do need to understand the social theories and analytical tools used to make sense of what, in the broadest context, is going on.  They need to embrace a worldview that understands the relative unimportance of statistics to innovation and the fact that individuals are, beyond the level of the organism, fictions.  Simply having the gift for gab doesn’t cut it.  In addition, there are, I am sad to inform, people who are simply better at it than others.  I have a friend who works for NASA doing extremely complex math in order to put fast moving objects on other fast moving objects in space.  Try as I might, I will simply never have the intellectual capacity or mathematical streak that Andy has – I will simply never be able to do what he does. Similarly, I will never have the capacity to paint that my brother has.  And yet, every jackass with a video camera is now an ethnographer.  Pissy as that may sound, it isn’t meant to be overly hostile.  No, it is meant to convey that there are people in the world through a mix of training, practice and natural inclination tend to see things in terms of patterns, symbols and shared cultural experiences.

Ultimately, cultural analysis is a different way of thinking and seeing the world. It is not just another explanation for what has been turned into another buzz word, namely ethnography.  This is precisely it’s value and power.



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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great post. I am a fan of ethnography, but from a commercial perspective seldom (read – almost never) have the luxury of allowing for a say 4 month study, which I have understood from at least one qualified expert, is necessary to do a valid piece of ethnography. Costs are another issue. Perhaps what might be useful is the ability to distil “ethnographic essence” – culture, context and the link to meaning or insights – that is not so in your view clearly “pseudo ethno” into a tool kit that works in the context of commercial pressures (timing, cost, quality…..) but has validity from a trained practitioner viewpoint. Just thinking 😉

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: