When Ethnography Becomes No More Than A $10 Word

Rarely do I do this, but there are times when one has to call out the absurdity of what people co-opt and redefine to fit their needs.  Ethnography lacks definition to those who see it as a $10 word for lookin’ at folk.  Case in point, I ran across this response today to a LinkedIn query about hiring an ethnographer:

Happy to introduce you to [NAME OF VENDOR WITHHELD]  video online technology for ethnographic research, empowering participants to engage with us on their schedule and without the intrusive nature of in-person methodologies by using mobile cams.

Yes, those pesky, intrusive researchers are such a nuisance.  Yes, sticking a camera in someone’s face and having them log onto a website is significantly less biasing than interacting directly with a human being.

My problem here is this: any idiot with a camera can and does call himself an ethnographer.  The word has been reduced to the lowest common denominator by slack-jawed hacks posing as qualified professionals, all because they took a two-hour seminar at the Hilton last year.  My intention is not to be cruel or mean spirited, but to draw attention to the fact that “ethnography” is increasingly being practiced, so they say, by people who clearly know nothing about what it means to do it well.  It would be like me saying I’m a Mac expert because I own an iPad.  More accurately, it would be like me saying those words as I point to a monitor halfway across the room.  Theory, training and participant observation define good ethnography and anyone who believes their “video online technology” constitutes anything akin to ethnography is the last person you should hire to do this kind of work.

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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  1. While marketing is a potential growth industry for applied anthropologists looking for work outside of the academic and academic research, marketing is also the destroyer of language — ethnography being the case in point here. This is why the profession needs to take control of its terminology by educating the public and drawing attention to the snake oil salespersons. Which professional organization(s) should take on this responsibility? Those which protect and defend their prestige as a profession. If “ethnography” is just a throw away term, of course, then we should not get upset.

    To me, “ethnography” is the core to anthropology — and it in not sticking a camera or microphone in front of a “subject..”

  2. Ethnography is clearly the core of cultural anthropology’s everyday practice, but anthropologists like Gitti Jordan of PARC have done a lot to bring it into the business community without losing the rigor of a solid approach.

    “Ethnography” that doesn’t involve participatory observation isn’t ethnography at all. This is the baseline, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s important that practitioners in the industry hammer this point home.

    Further, even “participatory observation” can be done poorly. Lots of decision-makers in key enterprises — especially in the areas of innovation, design and consumer insights — have been badly burnt by videographers or outright amateurs conducting “ethnography” that lacks rigor and direct business outcomes.

    It’s not an easy thing to get right — and maintaining consistently strong results also requires a solid methodology and a lot of experience, both in ethnographic practice and translation of findings to high-impact “so whats” that the business can use in key decisions. Fly-by-nighters cause damage across all those dimensions.

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