As I’ve written about before, “ethnography” is a loaded word for many people, including clients. It is presented as everything from in-home interviews to mall intercepts to participant observation. And while I am an unquestionable advocate for defining in terms of participant observation and the kind of deep-dive research that involves far more than just talking to people, I also think that we get bogged down in clarify methodology rather than results. Methodology means little to nothing if the reasons for doing ethnography right aren’t expressed from the outset. Before worrying about the details of the craft, we need to explain why good, deep ethnography yields better results than the fly-by-night version so often sold. “We uncover insights that result in breakthrough ideas and product. That makes you money and elevates your brand. Fundamentally, that is the key selling point behind doing real ethnography over ethnography-lite.
I am not advocating a wholesale shift away from the word ethnography, but I am advocating discussing why it’s relevant before we talk about what “it” is. Think of it as if you were building a house. You may want to know about the tools your builder is using, but your first concerns are about the quality of work and the results of his prior building engagements. Your builder may be the best builder in the world, but if his focus is on discussing his hammers rather than your building, then you probably won’t bother hiring him. Similarly, ethnographers tend to spend too much time at the outset talking about ethnography and not enough time talking about problem solving.
Second, when the tool kit comes up, we need to be clear about what exactly is in it. We owe it to ourselves and to our clients to define exactly what we mean by ethnography each time we talk about it. We can start by outlining and classifying the different elements of or types of ethnography we are practicing:
- Drive-by Observation – rapid observation and intercept interviewing with people on the street.
- Silent Observation – pure observation with little or no interaction with participants. People may not know they are being observed/studied.
- Questioning Observation – accompanied activities where the researcher observes and interviews the participant(s).
- Semiotic Interviews – interviewing based on how people construct symbolic relationships. This can involve story telling, tasks and conversations around defined cultural patterns.
- Participant-Driven Observation – participants become observers of their own behavior and the behavior of others. They develop insights which are then communicated to the research team.
- Participant Observation – a pure anthropological approach when the researcher lives with people and learns about them through extended experience. This requires the most training and time, but yields the greatest insights.
While my personal inclination as an anthropologist is to hang on to “ethnography” people are moving away from it and focusing on what we produce, not how we produce it. Those clients who are already on board don’t need explanations. The organizations to whom we’re selling our ideas need to know what we deliver, not just how we deliver it. And they need to know why depth and quality matter.