Doing Away With Disciplines?

When it comes to explaining what business ethnographers do the first hurdle we often face entails adequately describing the disciplinary substance of anthropological and sociological practice to business professionals not necessarily versed in any aspects of social science. Ethnography is a buzz word in most business circles, but it is more than that to those of us who have spent our professional lives in the field. Before a company, a product development team, anyone will read or listen to what we put before them, they need to understand what it is we do.  One of the first steps in the process of reconciling what we do in the context of the team is to determine what boundaries we set for ourselves within the nature of the work itself and how that translates into the business environment.  The prospective researcher must examine the nature of the boundaries between and across disciplines and determine where he or she fits into these definitional categories.

The understanding of what anthropological fieldwork, specifically ethnography, means and is capable of becomes further blurred when the clients and employers attempt to make some sort of distinction between the researchers of various social science disciplines that may be involved in the research process (in this case a corporate environment), all of whom may be engaged in some capacity in an anthropologically-oriented project.  Added to this is the fact that employers have similar categorical constructs for other disciplines.  For example, psychology has a vague definition attributed to it by non-psychologists and often all of its subdivisions are compressed under a single, umbrella classification. The problem lies in communicating an understanding of the research capabilities to the multitude of others who will need to either turn the data into products, services, etc., or those with the power to supply funding for research and application.  The solution lies in developing multidisciplinary teams with a range of perspectives that can generate ideas and methods capable of addressing an assortment of client perspectives.  It also means developing teams with a keen interest in learning new skills, new ways of looking at the world, an appreciation for different methodological perspectives, and an ability to turn the abstract into the concrete – in short, the ability to make money.

While it varies from company to company and client to client, the boundaries that define anthropology as a select discipline frequently break down in the business setting.  There are no academic review boards, few disciplinarily-specific journals, and essentially no departments based on established traditions or theoretical leanings.  Departments within an organization are typically functional and/or reflect a general need for information. There is little time for the nuances and peculiarities of individual disciplines, and no time for theoretical models – results are measured in terms that reflect the bottom line.  While we certainly have an impact on the nature of how business is conducted, in the final analysis the client or employer is responsible for creating profits, products, and services.  Just as it is unrealistic to assume that the bulk of anthropologists will ever learn the subtle differences between the various technical strata of electrical engineering, it is unrealistic to assume the consumers of our work will ever come to understand or care that deeply about the methodological and epistemological boundaries between social science disciplines.

Within the group of people tasked with performing certain functions or research projects for a company, disciplinary boundaries mean just as little, though for somewhat different reasons.  At the crux of the matter is determining whether the various members of a research team are understood as “insert discipline X here” or as part of a single organism trying to get a job done. For the other members of the research team, the boundaries and the constructs we create have little relevance and can hinder the process of getting the necessary work done. I would contend that a large part of this desired retention of boundaries can be related fear often associated with moving into the unknown and the desire to hold onto something old, something that defines us as us and not part of the new world of which we become a part when entering the business environment.  In a disciplinarily enclosed space it may be easier to maintain boundaries and conclude that while other disciplines may in fact be informed by similar theories and techniques, there is typically less need to mix as freely as is the case in the business environment; maintaining disciplinary purity is, in fact cherished in academia.  In the business environment shedding disciplinary titles is often encouraged, if not demanded outright. For a multidisciplinary approach to be successful the various team members must understand what the other members of the team do in terms of research, how they do it, why they do what they do, and also how they think, insofar as it is possible, and how those skills may overlap to produce something unique to that setting.

While anthropology has a long history of work outside the academic setting, its involvement as a daily part of the business process is fairly recent. There are of course exceptions to the rule, but until recently anthropologists were seen as the “new” thing.  The longer a discipline or methodological perspective is part of the commercial world, the less likely it is for boundaries to be maintained.  This is not to say that those boundaries will be completely lost.  Of course they will not.  The moniker of anthropologist lends understanding about how and why we approach projects, problems, and data as we do.  However, the boundaries will probably continue to blur and social scientists of all stripes in the business environment will be more readily defined in terms of the their final products rather than their disciplinary groundings.  Are we creating “hybrid” disciplines as a result of multidisciplinary work?  The answer is most probably yes.  Of course, this is neither an indictment of nor a call for hybridity.  It is simply a recognition that the tenets of business are frequently such that maintaining disciplinary continuity becomes overwhelmingly a reflection of the both individual researcher’s desire to maintain a separate, bounded identity, and the ability of the team of which he or she is a part to recognize that person as a fully integrated part of the “tribe” rather than as an outsider.

Of course there are times when it is best to keep a single disciplinary approach or set of monodisciplines, just as there are times when it makes sense to build teams of fieldworkers and other times to go it alone.  Anthropology’s greatest contribution to business is the introduction of the culture construct as a means of identifying shared human experience and the ways that culture impacts consumption, use, and product development.  Expertise is expertise and maintaining disciplinary control may help maintain focus both for the specific research and the various members of the team.

The question still remains as to what makes a project multidisciplinary as opposed to being comprised of several monodisciplines.  There will, of course, be instances where the work is singularly monodisciplinary; a test meant to determine the ergonomics of a new shovel design may have little need for a multiple disciplinary perspective.   More complex problems typically involve a number of people, however, and require doing more than simply handing the results off to the client once the work is done.  This is a significant boon if all of the members of a team feel they have a voice and are willing to incorporate multiple perspectives into their understandings of the project.  If this does not occur, the result is a fractured mix of varying opinions vying for dominance in the final report and list of recommendations.  A multidisciplinary project can be defined through how methodologies are built, how the knowledge is shared.

As stated, the length and scope of the project typically means more time in preparing for the research itself.  Multidisciplinary teams must work together to shape the numerous sub-goals within the project and determine how these sub-goals are best interwoven to produce a unified vision.  From the outset this implies that all the members of the team work openly to provide input on how data will be gathered, shared, and discussed.  The first step is to determine who will lead what phases of the research, how the lead may change through time, and how the final output will be crafted and displayed. Involvement from beginning to end (and with an implied extension into the product and/or service as it moves through its lifecycle) must be complete insofar as each voice must feel it is being heard and suggestions are openly assessed and probed by the group as a whole.  As the project moves from one phase into another, for example, from exploratory research through concept development through usability testing through marketing, each team member needs to reinvest him or herself in the project and provide input from their distinct perspectives.

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 Comment

  1. An interesting discussion about the problems of working in a corporate and interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary environment. While certainly the environment has a strong influence on how and which disciplines may be recruited and assigned, there is another issue, . I have addressed part of this in an essay entitled, “What business needs to know from applied ethnography” ( ).

    But there is a complementary side to the question. What does the applied ethnographer need to know about business? I feel that it is more important, or at least equally important, to address this problem from the anthropologist/ethnographer perspective. In particular, the status/role that the applied ethnographer is required to occupy and play in the business context. That is as a “team player,” and not “lone wolf.”

    Traditionally the ethnographer is a lone wolf, going off into the wilds of real life, encountering a herd of another species, and in chameleon-like fashion inserting oneself into the herd as a participant/observer. In this role, the ethnographer acts as both the instrument and the intelligence operating the instrument recording the data. The product of these efforts are written for an audience of other lone wolves who share their stories and observations grounded in the similarity of the status/role of the “field” experience. this is like a group of pro-golfers or tennis players getting together after the U S Opens to discuss the techniques and experience of the various matches..

    As part of an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary team, however, the ethnographer is constrained by both his/her status as “anthropologist” on the team and by her/his role as “ethnographer” in the specific research assignment. Playing a team sport is very different from an individual sport. In a team sport, there is an overall game plan. In the game plan, each player has a specific assignment, the effectiveness of the team and the plan is dependent upon each player sticking to their assignment. This means subordinating one’s ego to the team’s mission. The applied anthropologist, playing the position of “ethnographer” must understand what his/her role is, in general, and also specifically, on his/her team.

    He/she must also recognize that for any specific play, i.e. research assignment, that role may change. The ethnographer may be asked to be a “surveyor,” or “historian” instead of participant/observer. She/he must be prepared to adjust to the new assignment when the play is called without any second thoughts or reservations. The success of the team depends on the player’s ability to adjust on a moments notice.

    So yes, the disciplinary lines that are so pronounced in the academic world, become blurred in the “fog of corporate research” where the goal is to contribute to the corporate bottom line, and not to some disciplinary Hall of Fame.

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: