Why Training Matters for Good Ethnography

Ethnography is a powerful tool, but it’s being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless in many cases. What ethnographers do, or should do, is uncover meaning and complexity. There is, frankly, a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. It comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook.  Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. While it may come across as arrogant, that is not the intention. The point is to say that what we learn from training and experience has value and while the goal in the current economic climate is to be good, fast and cheap (something that can, in fact, be attained), it is ultimately none of these things if the end work is not grounded in solid methodology or training. This isn’t to say one needs a PhD in anthropology from the Harvard or the University of Chicago, but it is to say that simply calling yourself an ethnographer doesn’t make it so.

And to be fair, there are times that it is possible to be, or at least appear, too academic. It is a criticism well deserved. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it’s difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms — they simply don’t speak the native tongue. Some are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their “anthropologist” identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They no doubt need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.

But returning to the original point, a solid academic grounding in behavioral and cultural theory is imperative to doing the job well, whether it’s in helping create a marketing plan or designing a new product. Simply taking into account what people tell you in an interview is misleading and often dangerous. For example, if participants tell you that they make a point of eating dinner every night as a family, it would be easy to take that information and build a marketing plan or product around that statement. The catch is it doesn’t address the unsaid. How much clutter is on the dining room table? What discarded boxes are in the garbage? What is the weekly schedule of activities? Are the kids there when the fieldwork takes place at 6:00 p.m.?

At a deeper level, the underpinnings of meaning are lost. What are the various meanings of “family” in a given context. How is dinner time used to establish or co-create meaning? What is the symbolic role of food? How does ritual factor into purchase and preparation choices? How does that carry over in the store?  These are the host of observational data points that are frequently overlooked by researchers who lack a theoretical grounding. Now imagine what it means to lose that depth of understanding when designing something as complex and expensive as a new type of car. If you get it wrong, you may well waste millions going down a rabbit hole. Regardless of the product, service or message you are designing it makes a great deal of sense to have a research team that can get at these issues and translate them into meaningful insights. Business anthropology represents the synthesis of academic anthropology with the professional practice of marketing and design. It seeks to understand what it means to be human, the diversity of human practices and values, and then turn these practices and values into tangible experiences. Getting it right means getting the right people.


Doing Microethnography

Microethnography is a powerful method of research for studying practices in dynamic social systems where interactions reproduce unexplored or poorly understood conditions. It is a powerful intervention for discovering, making visible, or getting at what is happening as it happens in the interactions. Analyzing moment-to-moment interactions enables a better understanding of practices and expectations in order to create spaces to transform meaning and activities that maintain the status quo. But what is it and how does it differ from traditional ethnography?

First, microethnography is NOT simply a small group of in-depth interviews. While the sample is generally small and the timelines compressed, there are process behind doing it well and producing something useful for the client,. Microethnography is the study of a smaller experience or a slice of everyday reality. Microethnography is the process of data collection, content analysis, and comparative analysis of everyday situations for the purpose of formulating insights. It is tight, focused and targeted.

Like traditional ethnography, microethnographic research that attends to big social issues through careful examination of “small” communicative behaviors, tying them back to specific business and design needs. The research and/or research teams study the audible and visible details of human interaction and activity, as these occur naturally within specific contexts or institutions. Microanalysis may be coupled with statistical data to form a more complete understanding of the question at hand, but microethnography always employs ethnographic methods such as informant interviews and participant observations, all in an effort to better understand practices and problems.

Microethnographic methods provide qualitative, observational, cross-cultural, and ethnographic data, giving researchers the potential to 1) examine consumers, users, etc. across their community contexts, explicitly addressing class, power, and cultural structures of that community and 2) explain disproportional uses and buying patterns among subgroups.

While it also takes observation and environment in to account, microethnography focuses largely on how people use language and other forms of communication to negotiate consent with attention given to social, cultural, and political processes. Informed by critical discourse analysis, it emphasizes how the uses of language simultaneously shape local social interactions and reproduce patterns of social relations in society. The central difference between microethnography and in-depth interviewing ultimately is the analytical process and the phases that make up the research itself.

Data collection and analysis for microethnography typically takes place in six stages:

  • Stage One: Data Collection for the Primary Record – This consists largely of passive observation in the settings/contexts in which an activity occurs. It is meant to give a grounding in the activities occurring with objects, people and brands to create not only data points, but the right questions.
  • Stage Two: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Primary Record – This consists of rough, unstructured, brief interviews and information gleaned for intercepted conversation. Initial meaning reconstruction, horizon analysis, and validity reconstruction take place at this stage through the review of transcripts and videotape.
  • Stage Three: Dialogical Data Generation – During this phase the research relies on a mix of in-depth interviews and feedback interviews with participants. A series of hypotheses are in place and pinpointed concepts are addressed with the participants.
  • Stage Four: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Interviews – Once interviews are conducted, a second phase of meaning reconstruction and stage horizon analysis are conducted to uncover contradictions and pattern of practice and meaning. Out of this process, specific design and business needs are aligned.
  • Stage Five: High-level Coding – At this stage linguistic and behavioral matches are made. Out of this analysis, the multidisciplinary team begins to create new product or branding concepts and build out how they would actually function and gain traction with customers or users.
  • Stage Six: Final Reconstructive Analysis – This is the stage when we put new concepts and old to use. During this phase, new design or branding ideas are presented to participants, who work directly with the research and design team to generate co-created ideas and concepts.

Making Fieldwork Easier and More Productive

Advertisers, marketers and designers have long held the role of creating materials that reflect the lives of customers. Traditionally, this has relied on market research that is gathered in something of a vacuum, or reflects the beliefs and practices of the researcher more than the consumer.  People’s preferences all too often are neatly, if unimaginatively, packaged and handed off to a team tasked with creating new design applications, be the application a new product or a new brand platform.

Quantitative methods such as surveys demographics data provide wonderful snapshots of a large population but give little insight into what matters most to people and why it matters.  Usability tests and affinity diagrams provide information about the acceptability of new design concept and prototype, allowing designers to adapt and alter the message of a brand, campaign or product according to people’s stated preferences (which may or may not reflect their true beliefs).

From the qualitative side, focus groups and group interviews provide more qualitative feedback on product concepts,  messages and, to a lesser extent, explore unmet needs. The problem is that focus groups often reflect exaggerated responses and how important it is for humans to feel clever in front of perfect strangers. Additionally, these methods rely on people’s awareness and descriptive ability away from the context in which they would normally be thinking about a topic. In other words, they make things up, usually subconsciously but sometimes intentionally, in order to give an answer to a question. The result for design is mediocrity at its best and radically failed messaging at its worst.

Direct observation combined with interviewing (ethnography and ethnography-lite) is perhaps a more compelling method of coming to understand what people say, think and do.  It has certainly become a fixture in many organizations in recent years. And from a design standpoint it gives both researchers and designers a richer understanding of the issues, practices, and peculiarities of shoppers and the consumer, providing a more complete picture to work from when developing a brand or campaign. The problem is that while the depth of information uncovered is rich and insightful, it often stops short of any real observational depth that can be crafted into something truly meaningful. Surface-level findings are just that – surface level. If fieldwork is to be genuinely inspiring it needs to dig deep.  And researchers need to begin recognizing that their work is a creative, interpretive process.  That means that we needn’t fixate on getting the “right” answer, but that we get an interpretation of data that provides a “creative” answer.  Doing that means rethinking how we conduct research.  Here are 5 tips to making observational research relevant.

Start a conversation. When entering into fieldwork researchers tend to immediately jump into asking questions. The problem is that the abruptness and intrusiveness of these questions often changes behavior, resulting in semi-meaningful answers. To prevent this, begin with conversation and observation. Yes, that means allowing yourself time to get to know your participants as people. Let questions emerge as activities unfold. The simple fact is that we frequently don’t know what we should really be looking for until we’ve had time to immerse ourselves in the surroundings.  Simply put, relax and take your time rather than buffeting people with questions.

Look for patterns. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  People are individual organisms, yes, but they work within a social and cultural framework.  That means that activities and statements are always part of a larger pattern of meaning and practice.  Don’t take statements at face value.  Always look for patterns and connections between what people say, believe, and do.

Record information in their terms. Record what the participant says in their own terms rather than paraphrasing. Word choices, inflection, cadence, and non-verbal cues carry meaning that is lost when we try to simplify.  Facial expressions and body language convey a great deal of information. Simplicity will come out of the analysis – don’t do it when you are gathering information. 

EVERYTHING is data. Seemingly unimportant details are often the pieces that are the most important.  Environment and context have a huge influence on what people say and do.  Therefore, it is crucial when gathering information to include as much as possible in the interpretive process.  It may seem overwhelming, but everything is potential data for the analytical and creative mill.

Relax and embrace a range of perspectives.  Research should not be a list of facts and observations if the goal is to generate insights and innovation.  Research is a creative and interpretive act, no matter how much we may try obscure that fact.  As such, research is most effective when a wide array of disciplines are engaged in fieldwork.  Turn off your “scientist” sign and include a range of perspectives both in data collection and in analysis.

Customer research is only as powerful as its outcome.  Generating volumes of consumer insights and observations means very little if those insights and observations can’t be readily translated into something tangible, be it a brand platform, an ad campaign, or a new product offering.   While fieldwork can and does yield powerful insights, it means little if we forget that we are in a creative field that works best when a wide range of skills and perspectives come together.  Both in the field and out.

Video and Analysis

It is not uncommon for a researcher using film in data collection to run into people concerned with the validity of the method.  Sometimes the concerns revolve around whether film and video are art or science.  Because of its interpretive, creative, impressionistic, and emotional attributes, art is sometimes assumed to be in direct conflict with an objective, value-free “science”—apparently creating an unavoidable conflict between the goals of film as art and user research as science. Consequently, people—academics and professionals alike—often assume limited possibilities for film.  The status of film as a serious analytical resource has remained fairly marginal.

Film is sometimes seen as a humanistic pastime, not significant scientific work. It is meant to appeal to the audience’s emotional pliability.  Ultimately, the producer of the final visual document is seen as selectively building subjectively constituted data and constructing a piece that reflects his/her interpretation rather than “the facts”.  However, the same can be said for any written document, particularly when behavioral research methods are applied to data collection for a specific task or client need.  A logo-centric culture prevents researchers from benefiting from the full breadth of insight and information available, treating video as if has less validity than the written word.  However, written reports often have pictures, films often use written narratives, subtitles or intertitles.  They always have accompanying written material.  The reality is that while the film-focused researcher does indeed run the risk of compromising the complex realities of a particular behavior or series of behaviors, the risk is no greater than that of the researcher relying primarily on the written word.

Typically, film is accepted most openly is when it is considered to fit the documentary archetype.  This stems from the widely held belief that film is a mirror for the world.  The argument is that the camera is a device for scientifically recording data about human behavior that is more objective than other types of information because of the mechanical nature of the collection device.  While this may be true, it probably is not.  However, given the context of the work (time limitations and constraints imposed by the nature of contractual research), the footage supplied by the camera may be as close as we can get to a check of objectivity.  The reality of research purchased by a company is such that it assumes, even demands, a final product that is easily used, applies to a wide range of internal needs, and can be readily disseminated.

For some, manipulation of the footage (editing it into a film, altering, etc.) destroys its “scientific value.”  The model is that teams go into the field to film material, the scientist studies the footage, and the filmmaker transforms into art.  In actuality, this fantasy is never realized.  The footage is indeed dissected and analyzed by the researcher, typically transformed into a product the client will readily consume, but by its very nature qualitative research always has a degree of subjectivity.  In fact, any and all research, be it in the field and interpretive or in the laboratory and highly controlled, involves degrees of subjectivity and personal biasing.  This hardly invalidates the work or the means by which data are captured and displayed.  Validity and reliability are not necessarily one and the same.

If researchers are supposed to make films intelligible to client audiences, they must learn what common sense, such as it is, dictates as constituting a good documentary film, that is, they should emulate the aesthetic conventions of documentary realism.   Pieces of the puzzle are, of course, missing from any documentary film, but the most important themes and primary informational pieces remain for consumption by a wide range of viewers.  The pieces selected for a final edit do indeed play to the emotions of the client, but without that emotional impact clients are likely to forego the deeper issues entirely, unwilling or unable to sift through the informational tome so often presented by researchers.  By communicating customer needs, reactions, behaviors, etc., film spurs viewers to delve deeper into the research findings and examine the totality of the research in greater detail.  Film can be used to access a level of emotional response and personal identification or conflict which is difficult within the lexical constraints of writing.  By a series of movements in a sequence, films can communicate in concrete and specific terms what in written words would be abstract expressions.

Another argument against video documentation as a primary means of disseminating findings is that because prior consent is always sought, there is always some degree engagement by the participant with the camera and therefore the findings are inaccurate.  However, the very fact that participants are recruited for any study by definition means that there is some degree of awareness and engagement.

Consequently, whether the awareness and engagement take place with the researcher exclusively or with the researcher and camera together, the authenticity of an activity, context, or behavior should not be in dispute.  After all, typically, the camera is soon forgotten, but the person asking questions and watching over the shoulder remains.

The Case of Cell Phones, Youth, and Japan

We applied video field data gathering and mini-documentary reporting during a recent study for a wireless communications provider who wanted to understand mobile phone usage in Japan.

A company had contracted with the consulting firm for whom I was working at the time in the hope of gaining a better understanding of how  portable information devices (such as PDAs) and internet-ready cellular phones were used in the context of daily life.  They were interested in uncovering what characteristics other than image quality, sound quality, and functionality were determinate in the decision to purchase a PDA or cellular phone in urban centers of Japan, and why those “peripheral” issues were important.  The term “peripheral” is the term used by executives to describe how they viewed the work – they were skeptical of the notion that culture impacts perceptions and uses of technology.  So, while the team was ensured work, there was little guarantee that the findings would be implemented.  In addition, the researchers were given half the time to conduct the research that they had originally requested.  Gaining the attention and interest of primary decision makers became in order to conduct further, more in-depth research at a later date became almost as important as the findings.  Without continued research, the researchers feared that the company would act without consideration to the needs and cultural patterns of the population.

The team was asked to identify some of the behavioral and cultural motivators in the purchasing decisions of young (16 – 30 years old) Japanese from middle-income homes.  The research took place in several locations in Japan to provide a range of cultural practices.  However, because the researchers (two ethnographers and one social psychologist) were out of touch most of the time but needed at the end of the project to build a single, cohesive series of conclusions, they needed to capture the participant observation sessions on video for later shared analysis and review.  Added to this was the fact that only two of the researchers spoke Japanese well enough to effectively communicate.   The other had to rely on interpreters or the language skills of the informant.  The researchers decided it was imperative to capture on video exactly what was said for later analysis and translation.

Because of time constraints and the limited language skills of the researchers, the goal of the research centered greatly on material culture, display,  and overt patterns of interaction.  Consequently, activities, objects, spaces, and moments of interaction needed to be captured on video so that the researchers could return to the tapes later to catalogue patterns.  Without the video footage, much of the information would have been overlooked or misinterpreted – video allowed the team to accurately assess their assumptions, catalogue use patterns and artifacts, and check for validity.

By returning to the video over a two-week period, the researchers were able to determine with some accuracy what designs were preferred and why, what levels of functionality were important, what was most significant in terms of brand and image, and what patterns of interaction were taking place.  It also allowed them to demonstrate what they did not know and thus get buy-in to conduct more extensive research.  The final video presented to the company ensured that business planners and designers would be sensitive to cultural aspects of products to be used in Japan.

The Power of Rituals and the Bottom Line

In marketing and design, the tendency for most people given the task of figuring out how to engage more customers is to focus on the individual and his/her reaction and behavior at a fixed point in time. We gauge reactions to advertising, track eye movement for a website or record how many people stop at a display. Rarely do we take the time to understand how a product, service or brand fit into the larger picture of shared human behavior and meaning. Unfortunately, that means we overlook elements in the consumer’s life that have the potential for moving interactions with a brand from a transactional moment to something much more profound and long lasting. One element that is overlooked to our detriment is the nature of ritual and how it can be used to understand the customer. And consequently grow the bottom line.

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, excluding actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, be it the larger culture or a subset of it.  And can be as grand as a person’s first Communion ceremony or as simple as the act of brushing our teeth in the morning. But regardless of how profound the act is, a ritual activity is anything but mundane.

From a researcher’s standpoint, ritual behavior can be thought of in a binary way (of course, this is only one way of breaking it down, but being an out-of-the-closet Structuralist my inclination is to construct models this way). On the one hand, ritual is an outsider’s or “etic” category for a set activity or series of actions which to the outsider seems irrational or illogical. On the other hand, the term can be used also by the insider or “emic” performer as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker. Understanding both positions, however, is pivotal in uncovering why people do what they do.

A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community. It might be performed in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it. It may be public or private. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between social states. The purposes of rituals are varied. They are used to strengthen social bonds, provide social and moral education, demonstrate respect or submission, state one’s affiliation, or to obtain social acceptance or approval.  Rituals are used to ensure that certain “necessary” actions take place to keep us safe and happy. Sometimes rituals are performed just for the pleasure of the ritual itself (I’m thinking of my own after-work cocktail).

Alongside the personal dimensions, rituals can have a more basic social function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society or a group.  Rituals aid in creating a sense of group identity. For example, nearly all sports teams have rituals incorporated into their structure, from simple initiation rites when a team is established, to the formalized structure of pre-game pep talks.

At this point I can practically hear someone saying, “Yes, yes, that’s all very interesting but why does it matter to me?” Fair enough. The reason it matters is because rituals are constant – they are acts we perform whether we think about their deeper significances or not. Rituals are actions, they are not something we tend to ponder in great detail. From a marketing or design perspective, that means understanding ritual behavior leads to creating materials that become part of the fixed, long-term pattern of a  person’s life. If done right, your brand or your product becomes part of the ritual, making it that much harder to set aside when a new product or brand comes along.

Add to that the very simple fact that human being are symbolic creatures and ritual is largely a symbolic act. Language, thought and actions are all part of the larger symbolic landscape through which we interpret the world. The instance an object or activity, not to mention a brand, gain symbolic value the more likely they are to become integral to how we interact with the world and become necessary to our lives. The Apple sticker on the back of a person’s car says a great deal about the person – it’s worth noting that we rarely (if ever) see a Microsoft sticker. The brand has gained a symbolic relevance and is as much an element of identity as the clothes we wear for a night on the town.

Finally, understanding ritual allows you to uncover new, analogous areas for growth. A seemingly unrelated ritual or set of ritual behaviors may, in essence, be transferable to a different brand or product category. For example, if you want to understand how hydrating before and after a game can be ritualized, it makes sense to understand how “pre-gaming” takes place when groups of young men prepare for a night of drinking on the town. There are parallels related to shared ideals, male bonding and the establishment of group affiliation. That potentially means new ways of messaging and promotion.

Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various forms of religious experience or rites of passage, but also modes of shopping. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as the Black Friday rush to the mall and hitting the car lots the last day of the month, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by tradition, and thus ritualistic in nature. If you come to understand that, you come to understand new triggers and can develop a long-term relationship with your customer.