Ethnography, Training, and the Perils of Ethno-Lite

We have a vast spectrum of methodologies at our disposal these days, from attitudinal approaches through to behavioral. From big data to semiotics to ethnography. We also have a wide interpretation of what these terms mean. So let’s talk about ethnography briefly.

What ethnography does, or should do, is uncover meaning and complexity through a solid understanding of social theory. Good ethnography is rooted in science, not opinion. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer any more than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. This isn’t meant to belittle ethnographically-informed work or insights that come to light when simply engaging with the world (not everything needs in-depth research to be valid). The point is to say that what we learn from training and experience has value. While the goal of many research plans in many cases is to be good, fast and cheap (something that can, in fact, be attained), those goals aren’t relevant if the end results are shoddy due to a lack of solid methodology or training.

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? 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? These are the types of questions that emerge when an ethnographic project is done right and the answers to these types of questions are what lead to a more complete, more resonant marketing plan.

The research methodologies that generate this quick, surface understanding is problematic. And this includes the quasi-ethnography we often see being sold to clients. When, as practitioners, we try to empathize we often tend to think about consumers’ emotional and attitudinal state rather than the context and their behaviors. But the evidence suggests that the context and behaviors of the past predict more closely the behaviors of the future than do people’s attitudes and emotions. And, in some research, people lie. Often for the right reasons: they want to give you an answer they think you want to hear, but they’re often post-rationalizing and not always telling the truth. As such, any ethnographer or research team leader advocating for deeper research should be able to articulate three key components of ethnography:

  • Participant Observation – spending real time with individuals to gain insight
  • Thick Description – a term coined by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz to mean describing everything you see. Observing the entire context, and the themes, and then synthesizing them.
  • Triangulation – Going through the process of cross-referencing and synthesizing multiple sources of data.

Regardless of the product, service, or message you are designing it makes a great deal of economic 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. Understanding the context surrounding people and observing what really shapes their behavior gets us further under their skin that analyzing their emotions and attitudes. Sometimes that requires a bit of labor, both in terms of the research plan and the training behind it.

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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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