Let me state that I am not a moderator. At least, not a traditional one. I am an ethnographer, an anthropologist, and a strategist. And while both moderators and ethnographers speak to people, they are not the same thing. This isn’t just a matter of semantic difference, it is at the heart of how practitioners execute their work and how they practice their craft.
A moderator is defined as a presenter, a host. A moderator is a person or organization responsible for running an event. A moderator is a person given special powers to enforce the rules of a collective event, be it a focus group, a forum, a blog, etc. Moderation is the process of eliminating or lessening extremes. It is used to ensure consensus and limit deviation. In other words, moderators assume control and direct. They maintain power and tease out information that is essentially qualitative hypothesis testing. Understand, I have no problem with moderation and moderators – the approach is useful and has its place in the inquiry toolkit. But the practice of moderation is limited not just by its structure but its theoretical underpinnings.
An anthropological approach (ethnography in particular) is aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and guiding the life of a cultural group. Data collection methods are meant to capture the social meanings and ordinary activities of people in naturally occurring settings. Multiple methods of data collection may be employed to facilitate a relationship that allows for a more personal and in-depth portrait of the informants and their community. These can include participant observation, mind mapping, interviews, etc. In order to accomplish a neutral observation a great deal of reflexivity on the part of the researcher is required.
Reflexivity asks us to explore the ways in which a researcher’s involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research. The goal is to minimize the power structure and allow people, our participants, to inform and guide the researcher according to what matters most to them, be it spoken or unspoken. In other words, we are not moderating, we are learning and exploring.
Ethnography’s strength comes from the ability to work fluidly with participants as opposed to moderating a setting or social interaction. The researcher who refers to him or herself as a moderator of ethnography, through his or her choice of words, is indicating how they will do fieldwork, how they will interpret findings and how they subconsciously see their role in the field. Again, moderation is a terrific tool but it is not ethnographic. Nor is ethnography the same as moderation — they both have things to contribute, but they are not methodological equivalents. If you’re going to hire an ethnographer it isn’t enough to ask what markets they will work in or how big the sample population will be. If you’re intending to conduct it yourself, it isn’t enough to have people who are comfortable with conducting interviews. Ask the questions: “What do you call yourself and what’s your job when interacting with people.” Then get them to articulate not only their methods, but the rationale behind them. Be specific. It’s your money. Be sure you are paying for what you have commissioned.