Why REAL Ethnography Still Matters

Fieldwork takes us to strange places. It allows us to come face to face with unexpected moments of both clarity and confusion, which can, in fact, spark innovation. I once spent a day with a 29 year old man who made about $600K a year running all things web-related for a major clothing designer. He lived on the Upper West Side and ate out nearly every night. He kept a 20 year old bottle of Oban on the bar for his end-of-day cocktail. But on the weekends, he headed to Brooklyn to drink the cheapest malt liquor he could find and build mutant bikes with his friends.  Turns out he did it to keep “true to his punk-rock roots.”

Many independent truckers buy hard candy to bump up their metabolisms when the nights get too cold in the cab because it helps save on the costs for heating the cab. Fishermen love Pringles and because the packaging can be easily converted to a mini-trash can when on the water. Parents of young children choose McDonald’s fries because they dry out quickly, making them easy to pick up when they clean out the car. On the surface these seem like silly insights. But these are the little gems that provoke thought and get us considering products, services, and brands in a new light. They provide both the hook for a campaign and the foundation for a long-term strategy. And they don’t typically come from traditional research methods, hence the power of an ethnographic process.

When was the last time most brand builders spent time in the homes of the people who buy your products? Real time, not watching a recorded one-hour interview, not via Skype, not just sitting at the kitchen table, but really digging in and having dinner, helping with the laundry, going to a movie, planning a vacation. Engaging in this way has two major implications (there are actually many implications, but these two a central to my mind). 

The first is that sampling includes contexts as well as people – the place, the time, etc. all have meaning. The amount of time spent with an individual or group is dependent on the nature of the problem. An ethnographic field session, for example, may only last a couple of hours, or it may span multiple days, weeks or months. The bottom line is that ethnographers try to plan their fieldwork to include observation of all relevant behaviors and events. Because of this, they get deeper, more meaningful results. You may hit on the “ah ha” moment in a thirty-minute interview, but it’s not likely. And typically, that moment you’re privy to in a short session isn’t sustainable – it lacks depth. So, it may feel like you’re saving money and getting meaningful insights from working rapidly, but it’s an illusion.

The second is internalization. When we participate, when we engage deeply, we more from being simple observers to actors in the event. We build deeper rapport with the subjects and find ourselves included in a wider range of significant actions because we build trust. We become, if only for a short time, part of a participant’s inner circle. That does more than expose us to a wider range of significant contexts. It imprints those contexts, actions, and beliefs on our minds, resulting in more creative thinking. We don’t just watching events unfold in a detached way, we start to empathize and develop questions that we might normally fail to ask. In other word, we change, we learn, and we become more creative.

Getting to this level of depth provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. What this means is that this kind of deep understanding leads to your audience more holistically and provides a wider range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial.  This level of depth leads to redefine your business.

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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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