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.

Getting Past the Hawthorn Effect

In 1924, the National Research Council sent two engineers to supervise a series of industrial experiments at a large telephone-parts factory called the Hawthorne Plant near Chicago. The idea was that they would learn how shop-floor lighting affected workers’ productivity. Instead, the studies ended up giving their name to the “Hawthorne effect”, the notion that that the act of being observed or experimented upon changes a subject’s behavior.

The theory arose because of the unexpected behavior of the women who assembled relays and wound coils of wire in the plant. The data collected during the study demonstrated that their hourly output rose when lighting was increased, but also when it was dimmed. Simply, as long as something was changed, productivity rose. Out of this arose the notion that as long as the women knew they were being observed, there would be a behavioral change.

But Steven Levitt and John List, two economists at the University of Chicago, decided to analyze the data, which was still available, and see what they found. Contrary to the descriptions in the literature, they found no systematic evidence that levels of productivity in the factory rose whenever changes in lighting were implemented. Now that was unexpected.

It turns out that idiosyncrasies in the way the experiments were conducted may have led to misleading interpretations of what happened. For example, lighting was always changed on a Sunday, when the plant was closed. When it reopened on Monday, output duly rose compared with Saturday, the last working day before the change, and continued to rise for the next couple of days. But a comparison with data for weeks when there was no experimentation showed that output always went up on Mondays. Another of the original observations was that output fell when the trials ceased, suggesting that the act of experimentation caused increased productivity. But the experiment stopped in the summer, and when examining records after the experiment stopped it turns out that output tended to fall in the summer anyway.

It’s all very interesting, yes, but why does it matter?  It matters particularly to ethnographers because one of the central criticisms of the methodology is that our presence negates any of the findings on the basis that we alter the behavior of our participants.  As it turns out, the problem may not be as notable as the critics claim.

I will be the first to admit that our presence does shape the interactions and behavior of the participants, but only in a limited way, and those ethnographers worth their weight in salt are able to establish rapport in such a way that changes are minimal. Time is, of course, the driving factor in this. Participant observation, the foundation of ethnography, refers to a methodology in which the researcher takes on a role in the social situation under observation. The social researcher immerses herself in the social setting under study, getting to know key actors in that location in a role which is either covert or overt, although in practice, the researcher will often move between these two roles. The aim is to experience events in the manner in which the subjects under study also experience these events. Success is defined, in many respects, by the nature of the relationship that develops. As such, a good ethnographer becomes another actor rather than simply an observer, thus largely negating or minimizing the changes subjects display.

What this means for the researcher is that conducting ethnographic work means doing more than interviewing. It means learning to conduct research that involves a range of anthropologically-informed tools. For the buyer of researcher, it means questioning your vendor, thinking through what they propose and be willing to do research in a way that may make you initially uncomfortable – digging through the dirt with an HVAC installer or bar hopping with a twenty-something through NY may seem a little daunting at first, but these are the things that make for good research and, more importantly, good insights.


Ethnographers vs. Moderators: Know What You Are Buying

The other day I was speaking with someone about ethnography and was informed by the person in question that she too was a “moderator.” She, of course, practiced ethnography, such as it is, and informed me she had been “moderating ethnographies” for years.  Yes, it made my skin crawl. Not because someone was crossing disciplinary boundaries, but because the choice of words told that ethnography was indeed the last thing she practiced, but had no doubt sold her self-defined ethnographic prowess into many a company. And unfortunately, this is precisely what continues to water down and cheapen the methodology and its use in business settings.

Let me state that I am not a moderator, I am an ethnographer and an anthropologist. And while both moderators and ethnographers speak to people, they are hardly one and the same.  On the surface it no doubt seems like I’m splitting hairs, but this isn’t just a simple matter of differing opinions or semantic variation, it is at the heart of how practitioners execute their work and how they practice ethnography.

A moderator is defined as a presenter, or 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 normality throughout the medium on which it is being conducted. 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, but the practice of moderation is anything but ethnographic.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings 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 that are commonly referred to as “the field.” The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher does not impose any of their own bias on the data. 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, field notes, interviews, and surveys.  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.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because when a client chooses to do ethnographic research, they need to know that they are getting what they paid for – people who understand the theoretical models governing cultural behavior and the training to tease out information and opportunities that traditional methods do not yield.  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. And again, while there is nothing wrong with “moderating”, selling it as ethnography or assuming that the word “moderator” is synonymous with “ethnographer” is like saying that because I can do basic money management I can now call myself an accountant. Or because I own a copy of The Lotus Sutra I am an expert in Buddhism. Or because I can change my oil I am a mechanic.  You get the point.  Not only is it a disservice to the discipline, it is a disservice to the client.

Simply put, 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 going to spend the money, the time and the effort ask the obvious question: “What do you call yourself.” Then get them to articulate not only their methods, but the rationale behind them. It’s your money. Be sure you are paying for what you have commissioned.

Interviews vs Ethnography: A Case for Slowing Down

Ethnography is two things: (1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology, and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results. Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time.

In order to answer their research questions and gather research material, ethnographers often live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable amount of time with them. While there, ethnographers engage in “participant observation”, which means that they participate as much as possible in local daily life (everything from important ceremonies and rituals to ordinary things like meal preparation and consumption) while also carefully observing everything they can about it. Through this, ethnographers seek to gain what is called an “emic” perspective, or the “native’s point(s) of view” without imposing their own conceptual frameworks. The emic world view, which may be quite different from the “etic”, or outsider’s perspective on local life, is a unique and critical part of anthropology.

Unfortunately, it is the element of time that is increasingly overlooked in business-focused ethnographic work. The two-hour interview seems to tell us everything we need to know, rather than expansive learning.  While there are legitimate concerns over cost and time in most business structures, there is a point at which anything of real value is lost when we don’t push back with clients, internal and external, and relay the true value of a good ethnographic project – depth.  Depth does not come from a shallow interaction, it comes from internalization, critical observation and reflection.

Think of it like the relationships you have in your own life.  The first date, indeed the first few months, are giddy and exciting, often filled with moments you will never forget.  But are they a reflection of the person with whom you are engaged or a brief moment defined by the context of dating.  What we know after being involved with someone for a few months or years is significantly richer than what we know after a few hours.  Why?  Because we learn to understand the other person’s worldview along with our own.  We learn to observe, ask better questions and think about things in we may not have noticed in the early days of courtship.

There is value in short interviews, whether you take an ethnographic approach or not.  But there is as much, if not more value in taking the time necessary to really think, experience and reflect.  It may not be good for the quarterly bottom line, but it is when looking at the long-term viability of a brand, product, or company.