As Halloween Approaches (Even in September)

Halloween is more than two months away, but already I’ve seen products and displays going up in a few places. For better or worse, the holidays creep further and further out from their actual date as retailers see opportunities to sell their goods. And to add to the impending spookiness that awaits us, I spent part of my Friday night watching a scary movie with my children, fully aware that it would necessitate cramming four people into a single bed, somewhere around midnight – I was, of course, proven right.  All of this has me reflecting on the socio-cultural significances of Halloween as a reflection of cultural transformation, even if it is a single night. Yes, even the simplest things start the mind wandering.

A few years back, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State’s Delaware County Campus, noted that parents need to realize that scaring our kids isn’t necessarily a way to mitigate kids’ fears of death and other things frightening.  Rightfully, she contended that Halloween is a time when we expose kids to behavior that is not the norm and that children connect the holiday with death.  The argument goes that we, regardless of who “We” are, typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones. This can be scarring. This, of course, is bad.  Or is it?  Is it even accurate?

First, we expose our children to death regularly.  What we shield our kids from is pollution associated with decay.  In the case of Halloween, we are presenting our children with a sanitized, safe form of death that has none of the associations with contamination.  Second, children are exposed to death when they play video games, tune in to the TV or deal with the loss of a grandparent.  We may try to lessen the pain or deflect the underlying causality, but death itself is indeed part of a child’s upbringing, though it may not be as overt as it is at Halloween.  I will concede that we expose our children to death less than we perhaps did in the past, when people worked the farm together and were accustomed to things like slaughter, but to assume children are shielded from death is fantasy. We’ve simply changed the medium.

And should we even be shielding kids in the first place?  We often work under the assumption that it is somehow our duty as parents to protect children from any and all discomfort, but there is nothing out there to prove that doing so benefits the child. Fear teaches, particularly when it is safe.  Discomfort teaches, particularly when it isn’t overwhelming.  Children are, I would contend, smarter than we often think.  To assume they can’t make the leap between the literal and the symbolic is a bit obtuse.  While Halloween teaches children about death, it also teaches them about the nature of symbolism, rules of reciprocity, a sense of self-reliance, creativity and a host of other positive elements of personhood.

As my oldest daughter walked from house to house last Halloween with her friend from Egypt, getting treats from homes comprised of people from a wide range of nations (our neighborhood happens to have large south Asian and Middle Eastern populations) it struck me how important this holiday is, because it is so public and because it is wrapped up in a universal need to deflect the fear of death.  It is a holiday that encourages parents and kids of other cultures to join in the fun and feel like they are welcome and integral parts of the adopted culture.  It exposes the children and parents of the adoptive culture to people and worldviews they may not have otherwise interacted with.  The experience can be thought of as enculturation, the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquiring values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture.  This has often been conceived to be a unidimensional, zero-sum cultural conflict in which the minority’s culture is diminished by the dominant group’s culture, but it’s not that simple.  There is an exchange of sorts going on. There are a couple of ways a person learns a culture. Direct teaching of a culture is what happens when you don’t pay attention, mostly by the parents, when a person is told to do something because it is right and to not do something because it is bad. For example, when children ask for something, they are constantly asked “What do you say?” and the child is expected to remember to say “please.” A second conscious way a person learns a culture is to watch others around them and to emulate their behavior. But in doing so, they often alter elements of it and reshape the culture – culture isn’t fixed, after all, it is a matter of practice, negation and shared invention.

What this means is that Halloween becomes a way of learning and exchanging.  Day of the Dead decorations find new uses, costumes come to reflect the sensibilities of the minority population and new ways of defining and interacting with the world emerge.  And there are very real, very meaningful results.  Businesses alter their merchandise, retailers decorate differently and new modes of shopping arise.  People develop new interests and curiosity about their world.  So, yes, Halloween may indeed scare the children, but the benefits of being scared outweigh a night of belly aches and spooky dreams.

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Anecdotes vs. Insights: Analysis Matters

Why does a world-class chef eat Spam? Why does a man in his late twenties, making over half a million dollars a year, choose to be “poor” on the weekends? And most important, why does it matter to a business? It is important, quite simply, because understanding the deep, resounding issues, practices, and beliefs of people provides an advantage in an increasingly complex and competitive markets.  Gone are the days of shouting a product’s benefits.  Gone are the days when is was good enough to be clever in an advertising strategy.  Understanding the complexities of behavior and meaning change the way a company talks to its customers. It isn’t enough to know what people do (or say they do), you need to know why.

Ethnography is the buzz in market research these days, but fieldwork isn’t as simple as it might seem. Although ethnographic research is a remarkably powerful tool for marketing if conducted properly, the challenge is in how to uncovering deep, often latent mode practice and meaning, then convert findings that go well beyond surface-level observations or sensational statements into something that can be used to innovate and sell products and services. In other words, it isn’t enough to go out and conduct a good interview. An ethnographer worth his or her weight in salt is one who learns to see beyond the surface and find information and patterns that the untrained eye might overlook.  This isn’t to say that legitimate ethnographers hold the key to some special knowledge or map of the human psyche.  It is to say that legitimate ethnographers have learned through training and experience to see everything as data.  And legitimate business ethnographers have learned to translate that information into something more than interesting information; they’ve learned to translate that information into something useful and applicable to their clients.

In the last few years, ethnography has shifted from a novel and often misunderstood methodology to a do-it-or-die necessity in many marketers’ and product designers’ tool kits. Ethnography has a logical appeal for business clients; market intelligence born from the homes and hearts of customers. It’s an ethnographer’s job to talk to and observe people, as they go about their daily routines, using sociology and anthropology methods for data collection and analysis – giving clients true-to-life, informed insights and a firsthand understanding of their customers. But insights come from more than simply recounting what was seen and heard, they come from having the analytical tools to make sense of the seen/heard and unseen/unheard. In other words, anyone can conduct an interview or note where people store excess toilet paper in their homes, but not everyone can dissect the encounter and identify symbolic, functional and culturally mitigated actions. And this leads back to the first point.

Relying on surface-level impressions leads to short-sighted solutions to marketing problems. If “hipsters” are drinking PBR, it isn’t enough to say the beer is a brand badge – that’s stating the obvious. No, what matters is uncovering the contexts that define “cool,” how the beer fits into general drinking rituals, what it means to be part of a special group, how objects become visual markers for subcultures, and similar deeper issues. If you understand those sorts of things, which emerge from having a solid grounding in the theoretical models of trained social scientists, you have insights that your competitors do not. If you don’t understand those sorts of things, all you have is a collection of anecdotes.

It’s Just a Theory…

Not long ago I had someone inject into a conversation that the work we had done was “just a theory.”  I decided to ask just what the word “theory” meant to him and the response was hardly a surprise – a theory is an idea that is lacks any real backing.  It is a subjective, novel thought based on personal opinion.  I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining what a theory was and how different theories are used to make sense of observations, lay the groundwork for building a model of behavior and derived from a compounded set of observations through time.  Whether or not I actually imparted any meaningful information is questionable, but I did succeed in getting him to understand that our findings were more than anecdotal moments and good guesses about the topic at hand. So there was a degree of success.  But it left me thinking that every now and again we need to step back, reexamine what we mean when we say “theory” and think about how to convey it in a setting where the word is at odds with the worldview of the client (internal or external).

In Greek, from which the modern English word “theory” is derived, the word theoria, θεωρία, meant “a looking at, viewing, beholding”, and referring to contemplation and speculation as opposed to action. Theory is especially often contrasted to “practice” (from Greek praxis, πρᾶξις) a concept which is used in a broad way to refer to any activity done for the sake of action, in contrast with theory, which does not need an aim which is an action.  This isn’t to say that theory and practice can’t go hand in hand.  It is to say that a theory is more than an nifty idea – it is grounded in observable facts that form patterns we can witness and understand, be it how aerodynamics work or in how people shop for butter.  Ethnographic work, whether in an academic setting or in private enterprise, guides the work we do and has relevance to the outcomes of that work.

A classical example of the distinction between theoretical and practical uses the discipline of medicine: Medical theory and theorizing involves trying to understand the causes and nature of health and sickness, while the practical side of medicine is trying to make people healthy. These two things are related but can be independent, because it is possible to research health and sickness without curing specific patients, and it is possible to cure a patient without knowing how the cure worked.

In modern science the term “theory” is generally understood to refer to a proposed explanations of phenomena, made in a way consistent with scientific method. Such theories are preferably described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support or empirically contradict it. A common distinction sometimes made in science is between theories and hypotheses, with the former being considered as satisfactorily tested or proven and the latter used to denote conjectures or proposed descriptions or models which have not yet been tested or proven to the same standard.

Theories are analytical tools for understanding and explaining a given subject. Theorems, on the other hand, are derived deductively from assumptions according to a formal system of rules, sometimes as an end in itself and sometimes as a first step in testing or applying a theory in a concrete situation; theorems are said to be true in the sense that the conclusions of a theorem are logical consequences of the assumptions. Theories are abstract and conceptual, and to this end they are never considered true. Instead, they are supported or challenged by observations in the world. They are “rigorously tentative”, meaning that they are proposed as true but expected to satisfy careful examination to account for the possibility of faulty inference or incorrect observation. Sometimes theories are falsified, meaning that an explicit set of observations contradicts some fundamental assumption or prediction of the theory, but more often theories are revised to conform to new observations, by restricting the class of phenomena the theory applies to or changing the assertions made.

Why does this matter?  It matters because the term “theory” is often dismissed by people as simply an idea that is plucked from thin air, with nothing to back it up but a few subjective guesses.  We can dismiss a theory if it doesn’t correspond to our view of how the world works. The catch is theory is perfectly acceptable (and perhaps perfectly accepted) when it fits deeper cultural “truths” we want to believe in.  Most business people accept gravitational theory without any knowledge of the mathematics behind it, but readily reject social and cultural theories because we, as a culture, reify science and mathematics.  It has little or nothing to do with the rigor and/or validity of the observations.  Rather it stems from what we choose to believe, independent of the science behind it or any knowledge of how either the deductive or inductive methods of knowledge acquisition work.  This means that when we discuss our findings with a development team, a marketing executive, a designer, etc., we need to be able to define the theoretical models we use to encode and decode observations, and we need to clearly distinguish between a theory and an idea.  Too often ethnographic work is dismissed as something speculative and subjective.  If we want to make a difference, it falls to us to define how we know what we know with conviction.

Play, Learn, Teach

Useful ethnography is more than observing or conducting a good interview. It is more than asking questions about the obvious.  It is much more than that, and it has to be  grounded in some knowledge of what to look at, what to observe, and what to record.  Just coming home with a stack of videotape is not ethnography.

Good ethnography lies in the analysis and the ability to work collaboratively with other researchers (qualitative and quantitative), marketers and business development teams to create new ways of solving problems and understanding your business. That means being willing to explore and take risks.  We often assume when “hanging out” with people that we can’t challenge what they say or do. We often assume we shouldn’t conduct experiments to try and understand things like the symbolic relationships between color, shape, taste, etc.

Next time you’re in the field, ask people to make dinner, ask them to wash the car, ask them to go for a drive. If it feels strange, all the better – it gives people license to play, learn and teach.  And that is ultimately the goal of goal ethnography.