ethnography



When it comes to blog posting, sometimes I feel like Bill in Big Love: Margene’s bed or Barb’s bed? Tonight, it’s Barb’s bed at Idea Couture’s Noodleplay blog. Check out my latest piece on Pie & Provocation.

In a business culture of innovation, there are some things you should never hear:

Seeing is believing. Who feels it knows it. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Humans love idioms, those catchy little phrases that make the world seem so much more simple than it really is. Like GPS systems programmed through tradition and by consensus rather than through position calculation and by engineers, they cling to sophistries that allow them to navigate their own social and cultural complexities with the confidence that, as long as they agree on having correctly arrived at a destination, the route taken was the correct one.

It wasn’t. Like husbands who refuse to accept the fact that they can’t follow maps while driving, idioms can lead us astray.

Because idioms are collocated words that, over time and like bits of garbage in a dump, stick together until they are fused into one sticky mess, we forget just how originally mismatched they might be. How can seeing be believing? Or feeling be knowing? Or the communicative value of words be subject to a higher currency exchange when trading up for a single picture? They aren’t and they can’t, except for the fact that the sheer span of time over which they have been used and the consensus that language groups amass over that time have made them so.

Idioms, like assumptions, can make an ass out of you and me, especially when they are of the type that require a sharing of an epistemological framework rather than an, arguably, more simple linguistic one. In using them, we run the risk of abdicating our critical faculties to become sociological simpletons.

Here, I’m not ignoring language as the progenitor of epistemology. It is; how we talk about the world helps us make and perceive the world we live in. Instead, I want to raise a contrast with the oldest idiom in the English language: kick the bucket. We all know what it means – die – because we are part of the language group that assembled the word ‘kick’ and ‘bucket’ together to express the end of life. Simple or harmless enough, right?

In combining ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’, however, we give birth to a phraseolexeme of more epic proportions, one that requires us to leap from a combination of things that have been put together to give us a quicker, easier and often more amusing or light-hearted way to capture an idea to a combination of actions, emotions and sensory inputs that, when combined, support certain mythologies of the world that help us ignore or, to conjure Roland Bathes, ex-nominate the complexities of the world around us.

Idioms are an anathema to innovation. They fuse organizations to assumptions, cultural mythologies and fossilized ways of seeing and talking about themselves, their business and, more importantly, their consumers.

Case in point: the consumer research game. Virtually every market research department in every major organization is founded on an idiomatic understanding of consumers. Psychographic caricatures of actual humans, like the Active Mom, have become business idioms used to simplify and, more importantly, agree on the polysemy of what are lived preferences, behaviors, opinions, attitudes and needs rather than PowerPoint descriptions such as, “Mary is a successful real estate agent who struggles to balance taking care of her three kids with her love of pilates and desire to eat healthier breakfast bars.”

Big organizations thrive on small ways of seeing and talking to themselves about the world of consumers. It seems necessary, considering the amount of work to be done, the short windows for socializing ideas internally and the efficiency that is required to transform ideas into products or services via multiple stakeholders, partners, agencies and channels. But it can lead to missed opportunities.

Don’t blame the market research department. They’re just following orders. But the oversimplification does seem to begin there. Whether it’s the result of a lack of fascination with human complexity, a lack of training or experience in decoding that complexity, or simply following age-old work processes, traditional research models, methods and modes of communicating findings from them are one of the reasons why internal innovation initiatives fall flat on their face.

So how can market research departments create better innovation opportunities?

RELY ON MORE THAN JUST SEEING TO BELIEVE

Observations are not insights. There is tactical value to observed behaviors, like watching a consumer have difficulty opening your package, but these can only be applied to refinements or extensions of your product or service. Insights are the result of observation, maybe conversation and an ability to frame data both in the context of the consumer’s experience as well as a theory or theme that helps to explain (and act upon) that experience. Given that believing typically needs to the claim of knowing, it is critical that researchers do more than observe to create their insights and find more creative ways to communicate those insights than show stakeholders what they have observed.

STOP JUSTYIFYING KNOWLEDGE BASED ON FEELINGS

Research personnel love to point out that they know they are not the consumer. They are consumers and they do feel it, but that still doesn’t mean that they know it. Good researchers understand that great research is the result of a calculated balance of subjectivity and objectivity. There is no formula to casting off your assumptions in and beyond the field. Instead, understanding and communicating consumer lives requires a phenomenological approach, some clinical analysis and team of sounding-board collaborators – all of which help you get to know and get you beyond what you think you know.

FIND BETTER WAYS TO SHARE YOUR FINDINGS

In this business, we love PowerPoint. But our love of it limits (for those whose presentations suck) and structures (for those who understand how to tell stories in it) our capabilities to communicate our findings and insights. Photos from the field are more subject to this rule than text or charts. A picture might be worth a thousand words to someone who took it and knows the context in which it was taken, but the amount of interpretation that can be read into that picture once it moves beyond the author leaves room for misinterpretation. Photos, like music, are not a universal language. Annotating them with the interpretations, insights, explanations and contexts that give meaning will safeguard them down the line. Incorporating them into scenarios or experience maps will help lock that meaning down even further and provide a more valuable tool for executives, brand managers, designers and other downstream audiences.

AIM BEYOND YOUR TARGET

Organizations that subscribe to developing products or services only for target consumers run the risk of missing social, behavioral or usage adjacencies that might exist elsewhere. Sure, your focus groups tell you (probably because that’s how you recruited participants in the first place) that so-called Active Moms are a fantastic target for breakfast bars. But if you haven’t had a real breakthrough in the breakfast bar category in years or, for that matter, ever, maybe it’s time to start learning elsewhere. Instead of Mary, consider Mike. “Mike likes to watch late-night UFC fights at home in his Tapout t-shirt and underpants while eating Oreos. He thinks breakfast bars are for sissies.” Trust me, you’ll learn something from Mike that you can use to understand him and maybe even apply to Mary.

The world of anthropology lost a true giant this week in Dell Hymes. I paid my respects to him silently this week as I considered the value of what was simply said – and not witnessed as ‘authentic’ ethnography, according to a client – during a lone research interview that blossomed into an insanely successful metrics bonanza. Hymes’ approach to understanding communication was certainly more complex than words alone, but I did point out in April that, were he dead, he’d be rolling in his grave at those touting authentic ethnography as witnessed, not worded. Word to Dell Hymes. Read his obit in The Washington Post.

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That the academic world can be slow when it comes to catching on to new ideas and innovations in the underground is old news. That the underground can be slow when it comes to catching on to new ideas and innovations in the academic world is probably newer news. Some recent news hints at the space between these two worlds, Check this blog posting on an article that I co-authored with linguistic anthropologist Jack Sidnell a few years ago.

Picture 1No, it’s not a wicked new software to partner up with your Livescribe pen. It’s a question: Do you know some of me? If not, that probably explains why you’re still referring to that awesome work you did in California as “ethnography research.” Duh.

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If he were dead, Dell Hymes would roll over in his grave every time a so-called ‘authentic’ ethnographer or a client suggested that conversations were a shoddy way to conduct research.

Observing people doing things is a great – and sometimes ideal – way to probe for insights, but to suggest that asking consumers about their behavior, patterns, beliefs, relationships, attitudes, ideologies and cultures or even to engage them to collaborate on where insights on those areas might lie has no value is ludicrous.

There’s more than a few reasons why 100 years of anthropologist in the field figured it might be a good reason to learn the local language – conversation, comeraderie, categories of experience, expert status, and the list goes on. Without these ethnographic foundations we’d have but a paltry few pages on kinship, barely a door ajar to the phenomenological, next to no narrative and auto-ethnography, perhaps zero activist anthropology and a data chasm in the ethnography of communication.

Then there’s social media ethnography or, as some colleagues have tagged it, netnography. Lots of methodologies there and, for those of us who conduct research in the spaces and places between the internet and mobile know, talk ain’t cheap. It might not be the only currency, but it’s value is undeniable.

So the next time you decide to pitch a client or you’re on the receiving end of a contractor’s pitch and ethnography – couched as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ – is invoked alongside some methodological mumbo jumbo that ex-communicates conversation, try to remember Dave Chappelle’s rant on Keepin’ It Real. Between his take on how that phrase had imploded on hip hop culture and  the late-80’s-and-onwards post-modernist implosion of, arguably, the most of-epic proportions myth of our time, I am un-chuckling over how ‘authenticity’ can be used to refer to anything other than signatures on traveler’s cheques.

P.S. Pulling chimps from their natural habitats and making them wear ties is fucked up. I’d bite and kill people if they did that to me, too.

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A quickie on Steve Portigal’s blog gets cred for posting me towards the new Firefox personas. Like him, I’m not the biggest fan of amalgamated humans transformed from lives and emotions to bullet points and recommendations, but I have eased up a bit in recent months (on the conditions that the thickest description possible and a direct line from researchers to authors to designers is followed). Still, gotta laugh at how the designers who these tools are meant for have so sucked them into their creative realm and spit them out that now we can dress up our Firefox in personalities. Just like so many of the personas folks are passing off as consumers, the Firefox skins are “lightweight, easy-to-install and easy-to-change.”

picture-1Interesting recent article in The Jamaica Observer where UWI folks are using peer ethnography as a way to not only gather the data and the stories for their work but to draw those data and stories into their study through the lens of other street kids. The article focuses on a young higgler youth in Kingston named Blacks. An excerpt:

“When mi turn 16, mi si some people who seh dem a mi family, but mi nuh really know,” he says somberly. “Mi nuh like all di one who seh she a mi mother. As a matter of fact, mi hate har because of all that happen.”

According to Blacks, had his mother done what she was supposed to do as a parent, he would not be living on the streets.

“She come in like she out of her mind. She nuh really understand,” he says, his tone angry. “More time mi just feel pissed off. Mi know seh if she waan duh certain things (differently), mi wouldn’t de yah suh.”

Blacks’ sentiments mirror those of other youths in the 2007 study entitled ‘Force Ripe’: How youth of three selected working-class communities assess their identity, support and authority systems, including their relationship with the police. Youth in that study felt that they were being used by various groups in society, namely parents, the church, and the police.

Funded by the World Bank and managed by the now-concluded Jamaica Social Policy Evaluation Project (JASPEV), the investigations were undertaken by Dr Herbert Gayle as the principal investigator and his colleague from the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Horace Levy.

“They feel isolated and that people are using them and while it may not be true, the fact is that they feel this way means that it is serious enough for the adults in the society to deal with,” said Criminologist Professor Bernard Headley, in commenting on the study at the time. “It is a matter of trust. It means that something is wrong between us, and them. There has to be mutual trust.”

The work looked at youths between 15 and 29 years old from two inner-city areas and one rural community, and employed the use of peer ethnography. The technique saw young people interviewing each other and then returning to researchers Gayle and Levy, who, in turn, interviewed them. 

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Grant McCracken recently threw up a post that should be heeded by everyone with “ethnography” on their Google alerts, the tip of their market research tongues or the front of their design minds. In it he writes, “There is a distressing habit these days to think due diligence has been satisfied if interviews are done in-home and in-store. In point of fact, an interview not in-home is not ethnographic. Unless certain methodological conditions are satisfied, it is merely an interview done in home.”

I’ve ranted along these lines before and will do so again here, but briefly. Doing “ethnography” is only part of the ethnographic process and, as Grant rightly points out, just because it happens somewhere other than a focus group room with a 2-way mirror and a bunch of branding execs standing behind it to make sure the facilitator is asking the mandated questions doesn’t make it ethnography or ethnographic.

As a process or methodology, ethnography is as much, if not more, about the thinking and writing that goes on than it is about the collection of observations, ideas and insights that such thinking and writing connects to. To “do” that thinking and writing, I believe, requires some training and reading. And that training and reading is in anthropology.

Apologies to my sociologist massive, but I think that anthropology’s unofficial ownership of the ethnographic process is well deserved, only if the notion of ownership is itself part of the problem or crisis that keeps anthropology so on its toes when it comes to researching and writing about human subjects. Long story short: all that colonial-collaboration angst has bred a discipline that tends to be more sensitive, self-reflexive etc. Anthropologists continue to generate the most critical thinking when it comes to human socio-cultural research.

Maybe this means we need to call for a secret cabal meeting of anthropologists working in the business field to agree never again to promote/sell our services as ethnography. Sell anthropology or sell nothing, because at the rate ethnography is being kicked around like a step-child we’ll all be conducting interviews with 2-way mirrors behind us someday soon.

I’m once again in that stage of a project where the client is working through the process of ‘getting it’. Explaining ethnography isn’t easy, especially when, in the first few meetings, you’re introduced as the archaeologist. That’s cool, because I started my anthro career with every intention of becoming an archaeologist. After falling asleep on my first dig in the dirt of a 15th Century Iroquoian village  and then realizing my future might be more about cataloging fragments of wood than Aztec gold, I changed routes. It’s also cool because, after a week of being referred to as Idea Couture’s archaeologist, I came to the realization that my next hire for a secondary fieldwork specialist would indeed be one. More on that when it happens. But back to explaining ethnography.

I usually start by telling clients that ethnography is the art and science of telling stories about other people’s stories. How people tell their stories, what they tell about, how I choose what parts of that telling to narrate and so on all fit into the final story that, hopefully, is insightful enough and compelling enough to spark some ideas. Good stories should do that, something I learned by osmosis as my dad clattered away on his Underwood in the dining room during the years he was a freelance writer from home and I was a kid recovering at home from the flu or some other school-less malady.

As an undergrad and grad student, the specter of journalism always haunted my anthropology papers. On more than one occasion, comments in red from a professor admonished me for being journalistic. Part of that tendency, I think, was the rush to tell the story, to cut through the lit review, the theory and the politics of academic writing in order to get to the (and my) ideas. So it’s sort of ironic that when clients and co-workers ask about ethnography, I’ve taken to turning them on to Generation Kill.

The HBO show based on the book by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright and adapted for TV by David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire fame follows the Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as they invade Iraq in 2003. What makes Generation Kill such a compelling and effective story is how it captures the boundaries between journalism and ethnography. Unlike The Wire, where the viewer rolls into B’More through the eyes of so many squad cars, police stations, schools and re-ups, Generation Kill unfolds primarily through the participant-observational lens of Wright. Like an anthropologist, he tasks himself with listening more than talking, understanding rather than judging. As a result, the audience ‘gets’ the social hierarchies, kinships, language, rituals, processes, tasks, duties, fears, funs and more of what is was/is to be a soldier in that time and place. That the story is ultimately so co-constructed between Simon, Burns, Wright and the soldiers he rolled with, makes it that much more ethnographic.

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