When Ethnography Becomes a Joke
It may or may not be news for readers of this blog — but for at least some clients, ethnography has turned into a joke.
For a number of years, we have witnessed a diminishing appetite for ethnographic work among commercial clients. Competition and challenges from new methodologies are understandable and to be expected. Yet an undercurrent of “we do not want to do ethnography because we tried it and we did not get anything out of it” has been unsettling. More troubling, a few months ago a client put it more bluntly: “No. Ethnography no way. It’s a joke around here when you mention it.”
Ugh. How could the methodology that I learned as an anthropologist and built my career around in the world of qualitative research have become a joke? And even more importantly, what must we do to retrieve ethnography from that dustbin of bad jokes?
Rejuvenate the Basics
Without simply sounding a conservative cry, one thing we must do is go back and ensure that we always deliver on the basics of solid ethnographic work. Ethnographic work seems to have been undergoing a process of lightening in which observation alone, a person alone, or even the word alone will suffice.
Observation and Conversation
Ethnographic fieldwork– as imagined and pioneered by founders such as Bronislaw Malinowski – was never simply about observation. The observational component was coupled with participation, as in participant observation, as well as linked with conversation, interviews, and quite simply put, talk. Observation without any window into what is going on in a person’s mind and heart while they are doing whatever they are doing is anemic at best. Frequently it is also off-base. A key to comprehension in ethnography, as in much qualitative work, is understanding a person’s point of view.
In January 2019, Rachael Lawes provided an outstanding webinar, “Honing Your Ethnographic Eye”. Drawing from discourse analysis, one of the key points of her presentation was the importance of attending to defensively designed statements in speech, for instance, when a person frames what they are saying as “simply stating a fact.” A pre-emptive defense such as this may indicate that the person may feel insecure about the point they are making and/or they may feel that others are likely to argue with what they are saying. Obviously, it is important that we listen – carefully – and not only observe.
Persons and Contexts
Also, while it is an ethnographic basic to understand a person’s point of view, the assumption is not that a person stands alone. When we do our ethnographic work, one of the strengths we can bring to the qualitative research table is to situate a person’s viewpoints and behaviors within a macro-societal as well as meso-social context. This can mean that rather than just studying the person, our unit of ethnographic analysis can and should be the household, the friendship group, the workplace, the family, and/or any social grouping that makes sense for the question and issue at hand.
Injecting Serious Analytic Soul
Beyond being sure to include both conversation and context as part of our ethnographic research, injecting serious analytic soul into the work is also definitely on order. One factor that seems to have fueled the jokes about ethnographic work is the handoff of ethnographic work to junior and client DIY teams. Unfortunately, what can and often does go missing in this handoff is the analytic component.
In much current commercial ethnography, it is almost as if the importance of the analysis has been forgotten. There is a tendency to take ethnographic work as if it is a case of “what you see is what you get.” But, of course, what one sees is filtered by the mind. And while ethnographers must strive for an open mind in order to grasp the point of view of others, they also bring every bit of experience, theory, and knowledge to their encounters and their own mental processing of the data.
For instance, a number of years ago, colleague Rita Denny and I worked on a new product study centered around home organization. The company’s goal was to develop new home storage products. As I observed and talked with people about how they organized items in their homes, it became obvious that spatial orientation (e.g., up versus down; vertical vs. horizontal) was providing critical cues. Items that were “up” were considered more organized than those that were “down.” Items that were vertical were considered ready to use; horizontal or flat signaled “in use.” Items that got stacked were packed. The photos below help illustrate the point.
Vertical hanging on the door – an organized way to keep items that were ready to be taken out of the home.
Vertical files keep papers ready as a resource and what must be done next is kept in front.
A briefcase kept up off the floor seen as neater and more organized than if on the floor. Also kept in vertical orientation.
|Lying flat is a signal of “in use” as with a book lying flat on a surface next to the bed (vs. vertical on a shelf, which is “ready for use”). But flat also often leads to “stacked,” which then quickly leads to “packed.”
This spatial insight would not have been as possible without the benefit dof having once read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson examined the way linguistic metaphors organize the way we think about and experience the world. Good moods, for example, tend to be described as “up” and bad moods in terms of “down.” And for the purposes of this example, think about the phrases “picking up” and “cleaning up.”
We need to be ready to bring our analytic minds to the table as we perform ethnography. This is the real value of doing ethnography in business. When we make analysis central to the task, we are able to deliver serious and often breakthrough results. Inductive analytic insight provides ethnography its serious point of differentiation versus other methodologies. Analysis with attention to language and the larger social world (not only observation and the individual) has the power to move ethnography far beyond the realm of jokes.
Patricia Sunderland, PhD
Patricia Sunderland, PhD, is founder of Cultural Research and Analysis, Inc.. A specialist in the ethnographic, cultural and semiotic analysis of consumer worlds, Patti is also co-author and co-editor of two award-winning books in anthropology and commerce: Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research and the Handbook of Anthropology in Business. She splits her time between New York City and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.