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When Ethnography Becomes a Joke

Posted By Nicki Brunner, Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2019
When Ethnography Becomes a Joke

Joke Ethnography

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
Vertical hanging on the door – an organized way to keep items that were ready to be taken out of the home.
vertical hanging
Vertical files keep papers ready as a resource and what must be done next is kept in front.
vertical hanging
A briefcase kept up off the floor seen as neater and more organized than if on the floor. Also kept in vertical orientation.

laying flat

laying flat
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, PhDPatricia 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.


Tags:  Ethnography  QRCA Digest  Qualitative Research  Research Methodologies 

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Theater Games in Research and Ideation

Posted By Laurie Tema-Lyn, Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Annual Conference Reporter on the Scene: Step Back to Move Forward: Developing Customer Journey Maps

 Laurie tema Lyn

Bring the POWER of Theater Games to Your Next Session!

Let me start off by saying I am not an actor, although I’ve had some theater training. I earn my living as a researcher, consultant and innovation catalyst, and I’ve been doing that for decades.
I like to bring PLAY into my work as I see the results are well worth it in terms of ramping up the energy of a flagging team, developing empathy, encouraging candid, uncensored conversations and triggering or evaluating new ideas.

Using theater games builds on fundamentals that all face-to-face researchers/facilitators should have in their arsenal. They include:

  • The ability to build rapport and have fun;
  • Creating a “safe place” so people feel comfortable expressing themselves;
  • Being able to read your group through attentive listening and observation;
  • Being willing to take a risk, knowing that there are no failures — risks lead to opportunities.

Here are tips and techniques to add to your repertoire:

  • Start with an easy game; I call this one Word Salad. It’s a new twist on the tried-and-true technique of Mind Mapping by adding a pulse — a finger snap — as you capture each participant’s words on a flip chart pad. Breathe and repeat each word or phrase that you are given as you chart. It can be a bit hypnotic. Participants stop self-censoring and by pausing a moment as you repeat the words they listen, reflect and connect. A variation is to use a Nerf ball and throw it to participants to respond. Less time for “thinking,” just gut level responses.
  • Experiment with Improvs to illuminate brand perceptions, product or service use, or to inform creative strategy or positioning. It’s good to do a bit of pre-planning to identify some people, places, things or situations that you might want to see “acted out” in your work session. Position the exercise as an experiment.Ask for volunteers and give basic improv guidelines including the use of “Yes, And…” to accept or build on their partner’s offers. Remind participants that you are not looking to them to be funny or clever, just authentic to the character or situations. After you conduct a couple of improvs, it’s important to review what all have learned.
  • Theater of Exaggeration. Try this out to spice up a concept review. You might begin in your typical fashion and then encourage participants to push the boundaries. What are the Most Outrageous Plusses or Benefits to this concept? Conversely, what are the Most Outrageous Negatives to this idea? You just might end up with some new ideas or identify problems that participants had been too polite to suggest earlier.
  • Mouthfeel: Try this out to help evaluate a name and positioning. This is an improv where participants stand up and have a conversation using a new name or positioning. I recently ran a naming session with a colleague for a social services agency. We had six names in the top tier and were trying to evaluate which were the best. One of the name candidates looked great on paper, but when I asked for two volunteers to improv it (one in the role of a crisis hotline operator, the other a client calling for help) we realized it was a bear… too cumbersome to speak when used in context. We nixed that one from the list.
  • Spontaneity based on solid preparation. These games work when you mentally prepare yourselfas facilitator, prepare your respondent team by providing clear guidelines of what you are asking them to do, and prepare your client team in advance so that they won’t be shocked or worried if you include a theater game to your discussion guide or agenda.

These are just a small sampling of theater games and activities you might bring to your next gig. I encourage you to try them out and make up your own, and feel free to get in contact with me.

Links to more articles on this topic:

 

Laurie Tema LynLaurie Tema-Lyn
Practical Imagination Enterprises
laurie@practical-imagination.com

Tags:  QRCA Digest  Qualitative  Research Methodologies  Theater Games 

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