Can I Go To H&R Location To Get Questions Answered Ethnography – Just Another Word in the Market Research Lexicon?

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Ethnography – Just Another Word in the Market Research Lexicon?

Ethnography: Just Another Word?

Research methods inevitably erode over time. Distinguishing qualified practitioners from people who simply say they practice an insight-gathering method can be difficult. And really, all that matters to most businesses, rightly so I might add, is the ability to create insights that have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ethnography is just a practice and while it is a relatively hot product it begs the question, has ethnography become a word with little or no meaning? Does it lose its sense of fundamentality because it takes on a variety of different meanings depending on who is talking about it and in what context? How is it best used? And by whom? And who makes that determination, the buyer or the practitioner?

The “What” of Ethnography

In general, academics and research practitioners in the private sector agree that ethnography in the world today is about different types of observation. With few exceptions, they agree that participant observation, interviewing, and inductive logic are part of the ethnographic toolkit. Ethnography is a way of understanding the world as it is a specific set of methodological tools, placing culture and context at the heart of any investigation.

The “what” is well established. Unfortunately, the “how” is not very clear and as a result ethnography becomes a muddy set of opinions rather than something that people can build a clear language around.

The “How” of Ethnography

Ethnography can mean simply “being with people,” to conducting in-depth interviews in someone’s home, to online videography. Participant observation, for example, is subject to a wide range of interpretation and is as likely to involve only one participant’s time as it is to involve several days. This of course leads to arguments for practitioners that are meaningful and important, but generally irrelevant to most people trying to decide which ethnographer or ethnographic research team to hire.

Determining what to do with the data is equally daunting. The analysis can be rigorous and systematic or it can be a loose set of interpretations lacking any real analytical substance. This can include sample sizes from less than 5 to 500, depending on the time, budget and methodological interpretation of the practitioner. And there is little consensus about the practical application of the discipline.

The “So What” of Ethnography

Given the range of skills and breadth of interpretation of what ethnographers mean when they talk about what they do, clients are understandably confused. This applies to what ethnography means and what to expect in terms of output and application. We rarely articulate the fundamental reason for ethnography to find use in a business context: Ethnography provides transformative insights and drives innovation.

Clients can expect everything from a jargon-filled, 500-page report of the facts, to a 10-slide presentation of specific insights, to a documentary film (or perhaps all of these objects). It turns out to be an obscure alternative to other research methods, but entrepreneurs often have a hard time describing exactly what it is or why it’s important. And when they do, the description is usually less than desirable. It is often viewed as:

· Expensive and time intensive

· Presented as a panacea

· Difficult to reason from

· Something anyone can do

· Vague and difficult to explain

· Academic, lacking business application

Even the most sophisticated research buyers and users of ethnography find themselves talking about the practice in these terms. They understand the benefits, the fact that exploratory work leads to spontaneous innovation and the ability of ethnography to get to the heart of the real problem. But selling ethnography inside can be difficult because of these points and especially in times of economic stress, it becomes a luxury rather than part of the basic process. As one client told me, “Ethnography is a mixed bag these days and invites a lot of nonsense. I need to explain in simple terms how the company can make money from it.” Fair assessment.

Changing What We Do

So what are ethnographers and the people who love them to do? Step one may be as simple as worrying less about the term and talking about the consequences; “We unlock insights that result in breakthrough ideas and products. That makes you money and elevates your brand.” I am not advocating a wholesale shift away from the word ethnography, but I am advocating discussing why it is relevant before we discuss what “it” is. Think of it like you are building a house. You can learn about the tools your builder uses, but your first concerns are about the quality of the work and the results of his previous construction deals. Your builder may be the best builder in the world, but if his focus is talking about his hammers rather than your building, then you probably shouldn’t bother hiring him. Similarly, ethnographers tend to spend too much time initially talking about ethnography and not enough time talking about problem solving.

Second, when the tool kit arrives, we need to be clear about exactly what is in it. We owe it to ourselves and our clients to define exactly what we mean by ethnography whenever we talk about it. We can begin by outlining and classifying the different elements of or type of ethnography that we practice:

· Driving Observation – rapid observation and intercept interviews of people on the street.

· Silent Observation – pure observation with little or no interaction with the participants. People may not know they are being observed/studied.

· Question observation – accompanying activities where the researcher observes and interviews the participant(s).

· Semiotic Interviews – interview based on how people build symbolic relationships. This may include storytelling, tasks and conversations about specific cultural patterns.

· Participant-Driven Observation – participants become observers of their own behavior and the behavior of others. They generate insights that are communicated to the research team.

· Participant Observation – a purely anthropological method when the researcher lives with people and learns about them through long experience. It requires the most training and time, but provides the most insights.

While my personal inclination as an anthropologist is to hang on to “ethnography” people are moving away from it and focusing on what we produce, not how we produce it. Those clients who are already on board need no explanation. The organizations we sell our ideas to need to know what we deliver before they need to know how we deliver it. Ethnography is a growing, valuable discipline, but unless we address some of these issues, it becomes another word.

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