Saturday, October 25, 2008

Martin Ortlieb – Google



At the Epic 2008 conference in Copenhagen I had the opportunity to snatch a conversation with Martin in between talks. I asked him what he thought about a comment we had heard earlier in the day. That, 'Ethnography is nothing without theory'. We had many reactions to this clip: I have posted a selection. Interestingly, the person who made the original comment eventually revealed herself and I start this post with her response to the reactions.

Thank you again to the authors.

"It was me... (who made the comment)
And I agree with Martin Ortlieb's interpretation of my original comment - although I disagree with the idea that data-collection is 'monkey-work' and any less informed by theory (at least ethnographic research) than the analytical process. But I am pretty sure, that Martin would agree with me on that.

Anyway, the point I wanted to stress (and which he took up) was, that ethnography is a whole lot more that mere data collection. When I said it, I was not aiming it at people who are not trained anthropologist - quite the opposite. I was aiming it at the tendency which I have noted - not only at the conference, but as a general push within applied ethnograhpy/anthropology - to fetishise methods and refinement of these, while there is a huge theoretical reservoir which recieves very little attention at a conference like Epic 2008. And as I said "to me method without theory is nothing". That's my professional standpoint. And it is exactly the integral view of method and theory that anthropology cultivates which sets insights gained through ethnographic work off as opposed to other kinds of data gathering - which aren't any less valid or usefull or effective or important. I would just not consider it ethnographic research, but something different.

But perhaps the interesting question is why everyone wants to claim that they are doing 'ethnographic research'? Why is it suddenly taboo to suggest that a trained ethnographer might be better at certain things proper to his or her discipline than a person who is not trained? Why the urge to call anthropology a "quasi-science"? How can one be a fan of qualitative methods and aim for objectivity? These are truely interesting questions.

I have enjoyed following the correspondence, which a friend of mine has forewarded to me. I can't seem to find the place it is actually going on, except for these two comments on this blog, so I'll post it here.

Thank you all for a wonderful conference. I hope to see you next year.
Kind regrads,
Nina Holm Vohnsen"

1) Damien Pawle (ex-employee at EverydayLives and very good friend)
Hey Siamack,

Seems like you're worrying about the use of the word 'theory' too much. The dictionary definition is 'A system of ideas used to explain something... A set of principles on which a practice is based'.
I feel that because you are so close to what you are doing, you have forgotten how much 'theory' we developed over the years. It's actually quite astounding when you take a step back and think we came up with it all from scratch. When I started to write up what was a fairly basic 2 hour course for the training we implemented, I ended up with over 50 pages of bullet points and that was an overview. It couldn't teach experience or temperament and it only included a couple of pages about analysis. It's very easy to forget what you have got when you are so close to it.

It is also interesting that Martin Ortlieb describes collecting data as monkey's work. I understand his point of view and why he dismisses the practice, yet I think he is wrong to do so. It is what makes EverydayLives different. We have a methodology formed over years of experience that produces results through the eyes of seasoned documentary filmmakers. Most importantly, the way in which we collect our data allows it to be presented directly to clients in the form of video. And hey, as we all know, there is nothing more powerful than a client seeing an insight with their own eyes. A picture speaks a thousand words and all that!! In many ways I would say that EvervdayLives are the market leading expertise in collecting data. (£20 is in the post, Damien. Thanks for the plug. SS)

Peas

2) John Thomas
Siamack:

Thank you for your efforts to shed light on this thing we call ethnography, but which takes on so many different shapes when executed.

This discourse is exactly why I started the Ethnography Forum on LinkedIn ... I realized that the approach to ethnography my little company typically fields is very different from what others conducting ethnography are doing. So when I talk to a client about the possibility of an ethnographic investigation, and then you do, and others do ... the client may naturally be confused ... how can all these different approaches be called the same thing, in general, but look so different? Ethnographic research is a broad term being applied to mean very specific approaches in each case ... and I believe the diversity in our approaches, as well as the diversity in our trainings, yields a richer results overall. But because this tool is relatively new to clients in the brand marketplace, we haven't developed the nuanced terms for variations on the theme, like we have for "focus groups" (e.g., traditional focus groups, mini-groups, triads, dyads, etc.).

As for the presence of a theory going into each study ... my theory is that if you watch with open eyes and and open mind, and you keep from polluting the test environment, you are more likely to learn what is "true." In my 25+ years in research I've observed some amazing things ...
products used in ways that manufacturers never intended,
shoppers walking past displays in store because said displays are angled the wrong way,
people saying they will do one thing in the purchase process, only to do the opposite, and
sales associate interactions that impede shopping.
As for "ethnographic research without theory is nothing ...," I think your own comments, along with those others who've sent in their thoughts thus far have, collectively, nailed it. There are differing views on this issue ... but that's to be expected at this stage of the game.

Be well,

John

John Thomas
Managing Partner
H. I. Thomas Consulting Group, LLC
Perrysburg, OH 43551
419.931.4406 (office)
thomasjohne@gmail.com
www.hitcg.com
www.linkedin.com/in/johnethomas

3) Erik Kassebaum
My first thought regarding the line "Ethnographic research without theory is nothing." was that the same folks also tend to think "...unless your theory matches mine, yours is nothing." It's a good line for a T-shirt, but not much else. The cold chill you felt was actually a good sign for it means you didn't drink the "Kool Aid." ( http://www.raptureready.com/rr-kool-aid.html )

I will admit that going out and collecting stuff without some sort of purpose (even a flexible one) is like going to a hardware store and buying things at random: While fun, it usually doesn't lead to anything useful being produced. Such doesn't mean that all trips to the hardware store need a purpose. Sometimes you need to just get your feet wet (or rewet them) and look around.

One of the more interesting things about ethnography is that often the stuff that you originally thought would be interesting and/or important turns out to be trite and that it's not until you're knee-deep in it that you realize that other stuff is far more interesting and/or important. If done right, the ethnographer is changed by the experience of performing ethnography. Good ethnographers adapt to the world the worlds that they join rather than try to force said worlds into preconceived notions. Process monsters such as grants, dissertations, academic politics and such tend not to encourage mid-stream changes in focus, theory and/or approach.

How ethnographers select, reject, are assigned, and/or stumble upon those that they study is a whole other can of worms and far too often the matches are poor at best. Bad matches result in "garbage in, garbage out" work products.

With respect to the quasi-scientific aspects of Anthropology, there's always been a desire to see how others might "view" the raw data. In reality, most ethnographers are loathe to share their raw, complete and unedited field notes, diary entries, and other more intimate records until after they've left this mortal coil. What's even more fun is when you get to see and hear how different ethnographers have interacted with a single group. The native perspectives regarding their different "guests" can often be as hilarious as they are telling.

ETHNOGRAPHY is always going to be subject to distortions and ethnologists can either learn how to do things like "compare and contrast" while "reading between the lines" or they can continue to spend an inordinate amount of time picking the lint out of their Theoretical Post-Modern Deconstructionist Bellies.

Cheers!

Erik

4) Kevin Organisciak

Siamack,

I am enjoying the discourse. Thank you for providing.

I hesitated to respond here as it has been years since I studied Anthropology and, if anything, I am now one of the "outsiders" mentioned below. However, I would argue ethnography without theory to be more objective than ethnography with theory. Although complete objectivity is impossible, my position would be that an heightened sense of objectivity should be cultivated through standard process but no preconceptions of meaning. The interpretations drawn from the data would presumably then become more consistent and more independent of the data interpreter.

Best,

Kevin

5) John Grifffiths
Um really I couldn't agree more than without theory there is no methodology. In order to have objectivity what you do and how you do it must be accessible to independent scrutiny - peer review. Without that all you have is your opinion and what you think works and believe to be useful. If you are explicit about the principles according to which you work then if you fail to work according to your principles then you have broken standards as per your theory. If you have no theory then bad practice is impossible. Principles such as participants not knowing the purpose of the study and the importance of co-creation are all part of your theoretical underpinning - you are almost certainly working from a theory whether or not you realise it. I very much hope you don't decide to use co-creation on an adhoc project by project basis. But it is important because you need to be clear with peers and clients about why you do what you do as well as what you do. This isn't just shop steward talk to protect the market for practitioners it ensures that when a client commissions an ethnographer- they get a consistent product. All the sciences have a theoretical underpinning. What makes them particularly interesting is that research theory is different from ethnography theory and from anthropology theory and so on. Some disciplines may have more than one theory based on which school they are. But they ALL have a theory without which we would be stumbling around in subjectivism.

John G

6) Sarah Pink
Hi Siamack, to try and explain the way I would see this (complex) issue simply (and quickly as I'm in the middle of finishing off my book on Sensory Ethnography), it would be as follows:

There are different ways of understanding the ethnographic process, and different definitions of what ethnograhy is. These tend to be informed by different theories.

Ethnography in my view is a methodology, which means it is a way of or approach to doing research that is inevitably informed by theory. It must be informed by certain understandings of truth, reality, if we can access these, the extent to which we can access these etc. Thus it is informed by theories of knowing and knowledge, learning and more - even if you do not explicitly theorise the way that knowing about and knowedge of others is produced in your research you must have some underlying beliefs about this. If you interrogated these you would then most likely identify that you do have a theoretical position that informs your ethnographic methodology

Ethnographic methods are then the actual practices we employ - might be interviewing ,videoing, otherwise participating in people's lives etc. But these are usually part of a coherent methodology.

Sarah

Professor Sarah Pink
Programme Director, Sociology
Department of Social Sciences
Loughborough University
LE11 3TU

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ss/staff/pink.html

7) Elena O'Curry
The theory in question is anthropological theory; the framework that helps us understand what's going on at a deeper level than "Jane reuses ziploc bags". Without theory, you can obsserve people (which sometimes is all you need), but you aren't doing ethnography. A good book to get started is Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, by Rita Denny & Patty Sunderland. Pretty much all of Grant McCracken's books are also excellent.

cheers,
Elena

7a) My rushed reply to Elena
Absolutely - and you might be amazed at how many researchers simply do repeat observations made rather than interpretations. Now, are you telling me there is a fixed theory/framework to adhere to?

With our explorations, we work with clients to generate a framework - project by project. If we do follow a theory, it's the client's hypotheses or the client's theory about what is happening/causes/belief systems/etc. Which we set out to challenge, confirm and develop. The framework serves to help us a) make sense of the data - sorting/organisint/prioritising b) generate initial themes c) a discussion guide for co-discovery interviews and d) understand the organisational culture into which our findings and actions have to be implemented.

The backbone of our work is codes and rules, routines and rituals and realities and priorities which we drill into 'til we run out of money ;)

Are we talking the same?

8) Russ Ward
Hi Siamack,
I am the Australian guy that introduced myself at the Friday morning poster session at EPIC last week. It was good to meet you and see you in person. I am quite interested to hear about the reaction you may be getting from your questions below. I am not sure who from the Anthropology fraternity will answer you directly here but I am sure that you will attract opinions that may leave you even more cold that you mention below.
Anthropologists have very refined and complex approaches to framing the social contexts of how people across societies live and behave. My experience with this group in general is that they desperately seek professional acceptance from industry where they feel that they have a great deal to offer in a significant number of ways. I sense that in general this academic fraternity aspires to have other professions see and appreciate their skills and abilities as they see themselves. The discussion in the EPIC forums has generally been about their frustration with the lack recognition from industry in general which is quite a pitty really. Accordingly some of the discussions at EPIC were about power, control and importance - furthering their cause.

The nature of their work is to frame and contextualize using very sophisticicated frameworks and language to describe social interactions in cultural settings between people and things using metamodels such as Structuralism, Post Structuralism and other constructs as Actor Network Theory. It is from this perspective that they refer to theory and its application.
The uneducated and unaware have little ability to translate and hence comprehend this theory and hypothesis. So to anthropologists ethnography without theory is probably like a professional orchestral musician hearing music being played someone on a street corner who cannot read music from a scoresheet. Herein seems to be the problem. Anthropologists have spent their careers developing their skills to use them and they are having difficulty being appreciated and yet we come along.
Like you I am not an anthropologist and when we talk about ethnography we perhaps by our actions seem to short circuit the importance of the qualified anthropologist in their quest to gain a professional recognition in industry. So when I hear the comment "ethnography without theory is nothing" I think this is an expression of their opinion of the unqualified (you and I). Perhaps in some way the "them and us" gauntlet has been thrown.

Personally I think this is not the point... there will always be people who can create music (some very successfully) with the same instruments and techniques without any formal education in the field. I would like to think that academics can find a place in industry where we can work along side each other. At one previous conference I noticed some coversations with a nottion of certifying ethnographers..... of course the certifying body would be one of Anthropologists!
Oh dear - there is the power and control thing again.
On the other hand a lage proportion of the attendees as just wonderful and expansive open people that want to grow the value of their work.

Anyway as I said I am interested to hear if you have had ay specific reactions to you Enthnosnacker posts.

Cheers to more conversation.


Russ Ward
Madison Wisconsin


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