Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Viewpoint: The faddish breakouts of ethnography

You may have read this article by, Clive Boddy (
Honorary Visiting Professor in Marketing at Middlesex University and Visiting Professor of Marketing research at the University of Lincoln) before so apologies for the repost.

It's an interesting read. Interesting because it misses a key point. That a PHD anthropologist is no better at conducting ethnographic research than a top rated agency planner with a first class honours in history from Durham, usability specialist or even a bright documentary film maker. I should know, I work or have worked with all of these people at one time or another.

The simple truth is that there is no qualification out there which can provide you with the thinking tools needed to observe & interpret spontaneous events, detailed behaviour, cultural backdrop and to translate them into meanings and business actions.

Before you accuse me of sounding too smug. I have made my share of mistakes in the past. But the biggest mistake was thinking that anthropologists alone were the answer.



  1. A link to the article would be appreciated :)

  2. Yes the popularity of ethnography is uneven, however I am not sure that an analysis of it’s coverage in the press is a good indicator of ethnography being in or out at any particular moment.

    Indeed, I would suspect that the faddishness of ethnography is much more localized than the market-research industry as a whole. Rather, ethnography comes and goes as a fad at particular companies, depending upon a number of factors such as the arrival of an advocate into the organization, or the dissemination of the benefits of a one ethnographic study driving its use in another arena within the organization.

    And while yes, there is no monopoly among Ph.D. holders of the skill-sets needed to conduct the craft well, I have also seen a lot of hacks out there who produce such poor quality research that it undermines the value of the practice as a whole.

    I might argue that ethnography is faddish because good ethnography is often followed by bad. The right alignment of interests and people results in a well-executed ethnographic program in an organization, delivering high-value. The research gains a lot of political exposure within the organization. This is followed by other units within the same organization, interested in attaining the same high-quality insights, but unwilling or unable to tolerate the time and resources to attain them, driving poorly designed and implemented research.

    Vendors are complacent in running research doomed to mediocrity by failing to push-back against the client and informing them of the mis-application of methodologies.

    Ari Nave, Ph.D.

  3. There are significant differences in the worldviews, background, and training between the usability specialists, agency planners, and Ph.D. anthropologists that are why the latter are usually the producers of the best quality ethnographic data. A key fallacy in the argument you offer, Siamack, is restricting your evaluation to "skill sets." Can all three types of the aforementioned people point a camera, ask questions, observe people, and then write up the results? Certainly. A skill set, to be sure.

    However, it is usually the Ph.D. anthropologist who also brings to the table a thoroughly objective viewpoint, or at least one in which her biases are accounted and adjusted for. An agency planner is trained and expected to place the needs of the client first. A usability specialist usually is focused upon the "thing," the product instead of the people. The anthropologist usually enters the research only asking "what's going on here?," and "what do these people say and believe is going on here?" You can see that the results of any research of the same group would almost always result in different outcomes. The differences would not be the result of skill sets, but of perspective, world view, training, and background.

    I agree with Dr. Nave that the "faddishness," of ethnography in commerce is driven by the fickle winds of commercial needs. This is truly a shame as high quality, unbiased, and thus more accurate ethnographic research is compelled to constantly explain itself as the result of proper anthropological education and training instead of a quirk of interest coupled with a narrow and generic skill set.

    We have seen the results of using "skill sets," as the only criteria for qualification in other fields. Take journalism, for instance. The "skill set," of a journalist includes writing, asking questions, conducting research, and perhaps pointing a camera. As these are included in the skill set of marketing people, we have seen marketing agency press releases substituted for reporting because the reporters have been laid off. After all, says the needs of business, if the purpose is to put words on a page, then a free source of words on a page is better than a paid source of words on a page. The quality of the words, the accuracy of the information, the lack of bias of a reporter, and ultimately the needs of a democracy to have unbiased and accurate information fall before the gods of profit.

    If one is content to hire anyone capable of pointing a camera, asking questions, and writing up the results, then by all means save your money and don't hire Ph.D. anthropologists. But, if you want accurate, thorough, and unbiased information, I'm afraid you have to look beyond mere pennies and invest in the only people really trained and qualified to produce quality ethnographies, your friendly, neighborhood Ph.D. anthropologists.

    Luccia Rogers, Ph.D.

  4. Unfortunately the real world is all about mere pennies and the winds of commercial needs. And PHD anthropologists, alone, are not always capable of making the leap from insight to meaning and commercial implication. This bit needs collaborative and biased perspectives.

    I think all I am trying to convey is that suggesting ethnography is the job of anthropologists is very 1950's and out of touch.

    Wonderful replies BTW.

  5. Hi Siamack et al,

    I don't think PhD anthropologists are the only people who *can* do ethnography (she says defensively, being a sociologist) but the training that comes with advanced study serves to better synthesize and contextualize findings.

    I don't know if I agree completely with Luccia -- I don't believe there is any such thing as "objective" research -- but her point is important. Advanced theoretical and methodological study gives you the cognitive tools to wrestle with what are essentially design problems.

    Research design is a craft that must be practiced by self-reflexive, informed practitioners. I find that usability specialists, for example, are not trained to be self-reflexive and are wont to focus on "the object" first (as Luccia describes). I find also that those trained in marketing fail to reflect on capitalism as a social construction and as such interpret findings within a narrow frame of reference (i.e., "the consumer"). This, in turn narrows the interpretive lens to something about buying and selling, instead of culture itself.

    So is it outdated to say that advanced training is important? I don't think so. And no, I don't think my undergraduates with honours degrees could do the same job that I do.

  6. Dear Siamack,

    Could you be a bit more specific about why you think there is no merit to academic training in anthropological methods? Is it an experience you have had, a theoretical standpoint, or Maybe you have written some ealier posts that you could point towards? (I had a quick gaze on the blog, but found nothing significant).

    Also, I think that there is a difference between doing good ethnography, and the translation proces that clients need in order to act on findings.

    Rasmus Kolding

  7. Briefly, the point I have tried to make is that anthropology is NOT the only tool/theory needed to conduct great ethnographic research.

    The best explorations are interpreted collaboratively by a mix of disciplines all of who will have their biases and perspectives. Including the client and subjects themselves.

    Anthropological fundamentalism is as unhealthy as any other form of fundamentalism.

  8. The picture that accompanies this article counters your argument, Siamack. The researcher and interviewee might be joking, but I've found that I get better insights when I don't point a huge camera in someone's face and start asking questions. One of the advantage of using anthropologists to do ethnography is having someone trained in reflexivity. They understand the impact that their presence has on participants and do their best to make participants comfortable. This results in a quicker route to what someone honestly feels.

  9. Hi Russ - I actually used the picture because it is the worst cliche/perception about what ethnographic researchers do - those armed with cameras anyway.

    You are absolutely right about reflexivity, but understanding the impact of one's presence is not a skill exclusive to anthropologists.

    The thermometre itself changing the temperature of the water and managing/exploiting this effect is a critical part of the training we offer our our people who come all walks of life including anthropology, documentary film and design.

    This methodology is all about perspectives, perspectives, perspectives. Including the subject's and the clients who believe they understand their segments...

  10. What a fascinating debate, although I think I can hear the faint background noise of axes being ground ...

    I must say I found Clive Boddy's article rather disappointing, as he seems to be as subjective in arguing for ethnography's faddishness as he is critical of the non-objectivity of non-PhD practitioners.

    As a qualitative researcher training to do commercial ethnographic research, I am looking forward to learning what represents good/best practice (if this text exists?) but I would be very surprised if the best (or only) way to do commercial ethnographic research were to follow the 'PhD' or academic approach.

    I think one can be *too academic* in one's approach (speaking as someone coming from a family of academics). Isn't there a danger of "rigour-mortis" setting in (sorry), if one is so obsessed with processes etc that one forgets the importance of emotional intelligence and empathy with the subject of the study?