Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Breaking rules in the Middle East

How to make friends and influence people in our Dubai office: tell everyone that you are a fundamentalist. A fundamentalist video ethnographer. Read my AQR article here.

If truth be told, I have been thinking hard about why we rely so much on video, and not least because of experiences in the Middle East. With the success of recent trials and new partners keen to evolve a 'lite' offer of our process, I have arranged to meet a software consultant to see if our (video based) process can be translated into an online application. Not just for clients to view and to collaborate from their desktops but for ethnographic fieldworkers to use on their Blackberries and iPhones too.

I will, as always, keep you posted.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Our new website

It's still a BETA, but I was sick and tired of the old site's labyrinth of pages, links and clips that we had added sporadically over the years. Here is the new site. Clean, elegant and easy to navigate. We are still tweaking it but why not have a look at the selection of clips we have just added to the Gallery. No annotations yet but, as I have said, it's still a BETA. Share/Bookmark

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Has ethnography become a ‘fat’ word?: Caroline Hayter, Acacia Avenue

Excerpt from IJMR special issue...

It has been an enormous pleasure to take on the role of guest editor for this special issue on ethnography. The huge range of papers submitted has shown that not only is it a subject of great interest, but also that it is also a subject of great breadth. In fact, so much breadth that I am forced to pose the question – has ethnography become a ‘fat’ word?

It is rare that Humpty Dumpty Carroll seeps into the world of research, but in this issue, he appears twice – he brilliantly pinpoints that what people say and what they mean are often at odds (Croft, Boddy and Pentucci) when he says: “when I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” When it comes to defining ‘fat words’, Humpty Dumpty’s perspective just about sums it up. Is this what has happened to ethnography? Has it become filled with different meaning depending on who is talking about it and in what context? What does it really mean? And how is it best used? And by whom? Is Philly Desai spot on in his Viewpoint when he says that ethnography needs to grow up?

These questions prompted me to do a small survey amongst clients to understand exactly what the buyers and prospective buyers of ethnography understand by it – how to define it? What are its barriers? And how as research practitioners and academics can we give it more credibility?

The ‘what’ of ethnography
Based on the submissions for this issue, it is broadly accepted by academics and research practitioners alike that ethnography in today’s world is about differing types of observation.

But while there is a general sense of the ‘what’ of the discipline, perhaps more worrying is the variance in understanding of the ‘hows’, that is, the applications of it.

The ‘how’ of ethnography
Ethnography today has become anything from ‘hanging out with people’, to lurking around online to getting people to take photos, to anything to do with video footage. We learn in this issue that it can be ‘virtual’ (Hair and Clark), or visual (Brace-Govan), it can involve sample sizes from under 10 to 180 (McMillan and Ng). Academics reference it as an alternative to surveys and research practitioners reference it as an alternative to focus groups. But these alternatives are very different in terms of benchmarking what ethnography isn’t. And there is little consensus as to the practical application of the discipline.

We are not doing ourselves any favours
Because of this breadth of interpretation, clients are confused. Ethnography has come to stand for what it is not, that is, traditional qualitative research, rather than what it is. It is perceived to be expensive and often a nice to have rather than focused enough to solve a real business issue:

  • “Overclaim is an issue – it is sometimes presented as a panacea”
  • “Takes longer, need a good agency”
  • “Justifying why you need to pay someone to watch someone in their front room is harder than saying we’re going to ask 500 people about their usage and attitudes towards TVs”
  • “It can sound like a big investment, certainly in the early days when there was a more purist approach from agencies…it had the potential to sound fluffy”
  • “Small number of participants = findings not robust enough”
  • “Seeing is believing so if you’re selling ethnography to someone who will not attend and does not know what it’s about, it can be tough”
  • “Seems a new aspect or technique to ethnography is invented every minute”
  • “What is it that ethnography can offer for an extra £10k that the traditional methodology can’t?”

Many of the above associations are hard-wired into the minds of even the most sophisticated research buyers and users of ethnography. It will take a lot of persuading to change this. But perhaps there is an easy win in sight? Another question asked on the survey was about the barriers that clients encounter when selling ethnography in to their organisations. The findings demonstrate where the weight of the resistance really lies:

  • “It sounds technical, like researchers are deliberately trying to be clever clogs”
  • “We badge it with a name. Why don’t we just use more straightforward language and keep the jargon to ourselves?”
  • “The word sounds good to some, but is a turn-off to others”
  • “It’s trendy so invites a lot of bullshit”
  • “Overuse of the term renders it virtually meaningless”

A call to arms
While I am not advocating a wholesale shift away from the terminology of ethnography, I would like to propose some changes in the way in which we think about it – both from an academic and a research practitioner point of view:
We owe it to ourselves to define exactly what we mean by ethnography each time we talk about it.

For my part, I’d suggest starting by classifying the different types of ethnography as follows before deciding which is most appropriate for any given task:

  • Complete observation – pure observation using CCTV or other methods of recording behaviour. People do not know they are being observed.
  • Observer as participant – accompanied activities where the researcher observes and asks questions of the participant
  • Participant as observer – participants are encouraged to become observers of their own behaviour and to develop insights themselves which are then communicated to the researcher
  • Complete participant – a pure anthropological approach when the researcher lives with people and learns about them through extended experience

Secondly, we need to think carefully about what we call ethnography beyond our immediate community. While I’m sure the purists among us would not advocate moving away from its original name, are we doing it – and ourselves – a disservice by holding onto the ‘ethnography’ word? We need to think carefully about who we are talking to – research clients who are already on board, or the organisations to whom they need to sell our ideas?

Thirdly, we need to be clear about what ethnography does, beyond what it is. We need to ‘show not tell’ by holding up results rather than promoting the methodology itself. This will force researchers and academics alike to think hard about what they are doing – both in terms of project design, but also in terms of analysis and presentation.

While it certainly appears that ethnography is a growing and incredibly valuable discipline, unless we address some of these issues, it will continue to be a fat word – and even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, I question whether we’ll be able to put ethnography on the boardroom tables of our clients.
Caroline Hayter, Acacia Avenue Share/Bookmark

Monday, June 8, 2009

Twitter Trial

Last Friday we decided to run an experiment using Twitter. What I'd like to call an ethnographic experiment whereby an anthro-film maker/participant observer updated a group of followers (who could be clients or other experts) on the life of a respondent/household. There was no detailed brief or objectives and emphasis was on method evaluation first and insights a close second.

I wanted to see just how regular updates of text and pictures would be used by followers and whether or not true collaboration would take place. I also wanted to figure out a set of user interface specifications for our web designer to build a site to enable this kind of research.

See the short introduction we sent out to followers.

Next steps are to sort through all feedback, then begin the process of building a site to incorporate text, picture and video updates for followers to collaborate with.

Many of you will know that I am a fundamentalist video ethnographer who believes effective ethnographic research cannot be carried out without video to record and allow scrutiny. So video uploads will be essential. The challenge is that length of video will not exceed 30 seconds or so. And this video length issue is pushing me as far out of my comfort zone as I have ever been.

Watch this space. Share/Bookmark

Saturday, June 6, 2009

My AQR Talk

EXCELLENT AQR seminar by Siamack Salari (supported by Greg Ro... on Twitpic

My AQR ethnography workshop took place on Thursday and I thought you'd be interested in downloading and viewing the films we made specifically for the afternoon 'seeing skills' session. There are three breakfast films in total (each between 10-20 minutes long) and all filmed in the UK.

Note they are crudely edited as they would normally be used in early stage Question Generation Workshops (which I was simulating). We run these sessions with clients so they can see occasions raw to colaboratively stimulate question generation, theme identification and early observations/actions.

Yes, we are into open authorship.

An article about our full process is in the works...