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

1 comment:

  1. The debate among business or design centered practitioners on what ethnography "is" is, perhaps, a reflection of their own culture(s): newness, hype, business development, smoke & mirrors and a little bullshit thrown in for good measure. By this I mean to ask a question: What's new about this debate? The answer, for those who have followed the history of ethnography and read ethnographies, is nothing. Academic anthropologists have been debating this very question - either from the top down or bottom up through their methods - for ages. And that, perhaps, is where the problem lies: method. Reducing ethnography down to a data collection method misses the point and, more importantly, misses the process. Ethnography is the art & science of telling stories about other people's (and sometimes our own) stories. Scan through a century plus of ethnographic writing in anthropology and what becomes abundantly clear is that the "best" ethnographies tell the best, most complete stories structured, in part, by the methods through which data were collected.