Why Training Matters for Good Ethnography

Ethnography is a powerful tool, but it’s being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless in many cases. What ethnographers do, or should do, is uncover meaning and complexity. There is, frankly, a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. It comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook.  Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. While it may come across as arrogant, that is not the intention. The point is to say that what we learn from training and experience has value and while the goal in the current economic climate is to be good, fast and cheap (something that can, in fact, be attained), it is ultimately none of these things if the end work is not grounded in solid methodology or training. This isn’t to say one needs a PhD in anthropology from the Harvard or the University of Chicago, but it is to say that simply calling yourself an ethnographer doesn’t make it so.

And to be fair, there are times that it is possible to be, or at least appear, too academic. It is a criticism well deserved. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it’s difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms — they simply don’t speak the native tongue. Some are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their “anthropologist” identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They no doubt need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.

But returning to the original point, a solid academic grounding in behavioral and cultural theory is imperative to doing the job well, whether it’s in helping create a marketing plan or designing a new product. Simply taking into account what people tell you in an interview is misleading and often dangerous. For example, if participants tell you that they make a point of eating dinner every night as a family, it would be easy to take that information and build a marketing plan or product around that statement. The catch is it doesn’t address the unsaid. How much clutter is on the dining room table? What discarded boxes are in the garbage? What is the weekly schedule of activities? Are the kids there when the fieldwork takes place at 6:00 p.m.?

At a deeper level, the underpinnings of meaning are lost. What are the various meanings of “family” in a given context. How is dinner time used to establish or co-create meaning? What is the symbolic role of food? How does ritual factor into purchase and preparation choices? How does that carry over in the store?  These are the host of observational data points that are frequently overlooked by researchers who lack a theoretical grounding. Now imagine what it means to lose that depth of understanding when designing something as complex and expensive as a new type of car. If you get it wrong, you may well waste millions going down a rabbit hole. Regardless of the product, service or message you are designing it makes a great deal of sense to have a research team that can get at these issues and translate them into meaningful insights. Business anthropology represents the synthesis of academic anthropology with the professional practice of marketing and design. It seeks to understand what it means to be human, the diversity of human practices and values, and then turn these practices and values into tangible experiences. Getting it right means getting the right people.




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