Ethnology: a tiny state of the art review

Img_0108 Hello from Hamburg.  Here’s a forward that someone asked to to write and then decided not to use.  Actually, I think it was editor who decided that I was impolitic.  Thus does the old media treat the new media.

Here, then, is the forward:

Ethnography found its way into the world with difficulty.

In the early days ethnographers were very like immigrants, obliged to take the jobs that other wouldn’t or couldn’t do. When Chrysler phoned me in the middle 1980s, they did so because the other methods had failed. In the early days, ethnology was a method of last resort. 

Practitioners had doubts of their own. Ethnography sounded very well: getting closer to the consumer, doing the work in home, working one-to-one instead of through the glass. We made our promises with a brave face. And then we had to think, “how in the dickens am I going to make this work?” Improv was the order of the day. Projects took on the character of a Kontiki expedition, with parts repurposed in a constant rebuilding even as we pressed into service anything floating by.  There are late practitioners because there were early practitioners.

It was also necessary to pass Scylla and Charybdis. The former were the anthropologist still resident and reproachful in the university. For this group, the very idea of commercial application was an outrage. These people who informed me of their hostility with a string of insults, and in one case, a loud, hysterical accusation in the middle of a cocktail party. It didn’t matter that these academics had remarkably provincial ideas of capitalism and the marketplace. Their hostilities still stung.

Charybdis took the form of business school professors. The business schools were in the 1980s still filled with positivists, for whom ethnography was merely a happy face to put on imprecision and methodological self indulgence. We were the enemy at the gate, a threat against rigor at the very moment the marketing “sciences” seemed poised to achieve it. In one particularly memorable cocktail party, George Day, then the president of the Marketing Science Institute, discovered suddenly who he was drinking with, and prompting went on a tirade that must have last a full 8 minutes. Anthropology and ethnology, I began to gather, were the work of the devil. This made me the devil’s apprentice.  (There was awhile there when it seemed best for ethnographers to avoid cocktail parties altogether.)

Now the field has as much to fear from its proponents as its enemies. We have practitioners who operate from on high. They charge the earth and deliver only telegraphically, leaving behind them small, mantra-like phrases that claim, in a small, mantra-like phrase, to “crack the code.” In this case, charisma must do the work of thoroughness, rigor, nuance and profundity. If we demur, chances are we are met with some variation of St. Augustine’s dictum: do not seek to understand that you may believe. Believe that you may understand.  That’s, I guess, what the charisma is for. 

And then there is the “commodity basement,” and the practitioners who bang the stuff out, using small bands of willing but unsophisticated undergraduates. Some of these sweat shops may produce value, but if we believe that some part of the power of the method comes from it’s ability to craft the interview in real time, it’s hard to see how. These observers cannot be much more self guided than the bots and spiders of the internet. They may canvass the world widely, but they are hard pressed to do so with the ethnographer’s “just-in-time” responsiveness.

In between is the pretender practitioner. Those are the people who now retail ethnography without actually having an anthropologist or an ethnographer on staff. For some reason, many quite reputable agencies and design firms thought it was “ok” to sell ethnographer-free ethnography. Others did have an ethnographer on staff, but on finer scrutiny it proved to be the case that the ethnographer was “self trained.” This is I think the thing about experts and professionals, doctors and engineers, say. In general, self training is the very reason we demand training, discipline and a little conscience when it comes to how the terms are used. Shamed, some firms went out and bought an ornamental ethnography, someone for the mast head, and continued to use amateurs to do the bulk of the work. This is “bait and switch.”

But I guess we should be grateful that ethnography survived its infancy. Not so long ago it received a papal blessed from A.G. Lafley, the CEO of P&G. And with this CEOs and CMOs everywhere began to give the attention new attention. This is, in other words, a crucial moment in the history of the method. It will either grow up to dispatch the larger and more important responsibilities is now assigned. Or it will continue its descent into naïve empiricism, charismatic performance, or the commodity basement.

We are badly in need of a clearer idea of the method’s true practice and potential, the better to instruct pretenders in what it is they should be doing, and to move the rest of us to sit down and recraft our method and redouble our efforts.

One thought on “Ethnology: a tiny state of the art review”

  1. Do you still need folks? I have friends in Hamburg, Rostock, Berlin, and Cologne, among others. A doctor, media professionals, academics…

    I also have a good friend who is an anthropologist working in Oxford for a research institute if you need help in that vicinity. Let me know!

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