All posts by Grant

Make Ethnography Better

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

Ethnography has grown in the last couple of decades from a moody, friendless method in the social sciences to the belle of the business ball.

But clearly it has suffered in this rise to stardom. In the wrong hands, ethnography is now a license for the methodologically slap dash. To use the immortal words of Errol Morris, ethnography is now sometimes “cheap, fast and out of control.”

Part of the problem, I think, is that ethnography has been shorn away from anthropology. It was created by anthropologists (and to a lesser extent sociologists) and used in conjunction with anthropology (or sociology).

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

The advantage of adding “anthro” to “ethno” is that it allows us to put things captured in the life of consumer, user, or viewer in a larger, illuminating context. We can see, more surely, what it means. Without this larger context, ethnography devolves into simple observation, as in “this is what I saw when I was in a consumer’s home.”

Adding “anthro” to “ethno” also give us access to theoretical resources and intellectual traditions that contemporary ethnographers rarely seem to bring to bear on the problem at hand. (And I’m sure that I don’t need to say that the “problem at hand” for any ethnographer studying the ferocious dynamism of contemporary culture is usually formidable. We need any and all the powers of pattern recognition available to us. Airily dismissing the patterns made available by intellectual discipline and years of theoretical development is just dumb.)

How can we tell that someone is adding “anthro” to “ethno?” We are entitled to ask “where did you study anthropology?” (We could also use “sociology,” “film studies,” or “American culture.”) We are asking, “what do you bring to the table beside a claim to method?”

But this is only part of the problem. Too often, the researcher has no “depth of field.” He or she is incapable of seeing that this family, this home, the user, this community is a creature in motion changing in real change. Good observers have an acute sense of the historical factors at work here. They know what has happened in a very detailed way since World War II and they have a general sense of what has been happening in Western and especially American culture over the last 300 years.

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

This gives us a glimpse of “slow culture” as well as “fast culture.” (For more on the distinction, see my Chief Culture Officer.) And now we are really testing the abilities of the self appointed ethnographer. Do they have depth of field? Now we are entitled to ask, “tell me about any big, enduring trend in American culture. How did it take shape over time?”) (Don’t be surprised if they are astonished by the question.)

Here’s the problem. Most of the work being done by ethnographers is being done here.

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

But this ethnography is stripped of the things that gives it real explanatory power.

What we need is something that heads in this direction.

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

If ethnography is to evolve, we want to migrate in the direction of “anthro” + “slow culture.” We could think of this as a “Northwest passage” strategy. Until we find a way to connect these worlds, the Southeast sector must remain poorer and less cosmopolitan.

It’s not clear to me what the practical solution is. I did a couple of posts about the C-school idea a few years ago and discovered some of the following programs, any one (or several) of which might take up this challenge. (Notice that I am not saying these places have a solution, merely that they are the kind of places that might come up with one.)

The D school at Stanford (David Kelley)
W+K 12 (Wieden + Kennedy school, Victor a German Shepherd pointer)
The Miami Ad School (Ron & Pippa Seichris)
The VCU BrandCenter (Helayne Spivak)
The Berlin School of Creative Leadership (Michael Conrad)
EPIC (Ken Anderson and Tracey Lovejoy)
UC Berkeley School of Information (AnnaLee Saxenian)
California College of the Arts 
Royal College of Arts
MIT Media Lab
Rhode Island School of Design
IIT Institute of Design (Laura Forlano, thank you Sergio)
Ethnography Training (Norman Stolzoff and Donna Romeo)
Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology
Ohio State (Liz Sanders)
University of North Texas
Wayne State
Columbia Business School (Bob Morais)
Fordham Business School (Timothy Malefyt)
Savannah College of Art and Design (Sarah Johnson and Susan Falls)

As I was noting here, the Annenberg School at USC is coming up fast.

Finally, I recently had lunch with John Curran and he tells me that things are afoot in London. I will leave it to him to reveal the details. (John, please send me a link so that I can include it here.)

I am hoping readers will let me know the programs I have missed.

how to make TV now (the “whole world” approach)

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Natalie Chaidez is the show runner for Hunters (Mondays, 10:00 eastern, SyFy). Recently Sean Hutchinson asked her what she was aiming for.

Our idea of aliens is cliched, she replied. She wanted to “flip everything you think you know going into an alien series.”

Mission accomplished. The aliens on Hunters are not your standard-issue “monsters from outer space.” Monsters, yes, but complicated monsters. We can’t quite tell what they are up to. Bad stuff, yes. But the exact whathow and why of their monstrosity is unclear.

Chaidez explains:

I wanted to do something different. That led me to a neurologist from Brown University named Seth Horowitz, and he and I collaborated about the planet, their anatomy, and how they’d operate on earth. It gave it a level of originality because we approached it from the inside out.

Hutchinson:

Why did you want to dive in and be that thorough if most people won’t know those details?

Chaidez:

Because it’s fun! But you also just want to know so it feels cohesive. 90 percent of the stuff Seth and I talked about will probably never make it into the show.

This is interesting because it breaks a cardinal rule of the old television. And this is do exactly as much as you must to fill the screen…and not a jot more. To invent a world and leave 90% of it un-shot, well, we can just imagine the reaction of a standard-issue producer.

“It’s my job to make sure shit like this never happens! [Wave cliche cigar in air for emphasis] Artists! You have to watch ’em every goddamn second!”

This is a parsimony rule of the kind that capitalism loves. No expenditure must ever be “excess to requirement.” Some producers are uncomplicated monsters. It’s their job to make sure that creative enterprises are starved of the resources necessary to turn popular culture into culture. It’s what they like to call their “fiduciary obligation.”

The parsimony rule helps explain that dizzying sensation we get when we go to a TV production or a film set, and notice how “thin” everything is. Not rock but papermache! Not an entire world but just enough of it. An universe made to go right to the edge of what the camera can see, and not an inch beyond.

What Chaidez and Horowitz have done goes completely beyond requirement. They made an entire world, much of which we will never see.

Why?

This could be a case of the recklessness of the new TV. With the rise of the showrunner, people are no longer making TV as half-hour sausages. They have bigger ambitions and sometimes bigger pretensions. Budgets will bloom!

Or is there something going on here?

I think the Chaidez-Horowitz approach, let’s call it the “whole world” approach, has several assumptions (each of which, if warranted, is a way to justify additional expenditure):

1. A pre-text is better than a “pretext”

Our standards of richness, complexity and subtlety on TV have risen. “Thin” TV is now scorned. We want our culture to feel fully realized and in the case of the story telling, this means that we want the story to feel as if it predates the production. Novelists are good at this. But TV, ruled by cigar-waving producers, has been less good. Too often, the story world feels served up. Something tells us that it will disappear the moment the narrative has moved on, that it will cease the moment the camera is sated.  (For the pre-text impulse in the worlds of computers and cuisine, see my post of Steve Jobs and Alice Waters and their “exquisite choice” capitalism.)

2. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan interest

When we sense that the showrunner has taken a whole world approach, we engage. Shafts of light show through. We begin to try to construct the whole world from the available evidence. (We used to do this at the Harvard Business School. We would give students pieces of the spread sheet which they would then reconstruct.)

The “whole world” approach is a great way of turning viewers into fans. The moment we detect a whole world behind the narrative, we rouse ourselves from couch potato status and begin to examine faint signals very carefully. What does this stray remark tell us? If X, then we can assume the larger world looks like this. But if Y, we can construct something altogether different. (Remember when Star Trek viewers began to map the ship. The showrunners were astonished.) This is astounding engagement, one that every showrunner dreams of. And all we have to do, it turns out, is engage in complete acts of invention instead of “good enough for television” ones. And “good enough for television” (aka “partial world” TV) is a place no one wants to live anymore. It’s always less than the sum of its parts. That way lies creative entropy and fan discouragement.

3. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan fiction

Whole worlds made available in shafts of light invite something more than engagement. They say to the transmedia fan, “here’s a place to start. Make this glimpse your point of departure. Or that one.” Whole worlds make a thousand flowers bloom. And this too is the stuff of showrunner fantasy. To have fans who love your work so much they seek to invent more of it. To make work so provocative it sends fans racing to their key board, can there be any greater compliment? There is a whole world paradox, too. It says “the more complete your world, the more worlds it will help birth.”

4 a “whole world” approach is generative of transmedia

As Henry Jenkins has helped us see, transmedia is that extraordinary creation in contemporary culture where certain stories are so prized, they attract many authors. Eventually, the “one true text” gives way to a story that lives in all its variations, on all its media.  Now that our whole world is generating lots of fan fiction, it has like William Gibson’s Mona Lisa, slipped the confines of a single medium and put out into a vastly larger imaginative universe. Another paradox then. World worlds give rise to an entire universe. No, our cigar chomping producer cannot “monitize” all these variations but really that’s no longer the point. This will come…but if and only if you make something that our culture decides is worthy of its contributions. The life of a cultural “property” depends as Jenkins, Ford and Green say, on the willingness of the fan to distribute it. But as I was laboring to say yesterday, it also depends on the willingness of the fan to contribute to it.

It’s hard to write this post and not think how much it evokes the spirit of USC. First, there’s Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the USC Annenberg School. Then there’s Geoffrey Long, recently appointed Creative Director for the World Building Media Lab at USC. Geoffrey is my guru when it comes to the question of building worlds. And just today, I got the very good news that Robert V. Kozinets has been appointed the Jayne and Hans Hufschmid Chair in Strategic Public Relations and Business Communication at USC.

I am sometimes asked where people should go to study contemporary culture. Now I know.

The ‘wicked grin’ test (as a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

How to manage many stakeholders

Thomas Campbell at the MET.scapA note on style: I wrote this in a hotel room somewhere. I used Scapple from Literature and Latte to do it.  It was really just a note to myself. But then I thought, “maybe this is a better, more visual, way to present the post.” Tell me what you think about the form as well as the content, please.

Flight 1095

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Coming home from Phoenix on Friday, I found myself sharing the plane with Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Bret Stephens. Bryant and Bayer are SNL players. Stephens (below) is Foreign Affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

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I am guessing Bryant, Bayer, and Stephens have different views of the world. (This is a guess, but I am comfortable working by the “available light” of SNL and WSJ.)

I am guessing one difference of opinion turns on their ideas of America.

Bryant and Bayer taunt us for the sexism that diminishes men and women. Both of them excel at the performance of  a certain “sweet-faced” agreeableness, occupying stereotypes the better to destroy them.

Stephens, on the other hand, is a student of the American presence abroad, and especially alert to how it serves the cause of reasonableness in a world where fundamentalism now routinely makes reason almost impossible to obtain. (See his excellent book: America in Retreat.)

Not such different projects, after all. We could say these three Americans stand for different versions of liberty, that most American idea. Bryant and Bayer champion personal liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose personal identity, (and not have it forced upon them). Stephens champions political liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose collective identity, (and not have it forced upon them).Both oppose the enemies of liberty.

And they work together. Stephens insists on America as a “city on a hill” that promises liberty to those held captive by other polities, even as Bryant and Bayer keep the “city” true to its mission and investigate what happens to identity once gender stereotypes are thrown off. (First political liberty, then cultural liberty.)

To this extent, these three are all “on the same plane.”

But things, I think it’s fair to assume, end there.

When it comes to the presidential race, Bryant, Bayer and Stephens have much less in common. I guess that Bryant and Bayer favor Hilary, if not Sanders, while Stephens favors Cruz, but not Trump. (A man who cares this much about foreign affairs could not vote for a Donald Trump who, as the joke has it, doesn’t know who the prime minister of Canada is. We don’t need “available light” for this one, first principles will do.)

This difference makes a difference. Now these three, with so much in common, begin to press in opposite directions. Eventually, what they share, like the rest of American politics, begins to tear and perhaps eventually to vanish. I expect the political science of this problem is well charted. I want to comment on the anthropology.

Consider what might have happened had Bryant, Bayer and Stephens struck up a conversation on flight 1095. (As far as I know, they didn’t. They weren’t seated together. And, to my great regret, they weren’t seated with me.)

What would have happened to this conversation? Once they got beyond the pleasantries, was there common ground? Or are we now living with pockets of difference so different that mutuality is now in peril. This is what scares the anthropologist.

We could use comedy to construct a continuum. In a fully mutual culture, every one “gets” the joke as a joke. In a culture of failing mutuality, there are some people who don’t get they joke but they do at least understand that a joke was intended.

We have a linguistic convention here. The person who loves the joke looks at the person who has a puzzled expression, and asks, “You get the joke, right?” And the puzzled person says, “Oh, I get it. I just don’t think it’s that funny.”  At this point, we know there is some noise in the cultural system, but only some. Not all jokes are fungible. But all jokes are visible.

Then there is the third stage, the one we may be approaching now, and that’s when the puzzled person can’t tell that a joke was intended. (Some of Sarah Silverman’s jokes strike me that way. I am of course joking.) The puzzled person (me) is as if from another culture,. They do not share an idea of what “funny” (at least in this case) is. Somebody does something. Other people begin to laugh. Now when asked, “You get the joke, right?” the puzzled person replies “Um, no, I don’t. It’s funny? What’s funny?”

Sometimes when we storm at one another on the political stage, I wonder if this is not a theater made out of the narcissism of small differences. Really, we are just seizing on our differences as an opportunity for a jolly good shouting match. And who doesn’t like a shouting match.

But sometimes you have to wonder whether we are approaching a stage in which we are no longer (or less) mutually intelligible. You could argue that it is the unacknowledged task of SNL and the WSJ to craft a commonality, to help build a shared language, shared values, as we go. And sometimes this appears to work quite well.  But other times we are looking at the emergences, driven in part by the creative efforts of SNL and the WSJ, where small quantitative differences add up to big paradigmatic jumps. We start to separate.

There is no narcissism of big differences. The “jolly” and the “good” disappear. Then it’s strangers on a plane. Mutuality is now fugitive. (Having taken another flight.)

Here’s one possibility, that there is something about our present political process that is really perilous in the present moment. It’s an old system, designed to make it possible to capture the political will when people are scattered across a continent. This politics is a Mississippi where tiny differences in the hinter land are driven to aggregate until at the end of the day we have two parties and a few ideas. This aggregating process was valuable when the country was so geographically disaggregated. But now that we are so cultural disaggregated, it may force some contests and oppositions that are unnecessary.

Force us to make simple choices, and we rush to opposite sides of the ship of state. Find some way to capture the political will(s) in a more nuanced way, and we might escape we some of the enmity and some of the shouting match. (But now we are back in the realm of political scientist, and the anthropologist must defer to her better judgment.)

 

An interview with Noemi Charlotte Thieves

I had a chance to interview Noemi Charlotte Thieves on January 10. We were at a going-away party in Brooklyn and fell into conversation. The conversation was SO INTERESTING that I asked Noemi if we could step outside so that I could capture our conversation on my iPhone. (The ethnographic opportunity is always now.)

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. We had to find a fire engine and cue the fire engine and the driver couldn’t hit his mark. Finally we just had him drive into frame. I mean does the NYFD not give these people ANY media training? (We love. We kid.)

Noemi was wonderful to interview, an ethnographer’s dream, a gift from the gods of ethnography. He’s thoughtful, clear, vivid, expansive, intelligent, and illuminating.

I think Noemi is perhaps also a glimpse of the culture we’re becoming.

This interview 20 years ago would have been painful and sad. We were a culture of two solitudes. Filmmakers could be popular or they be experimental. And they were tortured by the choice. They were forced to choose one side or the other.

Sometime in the last 10 years, the two extremes began to draw together. (And ironies of ironies, this was roughly the period in which the two extremes of American politics began to drive apart.)  Genre and art have yet to find one another, but, as Noemi points out, the hunt is on.

So far, as Noemi also points out, it’s been a happy rapprochement. The popular stuff, while democratic and accessible, was obvious to the point of being laborious and “jump the shark” awful. And the artistic work was, too often, obscure. It was, actually, as the phrase has it, “deservedly obscure.” (There was a time when Canadians refused to watch anything that came from the National Film Board. They were effectively boycotting the work they were as taxpayers helping to fund.)

To combine the two extremes is to begin to construct a single American culture, a place where democratic clarity and artistic risk work together. Now, we have to figure out what to do about the politics.

(Thanks to Jeremy DiPaolo and Katie Koch for the introduction to Noemi. (How is Sweden?))

 

The rise of a celebrity culture

These images are from the Pantheon database at the Macro Connections group at Media Lab at MIT. They map what the Media Lab calls “historical cultural production” and the relative proportion of famous people by time, place and category.

I asked the database to report on fame in the US for three periods:
1900 – 1910
1900 – 1950
1900 – 2010

The most striking results:

Mattering more:

actors

singers and musicians

athletes

Mattering less:

writers

natural scientists and other academics

US in the period 1900 – 1910

 

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US in the period 1900 – 1950

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US in the period 1900 – 2010

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The glib thing to say is that the sky is falling, that we are a culture that cares more about celebrities than “serious people” and this must be taken as a measure of our essential triviality and an indication that the end is nigh.

Intellectuals especially like to recite the line from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, the one that says that too many of our celebrities are “famous for being famous.” And it feels nice to stand on our high horse and scorn contemporary culture, but it’s not very instructive or intelligent. It just makes us feel good.

In point of fact, no one is famous for being famous. At a minimum they speak to and for something in our culture, and only thus do they climb from the obscurity that otherwise holds the rest of us captive (and especially and increasingly scornful academics). (Boorstin was a fine and incredibly useful historian but this his most memorable phrase was not his best moment. I believe it stands as a Kuhnian confession of the limits of his paradigm, as if to say, “I can’t understand celebrity so I am going to say it isn’t anything.” Historian, heal thyself.)

An anthropological point of view obliges us to take a culture at its face and reckon with what it is, not what we think it should or shouldn’t be. This work has yet to be undertaken, but a few notes:

  1. Celebrities serve at our collective pleasure in a way that other elites do not. When we are done with a celebrity we are so very done with them. Now we scorn them as “has beens.”
  2. Celebrities are superbly adaptable. We need a different model of selfhood, a new version of maleness, a transformed model of what is “funny,” “charming” or “tragic,” there is an actor out there somewhere who is prepared to serve. This makes celebrity culture a useful “complex adaptive system” in the language of complexity theory. We can swap in the new, and swap out the old, easily and without any real cost (to us). (The cost to celebrities of our capriciousness is cruel. Do we care? We don’t care. We make French monarchs look like models of compassion.)
  3. Individual celebrities are sometimes highly experimental and we should signify this as the US Air Force does with an “X.” When an airplane is called the X15 the Air Force is warning us that it is experimental and not to be completely surprised if it falls from the sky. Why not call him XRussellCrowe (and watch for flying telephones).

 

Source: Yu, A. Z., et al. (2016). Pantheon 1.0, a manually verified dataset of globally famous biographies. Scientific Data 2:150075. doi: 10.1038/sdata.2015.75

Thanks to the Macro Connections group at MIT.

Give the database a spin here.

Thanks to Thomas Ball for the find and the head’s up. Hat’s off to Cesar Hidalgo and the Media Lab. We have too little data on culture in motion and America is nothing if not a culture in motion.