Category Archives: Ethnography Watch

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.

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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 Seichrist)
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.

Chris Rock teaches a course on ethnography

photo-1America has a tradition of interviewers who can’t really interview.  I think it may start with Johnny Carson.  It got worse with David Letterman.  It may improve with the new lot on late-night.  We shall see.

Of course it’s wrong to ask comedians to interview well.  Their job is to find the funny and pitch the film.  There’s no time to ask a real question, no chance to open a view corridor on the guest.

But surely, we are a little sick of Hollywood “personalities” and would cheer the host who could occasionally crack open that polished candy coating called celebrity for a glimpse of the person within.  Is it too much to ask for the occasional question that goes the heart (perhaps even the soul) of the guest?  What could it hurt?  As prime time TV gets better, surely late-night could improve a little too.

Which brings us the Chris Rock documentary called Good Hair.   This is not late-night, but it could make a real contribution to late-night (and anyone else who wants to learn how to be a better ethnographer).

Good Hair is filled with great interviewing. The camera takes in Rock occasionally and while there is no question that he is aware of the camera and no question that he is sometimes playing to the camera, we catch him listening well (as pictured).

There are several enemies of ethnography.  One of these is self absorption.  Vain people can’t ask a question that has any hope of revelation because they only care about themselves.  They are dark stars, their curiosity never escapes the gravitation field of their own egos.  All questions bend back on the bearer.

The other enemy of ethnography is self dramatization.  Think of John McLaughlin, all bluster and tough mindedness (and no trace of nuance or thoughtfulness).  The interview is merely a platform for the McLaughlin performance, and this is now tedious.

It may be that Chris Rock is already a big enough star that he doesn’t need to commandeer the interview for his own purposes.  In any case, he doesn’t.

In Good Hair, Chris Rock demonstrates one of the really interesting moments of the interview, that moment when the ethnographer isn’t exactly sure what he’s asking and the interviewee is working hard to answer but doesn’t quite know what he/she is answering, and neither party is fully in control of the interview.

A guy like Larry King wants to keep things tidy.  The questions are crisp.  And answer are crisped.  King fields a answer and bangs off the edges, the imprecisions, the glimmers of some other meaning.  And, to be fair, this is the obligation of the old TV, to make things indubitable.

But things have changed.  Imprecision is forgivable.  It is indeed an opportunity.  You the ethnographer are not sure what you are asking.  You can just feel something out there beyond the scope of the interview.  And the interviewee, bless him/her, shares the intuition and is prepared to go looking.  Even if this means being a little vague for a moment.

There are several moments in Good Hair when the interview just floats.  Rock and his respondents are waiting for answers to form.  Sometimes, there’s silence.  What we can hear is people struggling to figure out how to think about this, how to talk about this.  These are delicious moments.  This is how you capture culture.

Clearly, it helps a lot that Rock is talking about a topic (hair) that is not much talked about. It’s a topic surrounded, he discovers, by prohibitions.  People don’t talk about it.  Even to themselves.  Coaxing this kind of knowledge out of its prohibited space is always interesting, and to get in on camera is really superb.

We are a culture enamored of ethnography.  And we are surrounded by bad interviewing and terrible interviewers.  Those of you looking for a short course on ethnography might consider watching Good Hair.