Tag Archives: ethnography

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.

Culture Camp London 2014

Ember

I am doing a Culture Camp in London June 13.  Here’s the description.  Please join us!

Course Description

This culture camp is designed to do two things:

1) expand your knowledge of the big changes transforming culture.

2) develop your ability to put this knowledge into action.

Culture is at the core of the creative’s professional competence.  It is the well from which inspirations and innovations spring.  It’s one reason startups and corporations need the cultural creative.  This culture camp is designed to enhance your personal creativity and professional practice.

1. Knowledge of culture

We will look at 10 events shaping culture.

Half are structural changes.

1.1 The end of status as the great motive of mainstream culture.

1.2 The end of cool as the great driver of alternative culture.

1.3 The movement between dispersive cultures and convergent cultures.

1.4 The movement between fast cultures and slow cultures.

1.5 The shift from a “no knowledge” culture to a “new knowledge” culture.

Half are trends:

1.6 transformations in the domestic world (aka homeyness to great rooms)

1.7 transformations in the scale and logic of consumer expectation (from the industrial to the artisanal)

1.8 shifts from old networks to new networks (especially for Millennials)

1.9 shifts from single selves to multiple selves (especially for Millennials)

1.10 [this one is ‘top secret’ and will be revealed on the day]

2.  Using our knowledge of culture 

2.1  how to discover culture (using ethnography)

2.2  how to track and analyze culture (using anthropology)

2.3  how to hack culture (making memes)

2.4  how to build a brand

2.5 how to make ourselves indispensable to the corporation

Culture Camp is being sponsored by Design Management Institute and coincides with their London meetings.  It is also being sponsored by Truth.  (Special thanks to Leanne Tomasevic.)

The image is from Yanko Tsvetkov’s Atlas of Prejudice 2.   I am keen to stage the culture camp in Tomato Europe, Wine and Vodka Europe, Olive Oil Europe, and of course Coffee Europe.  Please let me know if you are interested in participating or sponsoring.

Culture Camp will be held 9:00 to 5:00 on June 13 at the Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, as below.  (Register for the Culture Camp here.  You don’t have to be a DMI or RIBA member to do so.

Ember

Ethnography, a brief description

I just banged out a description of ethnography for a client.

Here it is:

Ethnography

The object of ethnography is to determine how the consumer sees the product, the service, the innovation.  Often, this is obscure to us.  We can’t see into the consumer’s (customer’s, viewer’s, user’s) head and heart because we are, in a sense, captive of our own heads and hearts.  We have our way of seeing and experiencing the world.  This becomes our barrier to entry.  Ethnography is designed to give us a kind of helicopter experience.  It takes up out of what we know and lowers us into the world of the consumer.

Ethnography is a messy method.  In the beginning stages, we don’t know what we don’t know.  We don’t know what we need to ask.  We are walking around the consumer’s world looking for a way in.  Eventually, as we ask a series of questions, we begin to see which ones work.  We begin to collect the language and the logic the consumer uses.  And eventually, we begin to see how they see the world.

The method is designed not to impose a set of questions and terms on the discussion, but to allow these to emerge over the course of the conversation.  We are allowing the consumer to choose a path for the interview.  We are endowing them with a sense that they are the expert.  We are honoring the fact that they know and we don’t.  (Because they do!)

Eventually, we end up with a great mass of data and it is now time to stop the ethnography and start the anthropology.  Now we will use what we know about our culture, this industry, these consumers, this part of America to spot the essential patterns that make these data make sense.  “Slap your head” insights begin to emerge.  “Oh, that’s what their world looks like!” “That’w what they care about!”  “This is what they want!”

And now we begin to look for strategic and tactical recommendations.  Now we can help close the gap between what the consumer wants and what the client makes.

(For a more technical description of the method, please see my The Long Interview. Sage.)

Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users

This is my Foreword for a new book on ethnographic method from Steve Portigal, Interviewing Users.  

–Foreword–

I was just looking at YouTube in a brave attempt to keep in touch with popular music, and I found the musician Macklemore doing a hip-hop celebration of the thrift store. (“Passing up on those moccasins someone else been walking in.”) Google results indicate that Macklemore is a product of Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington. And this is interesting because Evergreen produces a lot of ferociously creative kids—wild things who care nothing for our orthodoxy, and still less for our sanctimony.

Now, our curiosity roused, we might well decide to go visit Evergreen College, because as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Evergreen would be an excellent place to look for our futures. But it wouldn’t be easy or pleasant. We would struggle to get a fix on the sheer volcanic invention taking place here. Our sensibilities would be scandalized. We would feel ourselves at sea.

And that’s where ethnography comes in. It is, hands down, the best method for making our way through data that is multiple, shifting, and mysterious. It works brilliantly to help us see how other people see themselves and the world. Before ethnography, Evergreen is a bewildering place. After ethnography, it’s a place we “get.” (Not perfectly. Not comprehensively. But the basics are there, and the bridge is built.)

And that’s where Steve Portigal comes in. Armed with his method of interviewing, years of experience, a sustained devotion to the hard problems that our culture throws off (not just at Evergreen State College), and a penetrating intelligence, Steve could capture much of what we need to know about Evergreen, and he could do it in a week. And that’s saying something. Steve is like a Mars Rover. You can fire him into just about any environment, and he will come back with the fundamentals anatomized and insights that illuminate the terrain like flares in a night sky. Using his gift and ethnography, Steve Portigal can capture virtually any world from the inside out. Now we can recognize, enter, and participate in it. Now we can innovate for it, speak to it, serve it.

And if this is all Steve and ethnography can do, well, that would be enough. But Steve and the method can do something still more miraculous. He can report not just on exotic worlds like Evergreen, but the worlds we know—the living room, the boardroom, the not-for-profit, and the design firm. This is noble work because we think we grasp the world we occupy. How would we manage otherwise? But, in fact, we negotiate these worlds thanks to a series of powerful, intricate assumptions. The thing about these assumptions is that, well, we assume them. This means they are concealed from view.

We can’t see them. We don’t know they are active. We don’t know they’re there. Ethnography and Steve come in here, too. They are uniquely qualified to unearth these assumptions, to discover, in the immortal words of Macklemore, those moccasins we all go walking in.

This is a wonderful book. Steve can teach us how to improve our ability to penetrate other worlds and examine our assumptions. Ethnography has suffered terribly in the last few years. Lots of people claim to know it, but in fact the art and science of the method have been badly damaged by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

Let’s seize this book as an opportunity to start again. Let Steve Portigal be our inspired guide.

Use discount code mccracken2013 to get 20% off Steve’s book here.(http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/interviewing-users/).

The anthropologist’s briefcase

I am planning ethnographic interviews for the new year and I’m putting together an equipment list. 

An ethnographic interview is a delicate thing.  You are trying to build trust with a perfect stranger, sometimes in their own home or workplace.  

The trick is to keep distractions to a minimum.  (Because from distractions, suspicions, detachment and alienation often come.)  

Two principles follow from this.

1.  If you can help it, you don’t want an extra person in the room, fiddling with equipment, gazing around, and otherwise distracting your respondent.  In a perfect world, you would operate everything yourself, setting it up and letting in run.  (There is lots to be said for having someone worry about the tech while you worry about the interview, so the jury is for me still out on this question.)

2.  You want as much video/audio fire power as possible in the smallest form factor possible.  You don’t want the camera, mics or lights to get in the way.  

This camera pictured here is the JVC GY HM 150U.  It has good picture and good sound.  It has time code that consumer cameras doesn’t.  It records in .mov so which means files can be sent directly to Final Cut Pro.  It has the capacity to record great chunks of testimony.  It is reasonably inexpensive (~$2100.00) and it is surprisingly small.  (This picture makes it look larger than it is.)

We are an image-crazy culture so some people think their work is done when they buy a good(ish) camera.  But sound is absolutely key.  

And that means buying a good microphone.  The Sennheiser EW ENG G2 gets good reviews on Amazon.  It’s around $700.00.

Good lighting is also important and I am just not sure what the best/smallest kit is here. Dec. 18 addition: just came across the Westcott Icelight and while not cheap, this looks little and light.  Here it is on Amazon.  

Your comments please!

Acknowledgements

I asked Rob Kozinets for his advice on this matter a couple of years ago, and I believe the Sennheiser microphone system was his suggestion.  So thanks to Rob for his advice.  All other suggestions are my own and I wouldn’t act on any of them without a “second opinion.” 

Reality TV: not as bad as we think?

Here’s a post I recently published on Wired.

I argue that Reality TV might not be as bad as we think.  Notice how ferociously the comments resist this idea.  Talk about provoking the orthodox(y)!

Please click HERE.

Ethnographic Walk-About (or, what to do with the rest of your summer)

A former student is searching for what to do next.  With her summer…or her life.  She’s flexible.  

Here is the reply I sent her this morning:

Dear Jennifer (not her real name):

Thanks for your note.  Great to hear your voice again.

It feels to me that you are more or less uniquely positioned to do an ethnographic walk-about.

You have a great eye, a great voice, you are not wedded to any particular ideology or cultural camp, you have a breadth of experience, you are mobile in almost every sense of the term.

It feels to me like everyone is burrowing, sticking to what and who they know. There is stuff happening “out there,” but people are so shocked by the new that they can’t manage the novelty. So they are not mobile.

I would get someone to give you a mandate and just go looking. My hero her is Frances FitzGerald’s 1986. Cities on a Hill, A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. Simon and Schuster. She doesn’t make the mistake that hobbles a good deal of American journalism and scholarship, the mistake that supposes that only on the margin are we going to find something new and interesting. She casts the net wide.  And that’s especially important now, because cultural innovation is taking place everywhere.  The avant-garde no longer owns the ingenuity or courage necessary to reimagine the world.  

Go have a look! Most people are not looking. And most of those who are, are looking through lens so particular that they ALWAYS find what they are looking for, and miss what is really going on.  All we know for certain is that Americans are as usual reinvented themselves as a furious pitch and pace.  We don’t have a clear idea of who and what they are becoming.  And that’s probably a bad thing.

Good luck and keep me posted.

Best, Grant

Purchase FitzGerald at Amazon by clicking here.  

Photo: Ms. FitzGerald from her wikipedia entry.