Ethnography at the MSI meetings


The Marketing Science Institute meetings on ethnography are
now over. 

A couple of things impressed.

1. The ethnography for corporate purposes is around 20 years old, and already is said to be indispensable for five of the corporations at the conference: Kodak, Intel, P&G, Miller Brewing and Philips.  Wow.  Not bad for a method that was widely sneered at in the early years. 

2. The stand-off between qualitative and quantitative methods may still have hot spots in the academic world, but this contest is now over in the corporate world.  The corporation is method agnostic.  Now that ethnography has been blessed by both A.G. Lafley and the Marketing Science Institute, it a method in good standing, and no longer the dubious stranger who just keeps "barging in."

3. In the early days of corporate ethnography, the insights were sufficiently robust that the method could be forgiven some of its eccentricities and eccentrics.  That’s now over.  New standards are coming.  Some practices and practitioners will have to go.  Qualifications, rigor, discipline, quality control, these are the new watch words.  Unless they are really good (and some are), "self trained" ethnographers should find another field.  This time around, who knows, they might like to pose as surgeons, pilots, or possibly NASA engineers.  But it’s time to go. 

Eventually, the business schools and the design schools will make themselves useful here in the supply of training systems.  But as it stands, almost all the b-school academics who care to teach this stuff were in the room [John Sherry (Notre Dame), Eric Arnould, Linda Price (Arizona), Lisa Penaloza (Colorado), Craig Thompson (Wisconsin) and Rob Kozinets (York and MIT)] and this is not a good sign.  Still, the MSI conference happened largely at the inspiration of John Deighton, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.  He is as impressive a patron (god father?) as the field could hope for.  Perhaps b-schools and design schools will now rise to the occasion. 

4. Ethnography  reels in lots and lots of very messy data.  We can extract value from these data if and only if we have formidable powers of pattern recognition.  This means it is useful to be an anthropologist as well as an ethnographer.  That is to say, it helps if you know something about the formal properties of social life and cultural matters.

But you don’t have to be an anthropologist.  (In fact, a lot of anthropologists couldn’t find their way out of an ethnographic study with a flashlight and a GPS PDA.)  Nor do you need to be a sociologist or hold an advanced degree.  But you have to have spent some time thinking in a formal way about culture and your culture, preferably in the company of the likes of Durkheim, Goffman, Warner, Levi-Stauss, to name a few.  You may choose your own leading lights, your own "pattern suppliers," but you have to have some.  It’s not enough to have "read a book about proxemics" in college. 

Pattern recognition depends upon having many, formal "patterns" at hand.  These patterns do not do the work of analysis.  Our conclusions will always depart from them.   But they give us templates with which to work, and when you are deep in the 2nd hour of your 6th interview of a project and the data are piling up all around you, interpretive options are most welcome.

5. Ethnography has always been a way to make good on marketing’s wish to be "consumer centric."  Ken Anderson of Intel showed how effectively it can help this corporation answer the big question from Theodore Levitt: "what business are you in?"  In Intel’s case, ethnography helped demonstrate that the one of the new objectives was not so much the "digital home" as "digital homemaking."  This small difference in phrase makes for a vast difference in product development and marketing.  It’s the difference between a product development literalism ("let’s wire the home") and capturing the concerns of the consumer and the value for which they will surrender value. 

6.  But Ethnography is also useful because it makes the corporation more responsive.  Everyone know lives in a world that bucks and weaves with novelty.  Michael Kallenberger of Miller Brewing showed as some of the ferocious innovation taking place in the bar.  Beer consumption is falling in part because women now influence men’s consumption choices in ways they never did before.  This is a huge change, both recent and quite sudden.   That beer consumption numbers was falling, this was a simple quantitative matter.  Why these numbers were falling, this came from the ethnographic side.  What to do about it?  This too will in part spring from the ethnographic work, as Miller Brewing thinks about way of repositioning beer to speak to the "bar cultures"  now emerging. 

7.  And that is, as Dominique M. Hanssens, the Executive director of MSI, pointed out, one of the most important contributions ethnography can make.  It turns out to be a good lantern to take with us when we go looking for innovation.   Innovation is not usually a really great idea we find fully formed sitting neglected in a corner of the consumer culture.  ("Velcro, of course!") Innovation often depends on a conceptual cunning, that sudden insight that if we look at this problem or product or person in a slightly new light, everything changes.  (Not a digital home, but digital home making.)  Innovation comes, that is to say, to those who are capable of changing conceptual frame quickly, often and well.  Because it is so good at provoking and then managing messiness, ethnography delivers value here.  Indeed, it sometimes seems to me almost as if purpose build for critical parts of the innovation process.

8.  One of the real challenges that remains stands at the border between outward research and inward process.  Some corporate cultures have a hard time bringing the ethnographic insight fully in-house.  Mike Lotti (Kodak) Ken Anderson (Intel), Michael Kallenberger (Miller Brewing) all showed that the corporations has now drawn so much value from ethnographic work that the way is paved.  Resistance is down.  Transmission is fast.  Insights are lasting.  Lisa Phelan and Alejandra Arreaga (Philips) outlined a "persona" technique that helps preserve the insight through the product develop process. 

All and all, then, a good conference.  It marks an interesting development in the maturation of the field.  This is no longer the "little method that could," no longer the methodological outlier, no longer the party crasher everyone wishes would just go home.  Ethnography is giving up its amateur status, its adolescent excesses, its most flagrant abuses.  It will make the corporation more responsive to consumers, more responsive to the dynamism of contemporary market places, and better at innovation. 

If there is a larger ethnographic/anthropological point to make here, it is that the corporation is a superbly adaptive animal.  I know how difficult it was for the corporation to "get" ethnography.  Here was a method that seemed to break all the rules of order and discipline that marketing had with some difficulty imposed upon itself.  Ethnography was anomalous and a little nervous making.  (I know.  When I was doing ethnography in the 80s, people shouted at me for daring to do so.)  But it didn’t take long before the corporation took on even this.  Unlike the academic world from which ethnography largely sprang, the corporate world, always liquid and restless, always opportunity and advantage seeking, said, "oh we don’t want to do this but we will."  Capitalism was responsive enough to take up this odd little duck of a method, and having done so, is more responsive still. 


Thanks to Marnie Clippenger, John Deighton, Dominique Hanssens, Donna Peck, Ross Rizley, Earl Taylor and the rest of the MSI team for a great conference. 

18 thoughts on “Ethnography at the MSI meetings

  1. Andrew

    Hello Grant,

    It was a pleasure to meet you at the MSI conference.

    I agree that you don’t have to be an anthropologist to do ethnography, but having formal training in anthropology does give one a unique perspective. Anthropology as you know, but others might not, is composed of four sub-fields, each one uses the ethnographic method, but makes you think about and see certain aspects of culture differently.

    From social anthropology you learn the ethnographic method, how to do ethnography, But chronicling behavior is not what anthropology is about, anthropology is about finding out what meaning lies behind the behavior. For that you need theory and that is what you also learn in this branch. I can remember stumbling out of the Foucault, Barthes, or a Bourdieu lecture, and me and my class mates saying “What the @%$^ is this guy talking about ???” But after a few (beers) hours of hanging out together in the student union or some place on Guadalupe Street it began to make sense. Later when we were doing fieldwork we would reflect “you know if look at that behavior like Turner or Geertz, it would be performance”, or “If you look at that in terms of Blau’s social exchange theory it makes sense”.

    Archaeology, the anthropology of past cultures teaches us to look at material culture. After all, the only thing left at an archaeological site is material; all the people have gone away. But if the people are gone what does archaeology have to do with ethnography. Well it turns out quite a lot. In order to interpret the past you use ethnographic analogy. When excavating you come across a collection of artifacts. You then hypothesize what kind of behavior would generate this kind of material culture. Next you observe the hypothesized behavior in an extant culture, and the material remains of that behavior. (this can be everything from observing someone making stone tools, to village life in a non-complex culture). By analogy you associate the material culture and the behavior you observed in the extant culture with the material culture you discovered in an archaeological site and infer the behavior. This is a type of middle range theory, but just like the name implies it only gets you half way, it only gets you to behavior. You still need the theory to get at meaning.

    Speaking of meaning let me mention the third field of anthropology linguistics. In linguistics you usually begin with the basics like de Sausurre’s “Course on General Linguistics” and some of Pierce’s or Chomsky. Out of the classroom you use the ethnographic approach to study different forms of communication like graffiti, speech and music. What linguistics did for me was give me an appreciation of the nuances, complexity, and wide range of ways we communicate thought and meaning. Knowledge of the linguistic literature can also come handy in the corporate world when someone wants to bring in a new technique like semiotics.

    Last, but certainly not least is physical anthropology. From this subfield you observe the interaction of the humans or our relatives with the physical environment, like how a primate hand grips a tool. Observing the interaction of people with tools gets us into the field of ergonomics. Also I had to laugh when I heard someone talking about ethnography being such a flexible method that you could use it to study primate. I thought of Jane Goodall, yup, a physical anthropologist.

    I agree, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to practice ethnography, but it I think it gives you a more holistic perspective

  2. Candy Minx

    Thanks a lot for the run down of your conference, very interesting. I use a lot of these techniques in my line of work so nice to hear about it here. (I think Levi Straus sucks though heh heh, sorry).

  3. Tim

    If you have no explicit, theoretical orientation helping you to elicit meaning out of the observations, conversations, artifacts collected, etc. then you are not doing ethnography. You are probably doing something like descriptive, qualitative research or deep interviewing or whatever but it is not ethnographic research. I am not suggesting that one is better than the other, only that they are different. It is odd how reluctant people working in “ethnography” outside academia are to utilize theory, whether that use is to reject it or align with it. Ultimately, the practical utilization of social theory is the only distinction that determines whether one is practicing ethnography or general market research. Again, I am not privileging one over the other, just marking the difference.

  4. Steve Portigal

    I work with clients who want so badly to make the right thing for their customers – and similarly, I speak at a lot of events attended by people of all stripes (sensory scientists, product designers, marketers, tech writers, students) who want to learn HOW they can develop the skills to make the right thing for their customers.

    I don’t care if they call it ethnography or not. If that word is useful (because it has some buzz attached to it that will get ’em funded or get some attention to the work) then let’s use it. If not, whatever. I have long long since moved past the need to try and define the difference between “observational reseaarch” and “contextual research” and “user research” and “field visits” – in fact, early on in one of my presentations I put up a laundry list of methodologies and plaster “WHAT-EVER” on top of it.

    There are places to make these distinctions. Apple is not Banana and is not Grape, but if we’re discovering Fruit, or if we’re asking for a fruit salad, we may not care.

    (okay that may have been the crappiest metaphor ever. I apologize).

    At any rate, I find more opportunities to have impact by ignoring the difference and speaking to the fundamentals of what I’m trying to help them with – getting out of their own space, getting someone else’s perspective, listening, synthesizing, and designing to what has been discovered.

    We help our clients solve real business problems; help them see the world differently, help them innovate. We bring in something new, and we practice it very well.

    Frankly, the discussion of what it is (and seemingly most important to some people is what it is NOT) doesn’t help them, it doesn’t help me.

    Maybe I’m missing some of the point – I agree with the ease-of-entry into this field leading to some crap work, but I don’t necessarily make the connection between that symptom and the sort of response that is emerges here (and everywhere else I encounter this conversation; i.e., EPIC, anthrodesign).

    I touch a lot of different communities in my professional networks, conferences, mailing lists, advisory boards, teaching, whatever. And it’s only the academically trained anthros that give off a certain vibe of “we’ll decide who can belong” – it’s so anomalous that I vacillate between ignoring it and gaping in astonishment.

    As far as theory goes, I’d love to read something online or hear someone talk at a conference, where theoretical references are presented with eagerness, sharing, encouragement, and excitment (you’ve GOT to read blah-blah-blah because it’ll totally rock your world about blip-bloop-bloo), rather than the snooty shibboleth it often poses as. Can we spread more of this good stuff around?

  5. Paula Thornton

    Steve brings up an important point that is also illustrated by Grant’s previous post at analytics is not just the work of ethnography. Indeed where do you think the ethnographers got it from?

    While I will agree that there is much for us who are engaged in such analytics to learn from one another, as Steve pointed out, this will not occur when stances of ‘hands off’ or ‘exclusivity’ are taken by those who mistakenly believe that they hold ALL the keys: they simply hold some of them.

    While this topic has always had great significance for me, it is even more relevant as I made a subtle distinction when pulling together a Design and Administration strategy recently. This distinction was made more relevant by my recent experience of being immersed in analysis as Texas Instruments, where the effort for analysis was mistakenly assumed to ‘magically occur’ or indeed (as has been stated elsewhere) that it is obvious to everyone.

    Because of the huge distinctions that deep analysis can bring, I created a ‘role’ that brought together all of the relevant design research into one role, whose primary focus was to serve as the steward for all research. It was not that the individual conducts all the research, but that they bring together the research to look for the patterns, to draw conclusions, to test the conclusions and to bring to bear the most relevant value that can be produced: to tell the story of the discovery, so that all may be enlightened.

  6. Natasha

    As a self-labelled “ethnography specialist” in a marketing research firm, I am always looking for ways to do what I do better. I think we have a lot to learn from each other – as ethnography practitioners – “offically” trained in anthropology or not. Great comments!

  7. Tim

    I am not so much interested in boundary maintenance — although that is not inconsequential if you get undercut by ACME ethnography who is doing things cheaper and less robustly than a service you also are trying to sell but is presenting it as same thing. I think then it kind of becomes a race to the bottom, a commodity which is already happening so my point may be moot. But that is not my main concern. What I was trying to suggest is that theory has a potentially powerful role to play in commercial ethnography but if the dominant practices (atheoretical) end up creating an ethnographic hegemony that devalues theory then I am not sure that serves anyone. As for the presentation of theory I think it is like any sales pitch, sometimes it is done well, sometimes not.

  8. Grant

    Andrew, It was great to meet you at the meetings and thank you for that overview of anthropology and the ways it helps supply patterns for its practioners! Makes me miss graduate school…I wouldn’t have thought that possible. Best, Grant

    Candy, what line of work are you in? I would like to know how the approach serves you. Best, Grant

    Tim, that’s well said, and I think its the descriptive stuff that is problematical. I know of one ethnographic supplier who believed his job was merely to ask the consumer what he or she wanted! Jeez, that’s not going to get the job done, but most of all it takes advantage of the real analytic advantages that training makes available. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, this “whatever” approach is I think philosophically disingenuous. If it didn’t matter what we called things, discourse would be the great seamless anti-analytical world it is for the nonliterate oral tradition. Terms would conveniently bend and blur. It would be exceedingly difficult to get real intellectual traction. But more to the point, I think the whatever approach is dangerous from a “best practice” point of view. Terms and training do sometimes help separate the sheep from the goats. Good marketplaces are well informed marketplaces. If we don’t discourage incompetence and misrepresentation, if we don’t make it clear to the client that some terms have quality control built into them, we are inviting the day we get dismissed because we deliver an approach on which others have brought discredit. I am not saying we need to SixSigma the method. I am not saying everyone needs to be an anthropologist. I am saying that people need training and standards, or the pretenders will damage the brand. Thanks! Grant

    Paula, notice that the post does not say that you have to be an anthropologist, it says merely that some formal training is called for, unless this method is to be merely descriptive, merely observational opportunism, there have to be patterns in the ethnographer’s heads that serve him or her. Otherwise, the sheer volume of data and interpretive possibility must sink the possibility of insight. So it doesnt have to be anthropology, but it does have to be something. I have quite prepared to suppose that this something can be a life team of careful observation. Thanks, Grant

  9. Grant

    Natasha, again, I am not claiming that anthropology should be the arbiter here. In general, anthropologists have been so naive, self indulgent, and incompetent when it comes to the study of their cultures, that the world felt obliged to come in and take the “culture” concept away. The same thing is happening with ethnography and quite right too. But this can’t be that anyone and everyone can claim to do ethnography, anymore than anyone and everyone can do air traffic control. It’s hard to do well! I wonder if the planning community might step up with training. Or, again, the bschools or the dschools (design schools). It shouldn’t be all that hard to create a series of courses. As you say, we all can learn from one another. Thanks, Grant

    Tim, yes, I think we could have give up the term “theory” which in a postmodern world points the way to terminological and conceptual delirium. Patterns. That’s more modest and more clear. I don’t want to ask someone “well, what theory are you using here?” But I would like to be able to say “so what’s the pattern that’s works here.” This is merely a way of asking for a simple proposition, with terms, and relationships. Best of all, it “commissions” the listener to ask for terms and relationships to be further defined and clarified. Then we can say where we are. Thoughts only. Thanks! Grant

  10. Steve Portigal

    Grant – to clarify, I’m saying that it does not *always* matter what we call things, not that it *never* matters. And we all know from working with companies that you encounter the jargon culture; if you don’t work within their jargon, you may not succeed; you may not be heard. “I’m sorry but what you are referring to as participatory design is more correctly described in the literature as immersive/exploratory contextual ethnography.” I can hear the doors (and minds) slamming shut.

    For people who are trying to get a handle on what the heck this thing is, I’d rather speak to their guts than to the part of their brain that serves as a dictionary. I try to describe what happens and what the results are. But I’m more creating awareness than creating experts in these instances. “What-ever” means that people should rrrrreeeeeelllllaaaaxxxx – this is not some scary post-doctoral conceptual approach that should frighten them. The basics (the basics, not the expertise) is fairly straightforward.

  11. Paula Thornton

    Grant said: “the post does not say that you have to be an anthropologist” and then said “there have to be patterns in the ethnographer’s heads that serve him or her”.

    But he also ended on a good note specifying that ‘careful observation’ also applies. I agree with the premise and I will categorically state that I even understand the significance of this conversation in spite of any ‘formal’ education I received — except for economics…

    Andrew said: “anthropology is about finding out what meaning lies behind the behavior”

    So is economics (at least neoclassic economics).

    Andrew also said: “I agree, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to practice ethnography, but it I think it gives you a more holistic perspective”

    Again, I don’t disagree — and heaven forbid, you will even see me saying things like, “all things equal on a resume, if they either have an anthropology background or an economics background, pick them”. But holistic perspectives are also to be found in Systems Thinking and Complexity Theory. In fact, I would suggest that the ‘depth’ of what you learn in those disciplines related to ‘whole’ thinking might be better.

    So, as considering how similar arguments (or ‘deep discussions’ depending on your perspective) in other venues have gone awry with no progress to be seen from the effort, we need some ‘concepts’ from which to converse among ourselves and others.

    The distinction that Grant made between ‘theory’ and ‘pattern’ is key. We need a bunch more common terms like that.

  12. ken

    Sometime in my past I watched the Bob Newhart show, the one where he was a pyschologist. He was married to someone named Carol, I think. What was interesting about Bob and Carol was that although Bob was doing psycho-therapy at work, Carol was more of the therapist to family and friends. Now it could be that Carol was therapist to many people. It could even be that Carol was a better therapist. What Bob had, as a therapist, however, were credientials. The credintials didn’t make him better or worse than Carol. Maybe ethnography is where psycho-therapy was in the late 50’s struggling for recognition as a profession.Whether you are Bob or Carol, or Ted or Alice, probably doesn’t really matter much in the short run

  13. Rick Wash

    One place that is really picking up the slack in training the `corporate ethnographers’ that you speak of is Information Schools. Information schools (like the School of Information at Michigan, the Information school at University of Washington, SIMS (now SI) at Berkeley and others) are training students in doing ethnographic work with the intent of becoming “information professionals” that can accomplish exactly what you speak of.

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  16. Ron

    I am attempting to locate Prof. Linda Price. Please email me if you can assist. I was a student of hers 25 years ago in Pittsburgh. Thanks.

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