Something happened by accident today that it worth sharing. It’s a team work approach to the ethnographic interview.
I am in Moscow doing research for a client who had a smart idea. Why not, he said, train members of my team while you are doing your research. That way, I can build ethnographic sensitivity into the organization.
Fine, I said.
But it was tough. Research is always difficult. The method works best when it is maximally opportunistic and mobile, discovering things that might otherwise remain invisible. Ah, here’s how the consumer thinks about x or y. Often, this is so hard to anticipate from within the corporate culture that its hard to imagine the question that elicits it, let alone the answer eventually elicited.
To work opportunistically you want to be clear headed, intellectual mobile, transparent to the act of speech, and prepared to turn on a dime. Instead, you are working through a translator, badly jet lagged, wrong footed constantly by another culture, and otherwise off your game.
There were moments, I will say in candor, when it felt like this project was like trying to do archeology with a broom handle. But today, it clicked. The two clients reps and I somehow got down to it. This is not to say that the data were not forthcoming in the opening days of project. Not at all. The data came pouring in. But the interview process felt like a forced march (French soldiers on Moscow?), joyless and mechanical, with no synergies or momentums to make the grind of 3 interviews a day and endless traffic jams more tolerable. Today, we were air born.
I was the problem. I was keeping all the strategy to myself, and this meant that the method looked arcane, implausible, and unpromising. The odor of skepticism was audible. (Synethesia intended. Misspelling of synethesia accidental.) And there is something about the method that hates skepticism. I guess it’s because we are trying to enter the ideas and the emotions of the respondent, and any hostile presence works to jam the signal. I am not sure why this should be so. Perhaps empathy can detect it’s enemy and when empathy attempts to internalize anti-empathy, the result is predictably unpleasant.
Anyhow, as I say, I was the problem. Today, instead of merely asking a question for translation, I audibilized my strategy. "Look, the respondent has used this key term. I want to follow up." Or, "look, the respondent has set up a nice little contrast here. Let’s use it to find out more about x." Or, "I think what is going on here is maybe a shift towards spontaneity. What would be the best way to ask about that?"
This was a good idea because it made the questions make sense. It put the methodological strategies under glass. It invited a more intelligent, active participation. And these are things we know to be effective managerial approaches. (So why did I not think of this approach before?)
But the still larger up shot was that we began to work as a group. We were pooling our intelligence, our methodological abilities, our strategic gifts. One of the things that really worked well is that extent to which we were able to spell one another. One of us was working on the translation, one of the question at hand, one of the question to come. Some much of ethnography conflates the collection of data with the analysis of data that always we are caught doing several things at once. Team work allows a division of labor.
Furthermore, a group mind effect emerged. We were now thinking out of one another’s pocket, completing one another’s questions and sometimes thoughts. We would be working out of the fixed questions, when a new topic ran like a rabbit through the interview. Foxes all, we rose like one. The pursuit was a joy to watch, a joy to do.
Team interviewing might be the smart thing to do even when working in one’s own culture in one’s own language. Certainly, as my client surmised, it’s a great way to communicate the whats and the whys of ethnography and disseminate in in the corporate world. But I think it might even serve to inspire better ethnography and deliver better results.
And given how much really bad ethnography there is now in circulation, this would be a good thing.
I am not concealing the client’s name here but until I’m given the all clear signal, I can’t mention what I am working on or for whom. Thanks for your patience.