Ethnography on the spot

Double_eagleEthnography as a method has been used for corporate purposes for around 30 years, give or take.  It has adapted ferociously, but I don’t know anyone who is doing self conscious product development.   

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. 

post script

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.

4 thoughts on “Ethnography on the spot

  1. Peter

    Grant —

    I have experienced the good team interview you describe many times. Not being anthropologists, but just plain old market researchers, we always tried to do depth-interviews in pairs, for precisely the spell-ing reason you mention. While one is writing, the other can be listening and watching the respondent.

    I’ve also experienced the bad team interview. A friend used to describe it thus: “There are you are, quietly doing the interview with a fellow colleague, when right beside you, you hear a gun fired. You look at your colleague, and see that it was he who fired the gun — not at the respondent, but at you.”

    In the worst case, my co-interviewer colleague persisted in answering our questions himself, usually in contradiction to the answers the respondent gave, and did so very forcefully. He resisted my attempts to silence him. Eventually, the respndent, who had started off quite friendly to us, was responding with, “Whatever you say. You seem to know better than me!”

    You are right about empathy.

  2. Pamela

    I’ve noticed when TV speaks language we don’t really understand (those CSIs, coroners, doctors, etc.), they employ a similar technique. These characters include us, draw us in by just commenting to one another about what they saw, what it means, how they arrived at conclusions or questions, as they go along. They never reduce their use of technical terminology nor do they dumb it down. It occurred to me that colleagues of equal competencies would not need to explain things in such detail…and that’s when I began to see evidence of technique that is otherwise pretty transparent. A good example of “overshare” being a good thing! Happy to hear you had such a great day.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    For me, the wonderful part of talking about a method that is deeply intuitive is the invariable experience of seeing aspects of it which have been previously concealed. Because “teaching” qualitative research methods requires us to articulate a point of view, not a set of procedures, we are forced to reach into the situation in which we find ourselves (this particular set of collaborators, this research project, this culture setting…in its unique nested complexity) and speak in terms that will make sense HERE and NOW. New insights always result. So, as you’re describing the process of attending to the words/tone/embodiment of the person with whom you are conducting the research (the, “subject”) you find youself creating a newly constructed way of capturing the combined focused-vigilance/dwelling-openness that the research attitude demands.

    People really do catch on when you let them in on it, don’t they? I think it’s because this kind of research is founded in the everyday modes of understanding one another that enable us to be-in-the-world-with-other-people. After all, if we didn’t know (without thinking) what people meant when they did things we’d never be able to navigate a city block. Bringing that pre-reflective knowledge of others up to more articulable (sorry) levels is the stuff of teaching and learning, but it’s got a pretty good head start in our natural everyday lives.

  4. jens

    wonderful post, grant.
    thanks for sharing this.

    in “ethnographical” design research – let me just pick the term – although i was trained in cultural studies… so, in qualitative design research you very often have a situation similar to the “group interview” because you work with collages, photography and other techniques on a mainly visual level. you try to figure out the language and logic of a certain culture or subculture.
    as you are trying to detect both logic AND language it is vital for the communicating the results to your client that key players are at least partly involved in the research process as such.
    the great and rewarding thing about this: if it works out it is like opening peoples eyes. it is like making people see and at the same time you yourself are also discovering something for the first time.

    that is a truly wonderful process – and thank you very much, grant, for describing it here.
    it is a journey to the unknown… and nothing gives it certainty but your belief in finding the key… and you know you will always find the meaning… because culture never comes without

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