Ethnography and the “extra data” opportunity

My profession has a problem.  It is awash in hacks and pretenders.  I am guessing that 1 in 3 ethnographers is more or less incompetent.

It is easy to identify some of the offenders.  Some actually claim to be “self trained.”  Others are focus-group moderators simply renamed.  Still others actually claim competence on the grounds that they “roomed with an anthropology major in college.”  There has to be a way to separate the sheep from the goats, and we have to do it fast.   Commercial ethnography could easily go the way of the focus group.

Every so often there are murmurs that would take us in the direction of certification.  But I don’t think this is a great idea.  It would be expensive, time consuming, and bureaucratic.  Worst of all, some practitioners are very good indeed but have no training or disciplinary credential to call their own.  (Conversely, there are anthropologists with splendid academic qualifications who cannot do an ethnographic interview to save their lives.)

In my presentation on Monday at EPIC 2006, I proposed that we might want to take advantage of the “extra data” effect.  Ethnography is often most useful when we don’t know what we need to know.  The method is good at casting the net wide.  We ask lots of questions.  Collect lots of data.  Apply lots of theory and interpretation.  Eventually, we begin to see what it is we need to see.  At the end of this process we find ourselves in possession of a lot of data we cannot use.  This “extra data” is an opportunity.  [caveat lector: I am going to ignore the fact that data is plural.]

I propose we start reporting some of this data, as a contribution to the understanding of contemporary culture.  The Victorians began a publication called “Notes and queries in Anthropology” in which occasional, sometimes slender ethnographic observations were exposed to public view and so made to contribute to the fund of knowledge that helps informed and shaped professional discourse.

Notes and queries need not be long.  They need only be well chosen, well shaped, and well received.  I  believe that the authors of useful and intelligient notes and queries would effectively identify themselves as ethngraphers of standing.  Silence or incompetence on this issue would identify the ethnographer as unwelcome.  This is a Millian proposition, on the one side, and a complexity theory notion on the other.  Good people will attract attention.  Bad people will suffer obscurity.  Eventually, clients will migrate from the bad to the good. Eventually, the hacks will be starved out of the field.  (My favorite suggestion is that for their next act of imposture, why not pose as self trained engineers?)

There are a couple of understandable, but I think, unsustainable, objections.  The first of these is the notion that the client pays for the collection of this data and his or her interests are violated by its revelation.  This is sometimes quite wrong.  Some years ago, I came across some “extra data” of a very interesting kind.  I had the opportunity to interview a couple living in suburban Kansas City who has embraced the Black Athena scheme right down to the ground.  Virtually all the design elements of their homes played out the cultural motifs of ancient Egypt.  What made this data precious is that it showed that an idea that was merely an idea when published in 1987 was now a reality, a powerful personal identity some 15 years later.  That it could go from academic statement to lived reality in so short a time says something about the dynamism of American culture.

Now, the data was collected while I was doing interviews with people who subscribed to the mutual fund owned by my client.  The Black Athena data did not bear on the mutual fund issue in a direct or useful way.  Nothing of the client’s interest is compromised by its revelation.

Often, the extra data is not so spectacular as this.  Sometimes it is, when we are going a project, say, on cleaning project that we hear a mother talk about new models of child rearing that we are gifted with something revelational.  We may published as a note or a query and the interests of the maker of cleaning projects is compromised not at all.

Now to be sure, there are moments when it is frustrating to observe the silence that is our professional obligation.  I believe that a project I did recently for Mark Murray at Diageo helped uncover an important shift taking place in Western cultures.  But this finding is so essential to Diageo’s competitive advantage, it must be kept utterly, scrupulously secret.  There can be no compromising on this point.  But these moments are, I think, an interesting consolidation.  It is precisely that we have really nailed something that we are most required to shut up about it.  Keeping secrets is not just a point of honor but a badge of honor.

Blogs are of course the perfect medium for our notes and queries.  So the technology is there.  I think we can expect editors to step forward and perform some of the work of pattern detection and aggregation, reporting back to all those who contributed and and the world at large.  Indeed, this function could be take another step forward, as these editor treat bloggers as stringers, gathering data in our many little projects and drawing them together into embracing understandings of the present and future characteristics of American culture. This is almost precisely the model used by Lewis Henry Morgan (1818 – 1881), one of the founders of American anthropology.  (Morgan working as a lawyer by day, wrote a way to colonial administrators around the globe and implored them to collect kinship data on his behalf.)

There is lots more to report about the EPIC conference and I will do this tomorrow and Thursday.  Anyone interested in seeing my powerpoint slides, they should be available on the Epic 2006 website sometime today (Tuesday) or tomorrow, thanks to the kindness of Ken Anderson, who, with Tracey Lovejoy, staged a deeply interesting conference.


McCracken, Grant. 2004.  Black Athena, White Yogi, and a very smart little girl. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of anthropology and economics.  July 25, 2004.  here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005.  Ethnography and Quality Control.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of anthropology and economics.  June 27, 2005.  here.  [for the “self trained” remark]

Urry, James.  1972.  “Notes and Queries on Anthropology” and the development of field methods in British Anthropology, 1870-1920.  Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, pp. 45-57.

Last note:

There is an interesting exercise called Savage Minds and subtitled Notes and Queries in Anthropology that might serve as a precedent for what I am proposed.  It is a “collective web log devoted to bother bringing anthropology to a wider audience as well as providing an ouline forum for discussing the latest developments in the field.”  here.  See also Ethno::log here.

7 thoughts on “Ethnography and the “extra data” opportunity

  1. Bill Jackson

    I think I might fall under the “ethnographic hack” classification, but I do subscribe to the “cast the net wide” philosophy. I am working on a project to get people to tell their own home and neighborhood’s story at, and would welcome any ethnographic-oriented comments about how to make the site more useful for people trying to conduct research into local history.

  2. Duncan

    A quick — if dark — rejoinder to your Millian optimism. I think you may have neglected the relevance of Gresham’s Law, Grant. It is the economic law that bad currencies drive out good. It has been the rule, rather than the exception, in the humanities for a generation. And these seeds are being strewn all over the culture. Wo betide us if this law were equally applicable to ethnography!

  3. dilys

    I suspect Duncan is right. I remember a “community” fostered by a then-hip magazine in the late 90’s. For about two years it dazzled, both in conversation and assorted data points. Somehow it became known, and the influx of Living Homage to Gresham emptied the room of interest in little over a month.

    If participation there had any resume value, it would have to be independently evaluated piece by piece, and the “era” of participation determined.

    I predict if you can create something like you describe, there will need to be a preliminary gatekeeping sooner or later, which would screen but not include the unlikely except as s/he is already known to someone who is already known.

  4. Natasha


    Thanks for bringing this up in your blog. I just got home from EPIC this morning with a mind full of questions, good questions, about etnography as practice and what makes good practice.

    The biggest learning I took away from the conference was the distinction between method and analysis and that what separates the sheep from the goats rests on the rigour of analysis that is somehow theoretically informed.

    The idea of finding a way to catalogue or capture “extra data” is very appealing. On what grounds, though, do we define what “useful and intelligent” notes and queries are – in light of the larger context and mission of such an exercise? I would, of course, much prefer to fall on the side of “ethnographer of standing” than “hack”.

  5. steve

    The hack problem will only endanger the whole field if there is a) a moment of reckoning–an era when the falsity or inanity of bad work becomes spectacularly clear and b) a substitute fad or method presents itself that can take the place of ethnography. My guess is that neither condition is very likely. Just as ineffective advertising has run rampant for decades because it’s hard to disprove effectiveness, ethnography will not clearly “fail.” And just as no one has really come up with a viable or plausible substitute for advertising, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to put forward something that sounds a lot better that accomplishes the same thing.

    More likely is a cycling and fad-bubbling with different styles of ethnography or theory rising and sinking in prominence, getting relabeled, etc. For example, it wouldn’t shock me if somebody started pushing the wonders of content analysis software for use on interview transcripts. That kind of churn is more like what happens in strategy, where we have at least our fair share of hacks and snake-oilers.

  6. Grant

    Bill, thanks for your comment and for letting us know about your sensational project. What a great idea. You and Leora Kornfeld should be talking. Will send you her particulars. Best, Grant

    Duncan, good point, its a problem, so the issue is how to push back without turning the field into another self congratulatory, self serving elite. Thanks, Grant

    Natasha, thanks for the comment, I think the ethnographers who do analysis are already beginning the process of separation. Lots of practitioners seem content with “thin description” to rewrite Geertz and hopefully it won’t be long before clients begin to ask for more. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, I guess I think the moment of reckoning is already upon us, there are clients sitting in rooms all of the US going, “this is what we paid for?” They will hold their tongues indefinitely. And then discreditation comes like a rising tide, lots of little acts of skepticism and repudiation until a tipping point is accomplishment and the general consensus goes from positive to negative. Thanks, Grant

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