Ethnographic pretenders

Ethnography I was corresponding with a friend yesterday.  Bob directs research for a large corporation.  He has commissioned me a couple of times, and I am grateful that he did.  (He is, indirectly, a patron of this blog.)

As our emails were pinging back and forth, I looked over at the ads posted by Gmail in the right hand margin (eyes right here too).  I guess Bob and I had used the term "ethnography" in our email, and so, hey presto, I get to see an ad from a competitor.  (Talk about "just in time" and "just in place" placement.  This is pretty good value creation and as precise as marketing is ever going to get.)

Now, I will tell you what’s discouraging about this operation.  It makes ethnographic research it’s first offering.  And here’s how it describes it:

Our marketing expertise, in conjunction with our research backgrounds, allows us to structure ethnographic research projects that target consumer opinions and product usage. By interviewing respondents in their homes, offices, and places where they actually utilize products and services, we are better able to deliver actionable results that go beyond traditional Q&A research formats.

"Target consumer opinions and product usage?"  This is what you think ethnography does?  How very, very sad. Oh, you "interviewing people in their homes."  Really?   I not sure why this needs to be said, but let me point that doing an interview in someone’s home does not make it an ethnographic interview. 

Suspicions provoked, I looked to see the credentials of people at Jacobs Strategies.  Not a single degree in anthropology or any of the social sciences.  Someone was director of radio research.  Two people are "accomplished focus group moderators."  And the person in charge of "strategic research development and analysis" is said to be good an internet-based Web polling and expert in "developing comprehensive, yet easy-to-understand research presentations." 

This will not do.  This is operating under false pretenses.  Worse than that, this is tempting the fates.  The founders of this sort of research, Lloyd Warner, Burleigh Gardner, Syd Levy, Irving White, Philip Kotler, cannot be happy with you.  Personally, I try never to offend the Gods.  And I don’t think that’s just me. 

Of course, this is may be more honest than those research suppliers, and you know who you are, who hire an anthropologists, usually an A.B.D. (all but dissertation) as window dressing, a methodological beard, as it were, to give the appearance of due diligence.  Then the operation carries on, assigning "ethnographic" projects to people on staff who have never seen the inside of a sociological or anthropological classroom, who have no formal idea of what they are doing, who do indeed think that they are doing ethnographies because they are doing them in-home, and who often are too dim to think their way out of a wet-paper bag. 

It’s not as if there aren’t talented, well trained, methodologically sophisticated people out there.  I mean, there’s Steve Portigal, Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny, Katarina Graffman, (to name a few) or people trained by Russell Belk, John Sherry or Rob Kozinets (to name a few more).  This list is indicative, not exhaustive.  Surely, it’s time for us stop using this term loosely. 


Jacobs Strategies here.

Post script: If I have judged Jacobs Strategies unfairly, if indeed they do have on staff someone trained to do ethnography, I am most happy to correct this post.  And I would urge you to put your bona fides on the website!

4 thoughts on “Ethnographic pretenders

  1. Katarina Graffman

    A wonderful example of this is a very well-reputed comapany in Sweden doing ‘ethnography’ by giving some young people a possibility to picture their lives. And the worst part is the clients bying this. Phew.

  2. Julie, writer

    Ethnography is no longer limited to just anthropology. Mass communication has developed something called media ethnography of something of that sort. It is a more thorough and more symbolic in a sense style of interacting with a certain group of people or an individual subject. However, ethnography in whatever form, needs a good deal of interaction with the subject/s. It is not merely enough to just be an observer. Just sharing since we tackled the topic of ethnography a few weeks ago in class.

  3. Drew Breunig


    The one that REALLY irks is when research groups use the term, “self-ethnography.” No joke.

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