Category Archives: Ethnography

Person-centric brands and the role of ethnography

Nokia One statement:

At Nokia, we believe that nothing compares to the intimacy of face to face communication but people will always deal with the barriers of time and distance. We aim at making mobile communication as natural as possible, and technology as human as possible. There is no better way of achieving this than by People Centered Design. Its not about consumers, it’s not about users. It’s all about people.

Timo Veikkola, Nokia


Veikkola, Timo.  2007.  A view of the future – trends research, ethnography and design.  Weaving Usability and Cultures.  July 16, 2007.  here.

innovation, ethnography, culture, and the corporation

What’s a good way to explain culture?

Here’s one way to do it.  Suggestions are welcome.

Let’s say we wanted to ask a perfect stranger to participate in a relay race.  This stranger has no prior introduction to the idea of the race.  They have never heard of it. 

At a minimum, we’d have to explain the concept, the rules, the race. Drawing on the Wikipedia entry, we’d say something like

In a relay race, members of a team take turns running parts of a circuit.  Each runner hands off the baton to the next runner at a certain zone. 

In effect we are programming the stranger, supplying him or her with the knowledge he or she would need to participate in the event.  It’s going to be time consuming.  The stranger will say things like

ok, so you want me to carry this stick once around the track, and then give it to someone, right?

Right.  Fight temptation to roll eyes.  It’s actually a little bit more complicated.  Never mind, this will come.  First the idea, then the practice.  But finally, we’ve build knowledge into memory and ability into muscle memory.

Now the stranger can run the race.  Not well, but thanks to our efforts, he’s mastered the little things.  Like, well, listening for the starter’s gun, which way to run on the track, that he should "stay in his lane," to whom the baton should be passed.  "Not that guy.  He works for the competition.  That guy.  Better."   

When you break it down, it’s a lot of knowledge.  And it is not just stuff you need to know.  It’s stuff you need to have deeply embedded in mind and body.  When you stop assuming the things we all know about the relay race, the instructions, the software, turns out to be kinda intricate.  (We can imagine the code required to program a machine to run a race.)

Now compare this to the knowledge in the head of a member of the American relay team competing in Beijing this summer.  The Olympian knows exactly what the relay is, where to go, where to stand, what to do, and so on.  He or she has a deeply embedded knowledge of relay.

Ok, now compare these two people: the perfect stranger and the American Olympian.  Culture is exactly the difference between what is in the head of the Olympian vs. what is in the head of the stranger. 

This is not a pedantic exercise.  Engineers do well, thank you very much, without knowing about culture.  They do astonishing things.  Bridges, I believe are everyone’s favorite example.  And quite right too.  Without engineering, every passage shore to shore would be an foolhardy act of faith.

But the fact that engineers don’t know about culture can be a problem.  Because culture is the place that essential knowledge sometimes hides.  Culture contains the things we need to know about the consumer.  And it also contains the things we are assuming in our lab in the corporation.

In both cases, this is deeply embedded, deeply assumed, knowledge.  Consumers cannot readily tell us what they are thinking.  It is assumed knowledge.  Which is to say, consumers know things about the world they do not know they know.  There is assumed knowledge on the corporate side as well.  The corporation and its engineers hold certain assumptions so deeply they can no longer see them. 

So here’s my plan.  It is to suggest that when the engineers think about the consumer, they think about themselves as a relay racer who understands the race, speaking to a consumer who has no clue.  The task now is to surface all the assumptions the engineer is making and make sure these get passed along to the consumer.  As we have seen, there are lots of things the engineer/race knows that must be passed along.  The trick is to make sure these things are not concealed from the engineer by their familiarity.  The trick is to make sure the corporate culture is not getting in the way. 

But we could work it the other way round.  We could suggest that engineers think about the consumer as the American Olympian, and about themselves as the novice.  In this case, the engineer should assume that the consumer is a person who lives in a highly complicated world, one that is mysterious to the engineer.  The task now is to get into this world of knowledge.  This won’t be easy because the consumer doesn’t always know what they know.  They can’t always say what they are thinking.  We can’t just ask them.  We have to listen and probe and follow up and ask some more. 

And this is why God created ethnography.  This is the technique expressly designed for listening for assumed knowledge.  This is the way we get at culture.  This is the way we learn the things a racer needs to know in order to race.  This is the way we learn what the engineer needs to know to create something that actually serves the consumer.

And this is why God created ethnographers.  Professionals with real training and experience.  Ethnography does not mean an interview done in someone’s home.  It cannot be done by someone who took an anthropology course in college.  It cannot be done by someone who "thought about majoring in sociology."  There is tons of data flying around, and hundreds of interpretive possibilities. The search for embedded knowledge, this takes patience, skill, a delicate interpretive touch and a certain brute intelligence.  Many of the people now pretending to be ethnographers are simply too stupid for the assignment.  Training aside, they are simply too stupid to process the data. 

Ethnography shouldn’t be done by amateurs anymore than bridges should be designed by someone who "really thought about going into engineering." Caveat emptor.  We get want we pay for. 

Jan Chipchase, ethnographer in the field, in the paper

Janchipchase Jan Chipchase is one of our heroes.  He must be  the hardest working man in anthropology, traveling almost constantly on behalf of Nokia, doing more fieldwork in a quarter than most anthropologist manage in a year. 

His beat?  Global culture, including Tupelo, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Accra, and Tokyo, where he lives in those brief moments when not on the road. 

Jan is now up for his 15 minutes with coverage in  the New York Times Magazine this weekend. 

Two quotes captured my attention:

the cellphone is becoming the one fixed piece of our identity. 

According to statistics from the market database Wireless Intelligence, it took about 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell worldwide. The second billion sold in four years, and the third billion sold in two. Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network.

New markets, new applications.  In Africa, people are using phone credits as a medium of exchange and S.M.S. to encourage people to take up arms. Everywhere the cell phone has supplanted watches, alarm clocks, camera, video cameras, home stereos, televisions, computers and now banks. 

I not sure what Chipchase thinks, but I am beginning to think this cell phone thing could really catch on. 


Corbett, Sara.  2008.  Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?  New York Times.  April 13, 2008.  here


Naunihal Singh for the head’s up.

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!

Ferret mode

Theboom_2 Ethnographers serve in many ways.  We can be especially useful when someone has a business problem but they can’t quite say what the problem is. 

The solution here is to drop the ethnographer into the middle of things and see if he or she can find a way home.  This is "ferret mode."  The corporation says, in effect, come back when you know how we should be thinking about this problem.

This can mean spending lots of time on the phone doing interviews with people inside and outside the corporation.  (Because time is short and corporations are global.)  We are now going to spend many, many hours on the phone. 

There are several things we must have: a comfortable chair, a window to look out of, a laptop for keeping our notes on, a Siamese cat, and of course headphones. 

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, worse than not quite being able to hear.  So we want perfect fidelity, or as close as possible.  Here are the headphones I am using now.  They’re called The Boom for some reason.  They block out all sound and they leave hands free for typing.  They are expensive but they pay back even in the short term. 

Oh, and you can use cats other the Siamese but I don’t find they work nearly as well.  Only Siamese deliver that intelligent, contemplative calm on which the good ethnographer depends.


For more on these headphones, go here.

ethnography meets brainstorming (going Israeli)

Img_0090 Jan Chipchase and I were chatting by email and I was telling him about my ethnography course at MIT.  (Honestly, I’m not sure he cares, but he is a fellow anthropologist and I thought it might interest.)  I was saying that I labored this week to persuade students that the corporate world, so forbidding and apparently immutable from the outside, is actually always "a work in process."

This image shows a note I wrote to myself on the board and "china historian" refers to Joseph Needham who said the history of thought is actually the history of people thinking, and that’s the notion I wanted to get across, that at any given time the corporation is being driven by ideas that are themselves driven by many things: intellectual fashion, the best efforts of senior management, the ideas of Tom Peters, the demands of the Street, the corporate culture, the opportunity of the moment, the company’s place on its critical path, to name a few.  In any case, the corporation is entirely different from the University where occupants may change but the form remains pretty much the same.  In the corporation both form and content are open to constant reworking, as these ideas come and go, as consultants, even ethnographers, offer up new compelling concepts.

This means that when we are working up our ethnographic conclusions and beginning to contemplate our recommendations, we are free (and forced) to cast the net very wide.  We are talking in this course about a reinvented PBS, and I said, as an example, that we should consider even recommending that the subscription model at PBS creates more problems than value, and that PBS should consider doing ads of a conventional kind.  People looked at me like I’m nuts, a point well taken.  At this point in the idea generating process, we are obliged to go a little nuts, and canvas all ideas, even implausible ones.  The idea is to work from a large, imaginative, and relatively fearless  set of options.

Naturally, the consultant who always comes back with crazy ideas is not long for this world, but every consultant is obliged to give crazy a chance to happen in the idea generating process.  Or she is not doing her job.  After all, the corporation is prepared to change itself altogether.  It is always asking Theodore Levitt’s question, "what business are you in".  And it is sometimes prepared to answer this question with bold departures from present idea and practice.  (Consider AG Lafley’s contribution to P&G, Jeff Immelt‘s to General Electric, Gertsner’s to IBM).  The corporation runs on new ideas and every project is an opportunity to canvass these. 

The other thing I was trying to communicate was the importance of brainstorming "like Israelis."  (My assumption is that Israelis understand better than most of us that invention is a responsibility to be seized and exercised constantly in a world that’s got more menace than momentum, that they engage with this collective invention with a certain intensity.)  I had the feeling that discourse at MIT is more a matter of cool assessment, that students operate more like intellectual snipers, picking off offending remarks from a great and disengaged distance.  What is missing is that all-in intensity that characterizes a good working session inside the corporation.

Of course, people don’t just know how to do brainstorming.  I had to learn.  What made me think they would be any different?  But brainstorming is a messy process, and that makes it hard to teach.  There are some rules of order, I guess.  Let me see if I can sketch them briefly.  First rule: talk flat out, don’t censor.  Second: play well with others, don’t compete.  Third: ignore the bad ideas, they will go away on their own.  Fourth: build on the good ideas, wherever they come from.  Fifth, tag the good ideas with a little phrase that secures its place in the discussion and makes reference easy.  Sixth, keep putting the good ideas into new configurations.  (I like to glance at the person who’s idea I am referencing…to acknowledge the debt.)  Seventh, came at it till the group eventually finds a configuration of existing and new ideas that looks like the right way to think about the problem.  Eureka.  Your work here is done.   

We are building a kind of air space.  Ideas are noted and tagged but kept ill defined.  The air space is porous.  New ideas are welcome.  Old ideas free to leave.  And this air space is dynamic.  No necessary relationships between ideas are specified.  We are being deliberately vague because this "problem set" will be reconfigured several times before our work is done. 

To mix my metaphor, ideas swim up. (Oblige me if you would, and swap air for water, and yes, ok, water for chocolate.)  Ideas are moving, the good ones ascending, growing in power and complexity as they go.  Ascent is consent.  Ideas rise if and only if the group find them interesting and useful, find them things they like to think.  And it’s very like the way thought happens in the head.  Sometimes the group knows it has an idea before it knows what this idea is.  It can sense the idea moving.  People exult in this moment.  Eyes shine, bodies move, people lean forward. It’s really fun.  (You know who is good at this is Susan Abbott.  I worked with her on a P&G project and she was just brilliant at it.) 

Academic discourse tends to be more "stand and deliver," more free standing, less cooperative.  Everyone takes away what they will.  It’s ok if at the end of the class you are obliged to say that the sum of the conversation is less than the whole of the conversation.  Many of the moments of illumination are assumed to happen "in head," not "in class."  Indeed, many "serious thinkers" think this process is insufficiently, er, serious.  Real thought should happen inside the head.  Anything that happens in public circumstances is a degraded currency.  In a sense, academics are engaged in a private harvest.  Good ideas occur but they occur privately and they are not shared except to trump an opponent or make a show of one’s intelligence.  Academics cherry pick their own and other’s best ideas…silently.

I am not share where I learned this.  I am certain that one of my instructor’s was Denise Fonseca and Charlotte Oades of the Coca-Cola Company.  I may owe a debt to JWT where I remember doing lots of projects.  I have seen Faith Popcorn give permission for brainstorming to take place.  And I’m not sure how. Bill O’Connor is very good at it and again I’m not sure why.  In his case, it is something to do with intelligence and courtly grace.  All of this is to say, that there are secrets here.  Some people who just seem to make it happen.  In a perfect world, you would have all of these people in to speak at a class.  And as that’s not practical, someone should interview all these people and see if they can capture what is going on.

In sum, ethnography depends upon the exercise of a creative intelligence and a strategic one.  (I haven’t really had a chance to talk about the latter.  Another post, perhaps.)  And that means it has to be built into the classroom that offers ethnographic instruction.  Otherwise, the ethnographer really is engaging in a brute empiricism.  All they can offer are video clips and lively descriptions of "what people told me."  This is a corruption of the method, and it is precisely the matter with a lot of the ethnography on offer in the commercial world. 

An Ethnographic Report

Those interested in the ethnography I am posting for my MIT students can find it at Slide Share here.  It should be remember that this report is now almost 10 years old, but it will give you a rough idea of what a report of ethnographic data can look like. 

Thanks to Stephen Cox for letting me know about Slide Share.   

The MIT ethnography course: my “pilot fish” model

Mit_ethno_lecture_slide_iiEditorial note: blast and damnation, this post was written yesterday for posting yesterday.  But I saved it in TypePad as a "draft" and not a "publish now."  Here it is as a "publish now."

I am working on my notes for the MIT ethnography course that begins tonight.  Here’s one of the slides I’ll be using.

Most of this I have done before in one form or another.  I’ve done ethnography training for the Marketing Science Institute, the Coca-Cola Company, Campbell Soup, Merck, and Kimberly Clark.  So I have a handle on this, I guess you’d say.

The first rule of rhetoric (and marketing): know your audience.  And in this case, I am not talking to managers and marketers.  I am talking to MIT students in the 20s and 30s.  People on the verge of making career choices.

For this group, I have additional arguments to make.  First, I want to suggest that ethnography can be a great day job, the thing you do to earn enough money to do something else.  This might be filmmaking, poetry, fine art collecting.  In my case, I do it to fund my anthropology.

And, as I have argued here before, it consulting serves in a couple of ways.  It pays me well enough to free up chunks of the year for research.  But it also gives me data and understandings that work their way into my research. 

I have to be careful not to violate my confidentiality agreements and I take these seriously.  The moment the corporation believes you are "reselling" its data, that’s the end of your career as a consultant.  The corporation is right to be vigilant on this point, but it is smart enough to see that I represent a peculiar bargain.  Because I spend half the year doing my own anthropology they actually get two days for the price of one, the day they pay for, and the day I have spend working on my own.  That anthropological research is frequently the source of the insight they most prize.     Two-for-one, it’s a bargain.  And it is a distinctly better deal than hiring a consultant who does not ever engage in intellectual development but instead exhausts his or her resources by taking on too much work. 

I like to think of myself as a pilot fish.  When I work for the corporation, I share it’s interests.  No, actually, to do good work, I believe I am obliged to identify deeply with the interests and objectives of the corporation and then to cease doing so when the study is over.  It’s a little like being an actor.  For the run of the play, you are that character.  The moment it’s over, you’re not. 

Pilot fish, unless I am mistaken, are fish that attach themselves to sharks, feeding as they feed.  And that’s what I am doing as a corporate consultant.  I am directed by corporate intentions.  I am consonant with corporate objectives.  And if I get this right, I feed as the corporation feeds.  But I am, at any given moment, a free standing entity,  capable of independence, of navigating on my own.

I am beginning to think that I am a pilot fish not just in my consulting life, but in the academic world as well.  Because 20 years of living outside the academic world, no longer a full time and tenured member of staff, this has caused me to rethink what I think, how I think and the objectives of my thinking.  I have fallen out of step with most anthropologists.  This pleases them, no doubt, because the majority of them think commercial work is done at the bidding of the devil.  This is their "take" on what I do. 

I have to say, as my little career pulls away from the world that is academic anthropology, more and more I find myself staring at a community of extraordinarily confining orthodoxy.  There are a couple of verities for clan anthropology, and pity the poor bastard (that would be me) who departs from them.  And I am left with a puzzle: how can a social science committed to a honest, open discourse manage to produce so little intellectual variety? It looks very much as if the experts on orthodoxy are actually the victims of orthodoxy.  And it does no good to say, anthropologist, heal thyself.  They would if they could but they can’t, apparently.  A culture has taken them captive.

So if I have something new (for me) to bring to this course, it is my opportunity to encourage these students to think about ethnography consulting.  As I way to fund their own ethnography, or that career in kite construction they have always hankered after.  Ok, got to go.  I am trying to think of a way of putting more of the course on line.  If anyone knows how to import powerpoint presentations into a TypePad blog, please let me know. 

So you’d like to study ethnography at MIT

Img_2616 I am teaching a course on ethnography this month at MIT with Joshua Green, and I thought This Blog readers might be interested in what the course looks like.  Feel free to read along.  The course runs for the next 3 weeks and students present their findings January 31st.  I will be posting observations from the course over the next few weeks. 

Course Outline for Week One

IAP Qualitative Research Workshop

Joshua Green and Grant McCracken, C3, Comparative Media, MIT

Class 1:

January 16, 2008


We have chosen to set this methodology course in the demanding context of a real world study.  Students will be asked to master the ethnographic method even as they use it for a practical purpose.  Our topic is whether and how the Public Broadcasting System may embrace new media.  Specifically, can PBS use the new technologies for production, communication, interaction and networking to change what it is and how it connects with its audiences?

We say "whether" because you might decide, on the completion of your study, that PBS is perfect just as it is and that there is no "new media" option that makes compelling sense.  This is a legitimate alternative.  The other extreme is to suggest that the new media option is grounds for a reinvention of PBS, that no program should remain unchanged.  This too is a legitimate alternative.  Or you may choose something in between.

The point is that qualitative research, done well, opens up the problem-set in all directions.  We will expect you to ride ethnographic data thermals up to the intellectual jetstream, canvass the possibilities, intellectual, strategic and tactical, and return to earth with a very particular set of conclusions and recommendations. Your final assignment will be the Powerpoint/Keynote deck you present on March 31st. 

Qualitative research projects of an ethnographic kind in industry (not for profit and for profit) happen very quickly.  Many of them go 14 days start to finish.  Lucky you.  You have an extra week.  In the next three weeks, you must get from "Ok, tell me what ethnography is, again?"  to a finished presentation.  Consider this your amazing race.

We are assuming that students will make up in intelligence, imagination, enterprise and opportunism what they lack in prior acquaintance.  We are looking for bold solutions.  We are not going to be exacting about the details.  This course is not an exercise in methodological orthodoxy or processual exactitude.  Wow us with your conclusions and we will take for granted that you did your due diligence, ethnographically speaking.  (Good work is otherwise impossible.  We will hear the voice of the viewer in your recommendations.)

In this first week, you will get your introduction to the nuts and bolts of research design and ethnographic method.  You will meet your team and you will begin to think about which respondents you should be talking to, what questions you will be asking, what your intellectual and strategic horizons will be, and the schedule you will need to design to get the team to March 31st.  This is the last day of class. And it is the day on which your team will present.  We are hoping to have several distinguished judges to evaluate your work.  Our Harvard Business School judge just signed on.  We hope also to have someone from PBS.

Objective:              Ethnographic Methods, philosophies, methodologies and principle
                                   Preparing for your PBS ethnography

Readings1:            McCracken, Grant.  1988.  The Long Interview.  Thousand Oaks: Sage.    Chapters   1-3.

Readings2:            Sunderland, Patricia and Denny, Rita.  2007. Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, Chapters 1 and 3.


Step 1.  Watch 3 hours of PBS programming.  Identify the programming concepts at work here, the audiences to which PBS wishes to speak, the voice(s) in which it speaks, the tone(s) it takes, and the several ways it engages PBS viewers.  Note that we are not going to talk about one substantial part of the PBS enterprise: children’s programming.  Doing ethnographic interviews with kids is a highly specialized art within the ethnographic practice, and we cannot reasonably hope that you will master it.  So restrict yourself, please, to adult programming.

Step 2.  Contemplate the new media revolution that has taken place in the last 15 years.  Think about how television has changed, both network and cable, the rise of the internet, the emergence of new opportunities for interaction and customization, the disintermediation of markets and cultural institutions, the changing role of the expert and authority in general, the arrival of new social networks, and the ways in which these several revolutions have changed the way the viewer sees him or her self, television, knowledge, information, learning, sociality, community, imagination…you get, the idea.

Step 3. Intersect step 1 and step 2.  There will be many intersections between the PBS proposition, past, present and possible and the new media, past, present and possible.  What we will be doing for the remainder of the course is to gather the ethnographic data and perform the ethnographic analysis that tells us which of these intersections will be most compelling as a future for PBS.

Class 2:

January 17, 2008

Objective:              Ethnographic Methods, strategies and tactics
                                   PBS prep: Identify your team, your respondents, your schedule

Reading1:              McCracken, Grant.  1988.  The Long Interview .  Thousand Oaks: Sage.  Chapters 4-7.

Readings2:            Sunderland, Patricia and Denny, Rita.  2007. Doing Anthropology in Consumer    Research.  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, Chapters 4 and 5.


1) Do a 90 minute interview with a perfect stranger.  Follow the reading to perform the 4 steps of the ethnographic interview.  Tape the interview.  Listen to the interview.

2) Continue working with your team, identifying respondents, preparing the questionnaire, and making ready for your PBS research project.  You should have a full schedule in place that brings you out with a complete Powerpoint/Keynote deck ready for presentation March 31. 

3) Start your interviews.

4)  Keep thinking about the three steps of the assignment for Class 1.  This is our core question.

The image above

This is a 1930s airplane that appears  in relief on the outside of what used to be the main post office in Toronto.  The building now houses the Raptors.  (No parallels to the aerodynamic properties of this course are promised or implied. )    

Ethnography: saved by technology?

Livescripe_smart_pen_iiThis is the new smart pen by Livescribe.

Ethnographers sip from a fire hose.  If they have done their job, if they have set up the interview and engaged the respondent, said respondent talking several hundred words a minute. 

The answer is not a tape recording.  The only way to access a tape recording is to go back through it in real time.   If we have 30 hours of interviews, we have to commit at least 30 hours to listening to them.

The answer is not a transcription.  This is 30 hours of listening plus what might will be another 30 hours winding back and forth to get the transcript just right. 

The answer is the notes we take at the moment of the interview, and these are necessarily a rough record, often a collection of key words, not to much a perfect topographical map of the interview as a treasure map.

Enter the Smart pen from Livescribe.  The Smart pen allows us to take notes even as we capture a taped version of what is said, and then to interpolate between them as need be.  The Smart pen gives us both the topographical map and the treasure map. 

Here’s what they say on the Livescribe website:

“Paper Replay,” … allows total recall from lectures, meetings or conversations by simply tapping on your notes. When used to take notes during a discussion or lecture, the smartpen records the conversation and digitizes the handwriting, automatically synchronizing the ink and audio. By later tapping the ink, the user can replay the conversation from the exact moment the note was written. Notes and audio can also be uploaded to a PC where they can be replayed, saved, searched or sent.

It remains to be seen how well this technology works.  I think the Smart pen doesn’t hit the market for a few months yet.  But I have one on order.  Looks promising!


Speaking of ethnography, the new book by Denny and Sunderland is now out (Denny, Rita and Patricia L. Sunderland.  2007.  Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.) and you can buy a copy here.   

More more on the Smart pen, see the Livescribe website here.

Conflict ethnography and the biggest picture

9965225773_d0a69d7876_zThe conflict in the Middle East is producing a new kind of ethnography.

The creator is David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer, now seconded to the United States State Department.  Dr. Kilcullen earned his Ph.D. studying guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia and East Timor. He’s since studied counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and iraq.

Kilcullen calls it “conflict ethnography.”

The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow a literary term, there is no substitute for a “close reading” of the environment. But it is a reading that resides in no book, but around you; in the terrain, the people, their social and cultural institutions, the way they act and think. You have to be a participant observer. And the key is to see beyond the surface differences between our societies and these environments (of which religious orientation is one key element) to the deeper social and cultural drivers of conflict, drivers that locals would understand on their own terms.

What I like about this is that it captures that holistic impulse that is, I believe, the first intellectual reflex of the anthropologist.  It seeing things in context, in relation to the other bits and pieces that defines the anthropologist’s data set.  This holistic inclination is there in Boas, in Malinowski, in functionalism and in structuralism. (It departs the field only with the advent of the postmodernism.  But then so does everything else that makes anthropology useful for the study of the real world.)

Now it would be self-dramatizing of this ethnographer to compare what we do in the study of North America to what is happening in the mind of a counterinsurgent in real time with conflict flaring and lives on the line.

But there is a similarity.  Too often the “value add” of ethnography is said to be its ability to capture what is going on in the heart, mind and life of the respondent.  And this is so.  But what anthropology also brings to the table is the ability to show how all the data fit, one with another and each with the whole.

It is this second function that cannot be delivered by the ethnographic pretenders who are now legion in the world of marketing.  All they can do is ask questions, take pictures, and submit invoices.  They do not know about the life of the consumer writ large, or the life of a culture, writ larger still.

But anthropology has yet to make good on its holistic impulse.  It is not comprehensive enough.  No, what we do are lovely, little water colors of ships in the harbor and it remains for McKinsey to supply a map of shipping lines, and a sense what goods are moving in what volume, from and to which ports, and how all of this makes a regional economy hum.  This is truly holistic and most of our client cannot live without this biggest picture.  It would require of anthropologists a strategic intelligence we do not cultivate, quantitative skills we do not normally master, and a methodological multiplicity that we for some reason believe to be unbecoming.

When does the field grow up…and into it’s birthright?


Anonmymous.  n.d., David Kilcullen.  Encyclopedia Entry in Wikipedia.  here.

Kilcullen, David.  2006.  Twenty-eight articles: fundamental of company-level counterinsurgency.

Kilcullen, David.  2007.  Religion and Insurgency.  Small Wars Journal Blog.  May 12, 2007. here.
(source for the quote)

O’Grady, Stephen.  2006. The World’s Moved On: What David Kilcullen Can Teach us.  Tecosystems.  December 22, 2006.  here.

Packer, George.  2006.  Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the “war on terror”?  The New Yorker.  December 16, 2006.  here.


Peter McBurney, thanks for the head’s up


The conference of professional ethnographers is meeting again this year in October.  I can’t make it, but it looks like a great line up.

the Law & Order of Ethnography

Law_and_order_ii Anyone who has seen a Law & Order episode knows the drill.  McCoy is asking a perfectly innocent question, when his legal adversary leaps up to exclaim,

Objection, your Honor, argumentative!

Apparently, you can’t try to strong-arm your witness into consenting to your point of view.  On this point, the ethnographer could not agree more. There’s no point bullying the respondent.  Indeed, the point of the exercise is to excavate their point of view, with the tiny pick and brush of the finely worded question. 

But consider these other legal objections.  Perfect for the court of law, and entirely wrong for the ethnographic interview. 

Objection, your Honor, asked and answered!

This objection is lodged when someone is asking a question that has already been, well, asked and answered.

But the ethnographer is always vulnerable to this charge.  We ask a question, we come back to the question, we ask for endless, ever more particular, clarifications of the question.  We do go on.  That’s our job.  Opposing counsel can just shut up and pay attention. 

Objection, your Honor, assumes facts not in evidence!

But of course the ethnographer asks questions that assume facts not in evidence.  We are after all looking for culture, a fact that is alway only remotely in evidence, the very thing that must be brought into evidence.  Your honor, I beseech you.  Let me do my job. 

Objection, your Honor, calls for speculation!

Exactly. Why just today, I had a couple of respondents who rose to the intellectual challenge like birds to the air.  I asked them to wonder what their culture was, and why it might be so, and how it is the changes in Poland since 1989 have made a difference.  They speculated like crazy.  A court of law would have been horrified.  The anthropologist was well pleased. 

Objection, your Honor, beyond the scope!

Nothing is beyond the scope.  In order to talk about food, you might want to talk about politics, gender, or architecture, or, as we did today, all three.  Indeed the faster and more fluidly the conversation moves "beyond the scope," the more illuminating is the interview. Apparently, legal discourse must run in channels.  The ethnographer scrambles in all directions. 

Objection, your Honor, calls for hearsay!

Hearsay’s okay.  The ethnographic interview is not particular.  We will use any matter at hand, a badly formed metaphor, a vague inkling, a mere rumor, a thin surmise, a stray observation.  These are all points of departure.  Even the decrepid wharf gives access to the stream. 

Objection, your Honor, leading question!

Well, yes and no, on this one.  Mostly, no.  We want very much to get the respondent talking, and then to follow up from there.  This way the respondent supplies his or her own terms.  The last thing we want to do is to ask the respondent to play back our terms, our logic, our scheme.  On the other hand, we are doing lots of leading.  If we can find a cunning way to bring the horse to water, one that is not leading even as it is, this is exactly what we want.

Objection, your Honor, shamelessly anthropological!

For the grant inquisitor, all these abuses are ok.  I guess this difference, between anthropology and the law, comes down to the fact that the law wishes to ascertain whether or not an event took place while anthropology is not really interested in the veracity of any historical particular but in the architecture of meaning in the context of which all particulars must take place. 

Objection, your Honor, bad tailoring!

I am grateful that the proper setting for anthropological inquiry is not the wainscotted court of law way downtown (always the same town), but the living rooms of respondent thither and yon.  Also, I don’t have to worry about running a press gauntlet on the conclusion of a particularly contentious interview or to being smeared in the press the next day.  Nor do I have to suffer the distraction of assistants who are always as   beautiful as they are brilliant. 

On the other hand, I don’t have to wear Jack McCoy’s suits and for that small blessing I will be forever grateful.

Does Ethnography have a dark hour? (aka category debt in Mexico City)

Img_1173 Does ethnography have a dark hour?  Is there a moment in most projects where things get entropic, difficult, depressing? 

I believe I had one Wednesday.  Actually, it started Tuesday, my first day of research here in Mexico.  By Wednesday night, I was feeling overwhelmed.  I sat down to blog for instance, and finally, some time later, I thought, "maybe, I’ll just watch TV.  A Cheers rerun?  No, that’s too complicated."

I think the dark hour comes in the early stages of a research project.  We have lots of data, but no categories with which to organize them.  The point of ethnography is to be exploratory.  That means we start "wide," and we stay "wide," listening to, and for, everything.  And the data, they do stack up. After the 6 hours of the first day, there are lots of interpretive possibilities and the distinct feeling that you are a victim of the ethnographer’s ability to induce "pressure of speech" in even the most reluctant respondent. 

Too much data interferes with the construction of categories, and too few categories increases the intellectual weight of the data now being carried.  Any one datum could mean any number of things.  Many configuration are possible. We can’t think.  We must think.  The natural response is to hydroplane.  Now even the most ordinary act of cognition is hard to do.  (At this point, I usually feel like a cartoon character with a bucket stuck on his head.)

Again, the point of ethnography is build a very particular account of the data at hand.  Cheating is not allowed.  We can’t simple pin a tail on the "archetype."  We can’t merely "crack the code."  We can’t "cheskin" the data.  Ideally, we want to build a ziggurat, a perspective from which the client can see "for miles" even as he or she can descend to examine the particulars.   We are looking for explanatory categories that are hand crafted, highly particular, and highly general.

Overload creates physical exhaustion which in turn makes it difficult to summon the intellectual energy and mobility needed for pattern recognition.  In these opening hours, we are victims of "category debt," so named because it is a lot like "oxygen debt."  We can keep at it.  We can force yourself onwards, but, really, we are only making things worse. 

This morning I wrote a couple of ideas in the steam on the shower door.  (Every blog needs a shower scene.)  When I returned to collect these ideas, they had run off or evaporated.  That’s the trouble.  In these first hours, we are working with an unstable medium.  (The metaphors, on the other hand, are still there for the asking.)

Of course we can make things worse and of course we do.  There is a temptation to retire to the hotel bar and take refuge in drink.  This never helps.  My last trip to Mexico, I went to the bar to write postcards to friends, real and imaginary.  (That’s one of the differences between youth and age. As children, we have imaginary friends.  As adults, imaginary enemies.)  In my experience, the only thing that really does it is a good night sleep.

That and the inklings of an idea.  As you are scribbling to keep up with respondents, you think, "Oh, it could be that."  After awhile you have an accumulation of possibilities, and even these become so numerous they begin to get in the way of clarity. But eventually, you have something, and eventyally you commit this something to powerpoint and then everything gets easier.  The burden of all this data disappears.  Now you are mobile again.  The bucket is removed.

I think that’s why there was a dark hour on Wednesday. Not because I was tired but because I was suffering "category debt." And this is what I should expect to happen in every project, and prepare for it.  But I’m not sure this is just the ethnographer’s problem.  As the world speeds up and grows less predictable, the dark hour of category debt may become a more common problem.  In which case we ethnographers are solving public problems even as they address our private ones. 

Translation and ethnography

Roundabout While on the road, I got thinking about the kinds of translation and translators that work for ethnographic purposes. 

Who do we want to work with?  How do we want to work with them?

Here’s a hierarchy of possibilities.  It runs from least desirable attributes (1) to most desirable (7).

1. stupid, mean, and aggressive

2. stupid and mean (but not aggressively so)

3. stupid (but otherwise benign)

4. smart

5. smart and questing (devoted to a purpose, quickens to the pace)

6. smart, questing, and creative (grasps the the objective and is prepared to move conversational and conceptual furniture around to get at it)

7. smart, questing, creative and graceful (interested not just in the outcome but the generosity and good humor with which this objective is accomplished)

In Europe, I had several great translators: Barbara Bruer for Germany, Kathleen Flanagan, Swati Sarkar-Elbaz for France, and Peter Van den Meutter for Belgium.  (Emails available on request.) These people occupied categories 5, 6 or 7 in the hierarchy.  Indeed, they inspired the categories. 

Now, I have worked with people who belong to categories 1, 2 and 3.  They were not professional translators and this was, I expect, the source of much of the problem.  As everyone knows, translation is a formidably difficult activity.  Interpretation still worse.  [Apologies to John McCreery for my stubborn use of the lesser term.]  The translator is having to leap not just from language to language, but culture to culture, and mind set to mind set, and to do so in real time.  The exercise veers constantly towards that Lucy routine in which chocolates keep pouring down the conveyor belt.  Meanings and their indeterminacy begin to accumulate but the ethnographer and the respondent don’t care.  They just keep talking.  It’s enough to bring out the stupid, mean and aggressive in anyone. 

It’s not a bad metaphor for the contemporary marketer, especially if the Cluetrain Manifesto authors are right to insist that marketing is a conversation.  The better metaphor makes marketing a conversation in two languages with the marketer as the bridge across which meaning must pass.  Unless you are really good at both languages, you are at risk of being overwhelmed.  (And it is interesting to note that many of the new ethnographers don’t actually know anything about marketing.)

There is a further difficulty (to go back to translation as translation, not metaphor).  If the translator isn’t very bright, it’s hard to see the point of many of the questions or the value of many of the answers.  It must feel to them as if they are being asked to participate in a belaboring of the obvious.  But stupid people (as opposed to complete morons) are usually smart enough to suspect the truth of the matter, that the conversation simply escapes them.  This is when they can be relied upon to act badly.  After all, they need to repudiate what otherwise repudiates them. 

But stupid people are dangerous people for another reason.  And that’s because in these circumstances with the ethnographer empathizing like crazy (yes, that’s the technical term), he or she can’t help empathize even with the stupid person’s stupidity.  This is another way of saying that stupidity is contagious.  When we have someone disparaging our questions (and all it takes with an emphathic is a shift in tone), the question begins to die in flight.  If anyone in the room doubts its useful, I open a blotter in which I doubt its usefulness.  You know, just in case this is the right answer.  It is easy enough to say, Oh, well, just ignore them, and they will go away. At this point in the interview and the project, the ethnographer isn’t making many deliberate choices.  He or she is listening as hard as he can. 

Bad translators actually narrow the world of understanding.  In the best case, there are lots of possibilities buzzing around every remark.  In France, for instance, while talking to consumers about what they add to a product,there were lots of possibilities.  The question was, as it always is, what did they think they were doing?  And as I say, the answers were many: was this completion?, was it customizing?, was it personalizing?, was it appropriating?, was it a point of pride?, was it a fulfillment of role responsibility?, was it some kind of deliberate or unconscious cocreation?  Bad translators will actually help drive these out of the realm of discussion.  Good ones go at it with glee. 
On the happier side, categories 5, 6, and 7, this is where there is value added over and above the work of literal translation.  This is where the translator begins to see what is called for.  (And if this isn’t an intellectual double toe loop, I don’t know what is: actually reverse engineering questions even as you translate them.)  They quicken to the task at hand.  If they really get what’s, they then begin to solve problems that stand in the way of the ethnographer, and if they really have their wits about them, they manage all of this with manners that would put a Washington hostess to shame.  Good manners put the respondent at ease and they help quiet the weary ethnographer who has by this time asked one too many questions in one too many time zones.  In effect, the best translators are becoming anthropologists…and I think the good ones do this so consistently because they are anthropologists in their way. 

And this made me wonder whether the c-school and the culture college we have been discussing on this and other blogs should be recruiting class 5, 6, and 7 translators as surely as we will want to recruit account planners.  As you can see from the last post, I am on my way to Mexico and after that Poland, so lots more opportunity for additional data on the partnerships that might exist between ethnographers and translators!

Ethnographers wanted

Mexico_city I am conducting ethnographic interviews in Mexico in the near future, and I am looking for:

1. a professional translator

2. a professional recruiter

3. experts who can comment on Mexican culture and commerce, past, present and future, and the trends that shape it. 

The research will take place over 2 weeks, and it will consist in in-home interviews.

If you know of anyone who fits this bill, please let me know.