Category Archives: Ethnography

Consulting under the influence

Img_0510 I’ve been on the road for 18 days.  I’ve had an afternoon off here and there, but mostly it has been a succession of interviews, with days in-between spent trying to capture the data in hand before more data arrives.  What did I hear in Germany, now that I am headed for Belgium?  What in Belgium now that I’m headed for France?  We can’t afford to sort it out when we get home.  Except for a brief visit at the end of the week, I don’t get home till the middle of June.

It’s beginning to tell.  If ever I was a strategic marketing consultant, the ability of adding value by adding ideas, is now under challenge.

How to manage this exhaustion?  I am willing to bet there is no literature.  Most consultants have been obliged to work while exhausted but I don’t think any of us have codified techniques or strategies. For most of us it’s a private hell…hellish, anyhow.  Blogging to the rescue.  This is the perfect medium for sharing thoughts and, um, strategies. 

There are rough guides but most of them come, interestingly, from the world of sports and inebriation. 

We might manage exhaustion the way drunks manage intoxication, steering with a loose hand, navigating as if out on the lake in a motorized boat.  Relax the vigilance.  Do not, under any circumstances, over correct for our condition.  Choose simpler targets, more obvious landmarks.  Perfection is out of the question.  The thing is no sudden movements.  Play it as it lays. 

And when things get really tricky and we have bottomed out altogether, we may resort to Mohammad Ali’s "rope a dope," the moment when we allow ourselves to go altogether.  This is when you hope the respondent will have a moment of eloquence and run on.  Or that the translator will spot your difficulty and step into to assume executive powers.  If none of this happens, you can always fake a phone call, and retire to the hall way.  You just need a moment to catch your breath.  Then you’re fine.  No, really. 

I have been thinking hard about how translation works for ethnographic purposes, and I have some quite good notes, I think, to offer if and when I can gather my wits.  I have had uniformly good translators, and I think the trick here is to use professionals who have their wits about them.  But more on this in a future post. 

The translators have been charming conversationalists, but part of the problem is that you haven’t talked to anyone you know (except by phone with Pam) for too long.  As some of you will know, I tried to befriend a plant that came in on my room service tray.  I have bad news here, I’m afraid.  Melanie was confiscated today. I came back to my room and she was gone.  Bastards!

I guess some of this is deeply personal.  When I am really tired, I feel like a Warner Brothers’ cartoon character with a bucket stuck on my head.  For me, the only real way to refresh is to do relaxation/mediation techniques.  For young consultants coming up, I recommend that you take a short course, just a couple of weeks, on how to meditate and relax.  It’s doesn’t have to have spiritual objectives.  Mine didn’t.  I will supply a link when I can find it. 

I’m not much for self revelation in the blogosphere, but this has helped a lot.  Thanks.

My “off duty” pants

Canon_powershot Occasionally, I venture an opinion on the best equipment for the traveling ethnographer.  And this trip, I tested something new.  I called them my "off duty pants." 

All this begins with the fact that airlines continue to choose new and unexpected destinations for my luggage.  As nearly as I can tell, my Tumi bag has been to South America several times.  I’ve been there only once. 

And this means we must never, and I mean never, surrender our bag to the airlines.  And this means that everything we take with us must fit in a bag that must fit in the overhead compartment. 

And this means a 2 suit, 5 day rotation: alternating suits and just enough shirts, shorts and socks to last five days. (Even with a 5 day rotation, I end up getting caught between hotels.  I am unable to get things into the laundry service, (or, horrors, out again), and I’m obliged to buy things to "tide me over."  I have made some really put fashion choices in this way.  (Or at least, that’s my excuse when Pam, her exquisite aesthetic faculties on alert, says, "where in God’s name did you get that shirt?")

The trouble with the two-suit-5-day rotation is that we are always wearing our "on-duty" outfit, even when sitting in our room, waiting for the day to start or stop.  From a sartorial point of view, I are never off duty.  Psychologically, I never detach from life on the road.  This may in fact be my reality but what’s the point of saying so with my clothing code. 

This trip, I tried something new.  They are standard issue, beige, American, Khakis, made of distressed cotton, by Ralph Lauren (the Andrew pant, RL calls them).  They are roomy and comfy.  Just the thing.  The effect is not quite as dramatic as the one achieved, rather more famously, by the Elizabethan Lord Burghley who is reputed to have removed his robe at a formal occasion and said something like, "lie thee here, counsellor, while I go off to dance" but it is vastly better than sitting in your room in your suit.  I mean, how sad.  It’s a little like wearing your Little League outfit to bed when you’re a kid.  Talk about over-committing to role!

So far my off duty pants have made a signal contribution to my journey.  I wear them around the hotel room and that’s all.  But even this makes me feel like I am on a little vacation.

The perfect black bag addendum

I have made a substitution to  the "perfect black bag" (see the post below).  This used to contain a Nikon Coolpix 3700. But this proved to be a counter intuitive piece of design, the designer’s way of showing the consumer’s who’s boss.  (Not you, poor, wretched consumer.)   

This trip I have been using, and can now heartily recommend, the Canon Powershot, SD1000 (pictured, get the one on the right).  It is perfect: little, elegant, great memory, flawless in execution, and a joy to be with (not at all like its owner). 


McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Perfect Black Bag.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  October 24, 2006. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  Advice to a young consultant.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. June 20, 2006. here

A note on ethnography

Hanswerner_sahm_a_new_morning Barbara, my translator here in Germany, likes the sound of ethnography and she asked me to tell her more about it. 

Here’s an elaboration of the answer I gave her.  It comes in three parts.

Part 1

To do ethnography, she would want to master the mechanics of the interview process.

1) humility.  Interviews work well when the interviewer understands that the respondent is the expert and defers to him or her carefully.  It is precisely when the respondent hears this deference that he or she is willing to open up.

2) empathy, a willingess to suspend what you think for what the respondent thinks. 

3) patience. Does the respondent mean X or Y?  Very good.  Is it X1 or X2?  Fine, is it X1a or X1b?  The ethnographer ends up acting like a programming language for which only the most exacting input will do. 

Many people have these 3 qualities as aspects of their personality.  The rest of us will have to learn them through training and practice.

4) the ability to draw this life into the interview.  Quite substantial adjustments of approach are called for in almost every interview. What is the best way to draw this person out?  What is the best direction to bring them to the topics in question? 

5) the ability to discover the best approaches at any given moment.  How we ask the question is as important as what we ask.  Lots of improvisational work is called for.

6) the ability to shift frame to see the significance of testimony.  This is especially difficult when we have to do it in real time, under pressure, while staying on schedule.  "Shifting frame" here means finding the ideas that make an ethnographic datum reveal its (possible) significance. 

7) the ability to follow things up without losing one’s way.  Occasionally, the ethnographer will hear a possibility.  Now the question is how much to invest in its pursuit and when to "cut and run."  Normally, it is easy enough to identify the moment of diminishing returns.  But when something does not look promising, it may be that we have failed to find the frame that makes it so.

Note, points 4 through 7 are the strength of the method.  The corporation has to contend with unknown unknowns.  It doesn’t know what it needs to know.  (If it did, it could use quantitative methods, which are of course easier and cheaper to manage.)  Ethnography allows "just in time" adjustments.  It allows us to sharpen questions against incoming questions.  In a sense, it is designed to just to look for answers but to look for questions. 

Part 2

Barbara doesn’t have social scientific training.  What she needs, what we all need, are concepts at the ready.  Patterns standing by to serve us in the process of pattern recognition.  I used the example from yesterday’s interview.  We were sitting in a respondent’s home, and I could not help but notice a poster by Hans Sahm (pictured above) on the living room wall. 

Under normal circumstances, this would strike me as a piece of aesthetic misadventure.  But in this case, this looks like grist for the ethnographic mill and this is because I have a concept for what I am looking at.  As it turns out, I’ve read (as you probably have) that essay by Kant on the sublime.  If memory serves, Kant says nature is sublime when it outstrips our sense of proportion and scale and induces in us a sense of wonder, astonishment, and perhaps fear.  The sublime explodes our categories of understanding.

I’m not sure this is a very accurate rendering of the argument, but it was enough to serve me as a frame with which to think about the art in question.  Was this perhaps an exercise in the sublime.  Certainly, Sahm’s art is about an impossible scale and a certain romantic engagement.  (I think if you click on the image, you will get a larger version.  Notice that there is at the bottom a very large river, here represented as a mere trickle.)  I now know what might be operating in the culture of the respondent.  I know what to ask after.  As it turns out, the respondent encourages a Kantian view of her art without being able actually to confirm it.

And that’s ok.  I had a concept and the concept helped me see.  In a more perfect world, we would have, say, 80 of these concepts to aid the ethnographer.  And almost anything will do.  We should have notions of diffusion from Simmel, individualism from Durkheim, structure from Levi-Strauss, convergence from Jenkins, long tail from Anderson, tipping point from Gladwell.  Ideas with which to think.  (Everyone has their own favorites.  Everyone is always on the look out for more.)

This is after all precisely what is missing from the bargain basement ethnographers, the one’s who practice brutish empiricism.  These ethnographers merely report what the respondent says, because they have no concepts with which to see the cultural significance of what the respondent says.  They are mirrors, nothing more. 

Strictly speaking, if Barbara wishes to pursue a career as an ethnographer, she would take a course in one of the social sciences. But you and I know there is lots of dead air in one of these programs. Apparently, contents settle after they leave the factory.    

Part 3

Ok, Part 3 is all about acts of analysis, but you know what I am exhausted.  It’s been a long day.  I am now in Frankfurt and about 11:20.  I would really like to get a good night’s sleep.  So I’ll come back to Part 3.  Yeah, right, sure I will. 


Berlin_holocaust_memorial Life on the road is sometimes not so great.  You’re doing 3 interviews a day.  You are fighting to sustain the intellectual elasticity on which the method depends…even as the ethnographic data grows more voluminous and various.  The possibility of pilot error grows and grows. 

There are smaller complaints: jet lag, the compressions of air travel and hotel life, work continuing to come from home, and the club house sandwiches that the hotel staff now know to bring you at regular intervals.  All of these are beginning to take a toll. 

Just when you are ready to wallow in self pity, something happens.  Today, I was standing on the balcony of a worker’s flat in what used to be East Germany.  The mistress of the household is pointing to the place the wall once stood, not 60 yards away.  There are tears in her eyes. 

"It was 17 years ago.  But I still can’t believe it’s gone." 

She’s deeply grateful for her freedom.  Her husband is better placed in the world of work.  He now seizes little liberties he was previously denied: an extravagant beard.  She was able to go to Egypt, and travel the Nile.  Their apartment is smart with new appliances and fashionable decor schemes.

But she misses the wall.  "It used to be our enemy.  And now I think of it as a friend.  It kept things out."  She means noise, foreign neighbors, and the commotion of contemporary life.  This sounds nasty and xenophobic.  But, no, her outpouring was heart felt, genuine, the expression of a thoughtful, generous, sensitive person. 

It must have been the empathy (God knows there has got to be some  good explanation), but I got misty eyed, too.  So did the translator.  (Let me know if you need a translator in Germany.  Barbara is a joy.)  There we were, the three of us, all on verge of tears at the fall of the wall.  I may have had stranger moments as a practicing ethnographers but I can’t think of one. 

Berlin has been full of surprises.  I had an almost visceral reaction as we drove into the city from the train station.  I’m a mid-century baby, and Berlin was a hot point of the cold war.  It’s with me still, as if the "spooks" still haunted the city, as if those people who died trying to get out were still here. 

The downtown was still more astonishing.  Capitalism came in force. The downtown is filled with one design triumph after another…as if to insist on the contrast with the old regime.  Capitalism showing off, making a statement.  As if there was any doubt about who the winner was, or why the winner won. 

And finally, we happened to drive by the relatively new Holocaust memorial.  (I never have time on the road actually to visit anything. I see it through the window of the taxi or not at all.)  The Holocaust, this was the biggest mystery of my childhood.  I was 6 in 1957 and the popular press continued to try to think how to think about the Holocaust.  When you are little, it is always intensely interesting when adults are shocked, wordless, tearful, incoherent. 

Eventually, of course, you see what the matter is.  There is no way to think about the Holocaust.  There is no way to mourn it. You can try.  And then you realize the scale of the horror.  You understand that grief of this order will bend you till it breaks you.  The Holocaust is hard to memorialize.  Trying and failing, that’s, I guess, a way to remember what it was. 

Ethnology: a tiny state of the art review

Img_0108 Hello from Hamburg.  Here’s a forward that someone asked to to write and then decided not to use.  Actually, I think it was editor who decided that I was impolitic.  Thus does the old media treat the new media.

Here, then, is the forward:

Ethnography found its way into the world with difficulty.

In the early days ethnographers were very like immigrants, obliged to take the jobs that other wouldn’t or couldn’t do. When Chrysler phoned me in the middle 1980s, they did so because the other methods had failed. In the early days, ethnology was a method of last resort. 

Practitioners had doubts of their own. Ethnography sounded very well: getting closer to the consumer, doing the work in home, working one-to-one instead of through the glass. We made our promises with a brave face. And then we had to think, “how in the dickens am I going to make this work?” Improv was the order of the day. Projects took on the character of a Kontiki expedition, with parts repurposed in a constant rebuilding even as we pressed into service anything floating by.  There are late practitioners because there were early practitioners.

It was also necessary to pass Scylla and Charybdis. The former were the anthropologist still resident and reproachful in the university. For this group, the very idea of commercial application was an outrage. These people who informed me of their hostility with a string of insults, and in one case, a loud, hysterical accusation in the middle of a cocktail party. It didn’t matter that these academics had remarkably provincial ideas of capitalism and the marketplace. Their hostilities still stung.

Charybdis took the form of business school professors. The business schools were in the 1980s still filled with positivists, for whom ethnography was merely a happy face to put on imprecision and methodological self indulgence. We were the enemy at the gate, a threat against rigor at the very moment the marketing “sciences” seemed poised to achieve it. In one particularly memorable cocktail party, George Day, then the president of the Marketing Science Institute, discovered suddenly who he was drinking with, and prompting went on a tirade that must have last a full 8 minutes. Anthropology and ethnology, I began to gather, were the work of the devil. This made me the devil’s apprentice.  (There was awhile there when it seemed best for ethnographers to avoid cocktail parties altogether.)

Now the field has as much to fear from its proponents as its enemies. We have practitioners who operate from on high. They charge the earth and deliver only telegraphically, leaving behind them small, mantra-like phrases that claim, in a small, mantra-like phrase, to “crack the code.” In this case, charisma must do the work of thoroughness, rigor, nuance and profundity. If we demur, chances are we are met with some variation of St. Augustine’s dictum: do not seek to understand that you may believe. Believe that you may understand.  That’s, I guess, what the charisma is for. 

And then there is the “commodity basement,” and the practitioners who bang the stuff out, using small bands of willing but unsophisticated undergraduates. Some of these sweat shops may produce value, but if we believe that some part of the power of the method comes from it’s ability to craft the interview in real time, it’s hard to see how. These observers cannot be much more self guided than the bots and spiders of the internet. They may canvass the world widely, but they are hard pressed to do so with the ethnographer’s “just-in-time” responsiveness.

In between is the pretender practitioner. Those are the people who now retail ethnography without actually having an anthropologist or an ethnographer on staff. For some reason, many quite reputable agencies and design firms thought it was “ok” to sell ethnographer-free ethnography. Others did have an ethnographer on staff, but on finer scrutiny it proved to be the case that the ethnographer was “self trained.” This is I think the thing about experts and professionals, doctors and engineers, say. In general, self training is the very reason we demand training, discipline and a little conscience when it comes to how the terms are used. Shamed, some firms went out and bought an ornamental ethnography, someone for the mast head, and continued to use amateurs to do the bulk of the work. This is “bait and switch.”

But I guess we should be grateful that ethnography survived its infancy. Not so long ago it received a papal blessed from A.G. Lafley, the CEO of P&G. And with this CEOs and CMOs everywhere began to give the attention new attention. This is, in other words, a crucial moment in the history of the method. It will either grow up to dispatch the larger and more important responsibilities is now assigned. Or it will continue its descent into naïve empiricism, charismatic performance, or the commodity basement.

We are badly in need of a clearer idea of the method’s true practice and potential, the better to instruct pretenders in what it is they should be doing, and to move the rest of us to sit down and recraft our method and redouble our efforts.

Noticing 102

Mass_observation_1 Mass-Observation encouraged noticing in England in the 1930s.  It was created by Charles Madge, Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrisson to capture everyday life in what they boldly called "the science of ourselves." 

There were lots of problems.  Mass-Observation could be arty.  It could be prurient.  It was, in some cases, ideologically motivated.  It was anthropological in the worst, most Rapaillean, sense of the term. (Harrisson called Chamberlain, returning from Munich, a "father-deity" on a "sky journey.") 

Mass-Observation was also slumming.  Sometimes the working class was studied because it was a working class. 

In each case, Madge, Jennings and Harrisson noticed with a motive. They examine English life to repurpose it for the sake of art, politics or mischief. 

But there was also a feeling for the detail qua detail. Mass-Observation captured simple truths.  In the study of pub life in Bolton, someone on the M-O team saw that:

[P]eople drink faster…alone [than in a group], and the rhythm of the drinking is so deeply felt that they nearly always finish their rounds together, even if they’re blind.  [in Crain, p. 80]

Mass-Observation cared to notice "which end of a cigarette people tap."  (Crain, p. 77)

Perhaps the best thing about M-O was its wish to be comprehensive.  The sheer profusion of the data meant that some details were let in that were not put out.  Some lucky details remained mere.   

Those of us who pursue our observation in the corridors of market research recognize the value of these details.  It’s not the devil who resides here, but our God.  Details are telling, and entire strategies and campaigns and brand legends have come from the slenderest of observations.  Yes, of course, we mean to repurpose them, but this cannot happen well unless we catch them first.

The trick is noticing.  And the trick to noticing is to notice widely. We won’t see it for what it is the first time around.  So it’s good to look at everything.  What did Johnson say, "read everything.  Taste comes later"?  Nous, too.  See everything.  Illumination, that’s the next round.   

The trouble is we have been to a pub before.  We’ve had a round or two.  The combination of familiarity and commotion will make this still salient detail, that everyone finishes at once, hard to see.  But to see it, and to see it for the simultaneity it is, and to see the simultaneity for what it is, till we have "laddered" up to some truth about drinking and beer, this what the game is for. Ethnography may be purposeful in the final analysis.  It just can’t be this in the first instance. 

Mass-Observation did sometimes make itself useful.  It helped the British government test morale posters in the field.  On the other hand, Jennings dismissed most of his films as "commercial." 

For us, that’s the interesting part, our chance to see if this tiny piece of culture can turn into commerce before it returns again to culture.  Or to put this is the language of John Wheeler, one of the first Englishman to see how our culture and commerce interact:

all the world choppeth and changeth, runneth and raventh after Marts, Markets and Merchandizing, so that all things come into Commerce and pass into Traffic. 


Crain, Caleb.  2006.  Surveillance Society: The Mass-Observation movement and the meaning of everyday life.  The New Yorker.  September 8, 2006, pp.76-82.

Hubble, Nick.  2006[?]  Mass-Observation and Everyday Life.  London: Palgrave Macmillan.  [not consulted for this post]

Mass Observation.  1943.  The Pub and the People.  London: The Cresset Library.  [there are two copies left on]

Wheeler, John.  1601/2004.  A Treatise of Commerce.  Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, p. 129. 

An ethnography of the ethnographer

Ethnographers_camera_1 Finally, the ethnographic camera has been turned on the ethnographer himself. 

Here is a "warts and all" portrait of Jean Claude Claris and the ethnography he did for Google in preparation for the YouTube purchase.

It’s hardhitting.  It’s honest.  It’s raw.  It’s real.  (Ok, realish.)

Claris, Jean Claude.  2006.  Confidential Video for Google Internal Use Only.  here.

the trouble with theory (EPIC ethnography III)

Epic_1 My EPIC presentation took a position impatient with theory.  I will later accused of being anti-intellectual.  This must be wrong.  As my neice pointed out, I am uncle-intellectual.

The trouble is not with me.  The trouble is with what it means to solve problems in a dynamic culture.  The trouble is with theory.

Marshall Sahlins argues that every theory is a bargain with reality. It gives us certain kinds of knowledge by denying us the possibility of other kinds of knowledge.  (My phrasing.  All regrets if the master had hoped for something more nuanced.)

Working for clients, we are obliged to deal always with shifting perspectives, mountains of data, complicated problem sets and an urgent time line.  As good marketers, there is lots to crunch, much to contemplate, and the BFI (big f*cking idea) can come from any where. Anyone who is a slave to any one theory puts the enterprise at risk. 

Solving the problems of most clients demands methodological lability and an intellectual opportunism.  We want to have all the theories we have ever encountered at our disposal.  In my case, this must mean a willingness to draw upon structuralism, semiotics, structural functionalism, functionalism, post modernism, and much else besides. We want to be agnostic.

Theoretical loyalty is a terrible idea not least because we are willing away all the other insights that promiscuity make available. Theoretical loyalty, that’s precisely the sort of thing that is likely to appeal to academics for whom tribal loyalty is the very point of the exercise, not least because it is so often used to decide whether and where they will be allowed to teach and publish. 

No, a certain intellectual mobility is called for.   Typically, we have 10 days between our introduction to the problem and the our conclusion.  That’s 10 days to get from, say, a deep ignorance of the mutual fund industry to insights and recommendations that are capable of adding real value.  I think we can not unless we are prepared to press into service any and all the intellectual patterns with which we are acquainted.

I am not arguing the case for no theory.  The world of marketing began, I guess, in retail.  Someone would go to the shop floor and see what was selling.  This was all the intelligence one needed to stay in business.  This was no theory.  But every corporation is now a ship in high seas.  Every kind of data must be consulted.  Every kind of strategy contemplated.  Only consultants who are prepared to make use of everything they know can serve.  We do not wish these consultants to forsake theory.  We want them to forsake the idea of a single theory.  But a blue helmet on them if we must, but "ecumenical" is the watch word here. 

EPIC ethnography II

Epic The conference on ethnography this week in Portland (now over) continues to throw off possibilities:

1) that the field is maturing vast.   I have been doing Ethnography for 20 years pretty much as a wildcat operator, making things up on my own, fighting off moments of internal skepticism, humming bravely the tune whenever words escaped me.  I think I created value.  People kept hiring me.  But it was hard to say precisely what it was I was doing. Profession?  What profession? 

But as I sat listening to the EPIC Panel curated by Tracey Lovejoy ("Considering Ethnography in Various Business Settings – What is Success and to Whom?"), I thought, "ok, if I have colleagues like this, I belong to a profession."   The participants were Genevieve Bell (Intel), Jeanette Blomberg (IBM), Tim Malefyt (BBDO), Rick Robinson (Luth Research).  Genevieve Bell  was grand, just grand.  I do not agree with everything she says, but I am enthralled with the way she says it.  Rick Robinson did a brilliant ethno-ethnology, his account of the typical presentation.  Robinson argued that emerging genre might be taken as signs of a creeping banality, and that serious practitioners will want to move on to bolder methods.  I disagree.  Let’s treat this genre as our new minimum standard, the least a client can expect.  God knows, we need this.  It will help separate the sheep from the goats. 

2) that academics would like to help.  They were there in force.  Some of them insisted on asking the tired old questions that have done so much to disable ethnography as an academic instrument.  I think they came to help supervise the transfer of the methodology to the world of business only to discover that they are obliged to play a game of catch up merely to participate.  It would be very nice if commercial ethnography were could become a "free trade zone" where academics could give up their methodological preciousness and take up urgent questions. 

3) I think in conversation was determined that standards have risen in part because clients have are so much comfortable with and informed about the method.  I can think of 6 people who are now deeply discerning about what the method has to offer.  Quality control is now in place.  This means that a practitioner no longer has to justify the method, and can get on with seeing what it can be made to do on the client’s behalf. 

Ok, the jet lag leaves with the distinct sensation that I am under water, so that’s all for today. 

Ethnography and the “extra data” opportunity

Ethnography_presentation_i_gates_in_pith 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

the problem of involuntary empathy

Ear_from_wwwsteveorguk_with_thanks The commercial ethnographer lives or dies by his or her ability to hear what the consumer is thinking and feeling.  This empathy can be trained.  It can be improved.  But really good ethnographers begin with a native gift. 

What is true of mathematicians is also true of ethnographers.  The former have heads that stream with numbers, the latter have heads that stream with experiential matters, thoughts and feelings that belong not to themselves, but to someone else.  The commercial ethnographer is grateful that the world prizes his or her ability, but in point of fact, empathy is something he or she would do in any case.  Call it obsessive.  At the very least, it is involuntary. 

Where does the gift come from?  Who knows.  Sometimes, I guess, it comes from pathological circumstances.  The most emphatic person I have ever met was a 10 year old girl I was interviewed for a Canadian government project on young smokers.  It was a very strange sensation to be "scanning" her only to realize the she was scanning us, and a whole lot better than any thing we could manage.  Compared to this little kid, we were rank amateurs.  I felt as if I had been turned to glass.  We learned eventually that the preferred form of punishment in this girl’s home was a cigarette burn to the body.  I guess that would have the potential of making a virtuoso of anyone. 

The native gift grows with experience.  The more we use it, the better it becomes.  We get new range, new depth.  We can capture thoughts and feelings that would have been alien and irreproducible a few years before. 

But our gift for empathy does ever seem to get more controllable.  It can’t be turned off and on.  This species of empathy remains involuntary.  We will internalize the world whether we want to or not. 

Now this is a special problem when there is someone in the room who is deeply at odds with the ethnographic interview.  I’ve had this experience twice in the last couple of months.  In one case, there was a representation of the client team who distrusted the method and its practitioner.  While "hoovering up" things from the respondent, inevitably, I would hoover up the skepticism of the client rep. 

Oh, this is not good.  You are using the method to absorb a deeply distrust of the method, and this cycle speeds up and spins out.  In the second case, the client rep was not so much skeptical as deeply controlling. Now, the "other voice" that came to the ethnographer was one that contested any of the power that came to the ethnographer.  Oh, not good at all!  To empathize with some one who deeply resents you is to resent yourself. 

Naturally, you try to "jam" the signal.  And eventually you manage the interviews.  But you pay a psychic tax on top of the psychic costs of a process that is quite demanding enough as it is.  In a perfect world, we would manage the alien signal.  We would say things like, well, that’s just the way they feel about the process."  But we don’t and we can’t because what we are doing is not voluntary.  It is, not to be self dramatizing about it, an involuntary rushing out of the self into someone else.  We don’t do it by choice.  We just do it. 

I am not sure there is a point to this meditation, except perhaps to ask if other’s have wrestled with this nasty little contradiction and found a way to break free of it. 

p.s., I made it across the Pacific to Portland.  The EPIC conference is most interesting.  If I can shake the jetlag, reports to follow. 

Ethnography as optometry

Rain_gear_shanghai I am in Shanghai doing ethnographic interviews with consumers.  (And, yes, it’s raining.  More on that below.)  And I am struck how often ethnography is like watching paint dry, except that paint is often more interesting.

Much of what I am doing is trying to figure out the categories of thought, and that means asking lots of painstaking questions.  Sort of a like an optometrist, except instead of asking "is this better or is this better?" I am asking something like "so is it x or y?"  "Ok, is it x1 or x2."  Ok, is it x1.1 or x1.2" and so it goes. 

Some people like to think of anthropology as a extravagant act of empathy joining minds and imaginations across cultures.  Nah.  Most of it optometry.   

It’s funny how often you discover that the topic in question has only been roughed out or sketched in.  You proceed down the x1 trail, only to discover that things end abruptly at x1.2.  Apparently, culture lost interest while working on this one, went to lunch and left things unfinished, or something. 

And you can sometimes see a small shock in the respondent as she joins you staring out over the scaffolding of knowledge into areas uncharted.  This may be the first time they have had this sensation, and some react badly.

There is another species of consumer unhappiness.  This is where your questions drive them not to the the limit of the knowable, the mappable world, but its very foundation.  In North America, for example, you will ask someone about why they have appointed the houses the way they have, and they will roll out lots of explanations until you "force" them to reach for the most compelling rationale at work.  For many consumers, this turns out to be the notion of "homeyness."

Now you can ask them to break open and parse out what homeyness is, but most respondents will look at you as if you have rocks in your head.  Homeyness, this idea exists in a sense sui generis.  It is it’s own explanation.  It supplies its own account.  It is to so self evident as to be  inscrutable, and woe to the bloodyminded anthropologist who suggests otherwise.

This is an exciting moment for the anthropologist.  Now, you are, as they say, "on to something."   Account for this, and you have captured something substantial. 

So the ethngraphic interview proceeds in one of two directions: out to the edge where culture has merely sketched things in, and down to the very foundation ideas have weight and sufficiency enough to give the world ballast.

Tiny ethnographic notes from Shanghai

1. Further to my occasional series of "taxi cab impressions," above is a photo, taken in transit, of one of the most beautiful aspects of Shanghai.  It rains a lot here.  Not hard, often merely misting.  And when it does, everyone breaks out the raingear and the umbrellas.  And now the streets fill with people carrying one or wearing the other as they cycle their way to work or scooter their way home.  Why does light bloom in the rain?  It must be because  the  air becomes an extra rich medium for light.  I think this is why colors are said to super saturate.  Anyhow, the effect here in Shanghai is sensational.  It’s as if everyone when it rains to carry blocks of color through the streets that the city might stream with beauty.  And boy does it.

2. Yesterday, I did an interview in a part of Shanghai that is fast vanishing.  This is the world of crooked allies, window stairwells, tiny rooms, and roof top pidgeon keeps.  For a Westerner, it is almost impossible not to sentimentalize this world, but it is not hard to see why the state is tearing these places down and moving people to a highrise.  We Westerners are charmed by this wooden world only because we don’t have to live there.  There is a great story to tell here but, it just occurs to me might embarrass the respondents.  Sorry to bait and switch.  Let me see if I can think of a way to do this.

Ethnography in extremis

Fabulous_dames_at_the_pontiac_cafe Chicago may be the best place on earth to do ethnography.  People are forthright, smart, clear, and exact.  No posturing.  No carrying on. They give us flinty clarity funded by personal, intellectual, and emotional depths and generosity. 

I loved the Los Angeles interviews of the week before, but, as we know, most Californians are a work in progress (several works in progress), so answering simple questions with perfect clarity can be tough for them.  I noticed that my notes of the interviews have lots of arrows, the usual sign of linear-defying complexty that makes the ethnographer’s life interesting but more difficult.

It is not impossible to imagine why Chicago was the place where anthropology made it’s first splendid efforts to make itself useful in the marketplace. This is where Lloyd Warner, Syd Levy, Irving White, Philip Kotler (Gods, all) got down to business. 

But Friday I did an interview that earned, I submit most humbly, a place in the record of methodological difficulty.  From a sensory point of view, it was a full contact event and not even the hurricane that awaited my landing and return to New York City has been able to shake the memory.

I agreed to meet a nervous respondent in a public place.  This is always a bad sign, isn’t it?  But the topic was money, and when the topic IS money, we are deeply nervous about our privacy.  Who is this person who says he’s an anthropologist?  Why must he interview me in my home about money, stock, bonds, investments, capital markets, financial planning, and my future?  I don’t think so!  Americans, generally speaking, would rather give you a detailed account of their sexual escades at Studio 54 than supply so much as the current balance of their checking account. 

Fair enough.  We meet under the Damen stop on the Blue line that sits, wooden but sturdy, smack up against the second story windows of Chicagoans who can’t believe they didn’t notice those tracks when they rented the place. 

The "meet" takes place, and by this times the language of American spy novels feels ever more appropriate, at an open air bar, the Pontiac Cafe (as above).  Open air in case I make any "sudden movements."  Open air incase in case I "try anything."  In an open air bar, help can be summoned in the event that the anthropologist goes completely berserk and begins to ask questions about one’s 401K.

The Pontiac Cafe is a study in badly managed commotion.  First, there are the trains that arc through the heavens above us briefly to stop at Damen before heralding the one true armagedon with their departure. And of course the bar has a sound system that competes with all the sound "out there" in Chicago the way a household furnace competes with winter on those few occasions that your Dad will actually allow you to open a door.  The sound system will never win, but this does not mean it will ever stop trying.  Then of course there are all the peace keepers and EMS personnel who work ceaselessly to make Chicago one of the noisest places on earth.  (Chicago, the city that works you over.)   It’s as if everyone has decided to memorialize the stock yards with sounds that express and inflict misery. 

But that’s not all.  The pit pull who has been amiably sitting beneath the table beside us  has slipped his leash and is wandering the bar in the hopes someone will surrender burger and fries at the approach of some thing so fearsome.  I would be happy to do this but I actually don’t have anything to surrender, except of course my dignity, and this I give up straight away with a look of alarm that tells everyone that I believe myself to be in the path of harm’s way.  (So much for the spy motif.)

I would take my complaint up with pit bull’s owner but I can’t help noticing that she has dyed a leopard skin pattern onto one half of her head, in pink.  Master of the semiotics of the world of goods that I am, I feel quite strongly that this means she will respond to my plea for pit bull constraint with the suggestion that I go "fuck myself," and this will occasion a visit from the pit bull who will prosecute the argument less tenderly. 

Happily, the respondent is an extraordinarily interesting guy who, under the cover of the noise of peacekeepers and the anxiety induced by attack dogs, offers exact details of his investment activity and so the job gets done. 

And from this and other interviews, there emerges a picture of the investor.  The client wants to know why he is not acting like a rational, maximizing, "economic man."  Asking an anthropologist this question is liking a statitician what the best approach is.  The answer from both of them is, always, "well, it depends."  In this anthropological case, it depends on what you mean by "rational," "maximizing," "economic," and "man."  Unlike the economist, the anthropologist posits a creature who is complex, various and multiple.  This creature has many plans, fitful frames with which to define value and strategy, and a variety of ways of getting on with it.  All of this is rational.  But there is never a single right path. It is for high flyers, those creatures of the higher sentience, by which I mean of course the analyst, to crunch through to the one, best course of action.  The rest of us have many ways of thinking and acting in a rational way. 

Thanks god this is so.  Who would hire me otherwise?


Thanks to Rachelle Bowden for the photo of two people on the patio of the Pontiac Cafe from her website here.

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.


MoscowI will on ethnographic assignment for the next two weeks in Moscow.  I am pretty sure I will have access to the internet, but I am also sure things will be hectic.  Please forgive if blogging is intermittent.

Later today, the airport willing, I am hoping to post something called "advice to a young consultant."  This will be practical advice for someone who is just getting into the consulting game.

Victorian anthropologists would have had ready access to advice of this kind.  Contemporary ethnographers are forced back on their own resources.  Stop by for my STEWQL formula (Small Target, Early Warning, Quick reLease) and other invaluable tips for the international traveller.