Tag Archives: Steve Portigal

Who will be our ethnographic hero?

There is now only one path to the White House for Donald Trump. There has to be a Brexit-type surprise in November.

This is the hope of the Republican party faithful. When confronted with numbers that show Hilary in the lead and the refusal of their candidate to pivot to a more presidential presentation of self, this is what they say. There is massive support out there. We just can’t see it. Because conventional polling cannot pick it up. People are concealing their real intentions. Trump will win.

The only person outside the Republican tent I’ve heard make this argument is Megan Murphy of Bloomberg who last night on Charlie Rose said,

Putting this into the context of Brexit, [I wondered] ‘are we all getting this wrong?’ [Maybe] something much more profound and disruptive is going on… and this is going to be a moment when the establishment is broken. And not just the Republican establishment but establishment writ large. … Even we can’t step back and see the profound dislocation that’s going on.

Ethnographers consume this kind of problem for breakfast. The clipboard crew are obliged to take an answer at its face. But ethnographers live to dig. We are always looking for the world of meaning, the hidden assumptions, the basic thinking beneath the first reply. The clipboard crew has a box to check. We dig and dig and dig.

There is no hiding from an ethnographer. We can see inside your head and heart. We can tell what you’re really thinking. This is not interrogation. We don’t force you to tell. We just let you talk long enough until your lies begin to come apart, until their is a mountain of evidence about what you really think, whatever you just said to the pollster.

There is a HUGE opportunity for some ethnographer to make herself the hero of the moment. Someone who can talk to people who claimed “no opinion” and find the “shy” Trump supporters out there, the Trump supporter under deep cover. Spot them and map them, dear ethnographer, and, well, celebrity awaits you.

This is the stuff of which national reputations are made. Come up with this answer , and you become a national hero. To be the person who in late August says, “Trump will win. The ethnographic data tell us so. You may now adore me and don’t forget to consult me every Sunday morning forever and ever amen.” This could be the beginning of your Nate Silver ascension. And it wouldn’t it be grand to have a ethnographer who could do for qualitative data what Mr. Silver has done for quantitative data?

The problem is that we don’t always have the courage of our convictions. We are nervous nellies. I like to think that the reason that I don’t take on the challenge is that I have two projects on the go that are going to turn August and September into a forced march…but the truth is also that I am a nervous nelly.

This is a call the best and the bravest of the ethnographic world. A couple of names come to mind: Samantha Ladner, Steve Portigal, dana boyd, Patti Sunderland, German Dziebel, Ken Habarta, Panthea Lee, Jan Chipchase, David Art Wales, Peter Spear, Griffin Farley, Bob Morais, Carol Greenhouse, Phil Buehler, Jamie Gordon. (Apologies to those who are not on this list. This was totally top of mind.) People who are prepared to swing for the fences. Or maybe we are all of us nervous nellies. Who else can we turn to? Morgan Spurlock? Redscout?

Someone, please. If Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, we have to stop saying the thing that pundits have been saying for months now, “Oh, that can’t possibly happen and here’s why…” Because it could possibly happen. And if it does happen, we have to fire up our what-if machines and make ready for a very different world.

Who will be our hero?

[This post appeared first on Medium.]

Advice to an aspiring anthropologist

This morning I got a note from someone who wanted to know whether a master’s degree in anthropology would be useful to his career as a consulting anthropologist.  

Here’s my reply:


Thanks for your note.

A couple of things spring to mind.

The anthropology consulting world does not sort very well, so the good does not rise nor the bad fall away. Partly this is because there are no real barriers to entry. Lots of people hang out a shingle, despite the fact that they don’t have credentials or any real clue.

Second, clients don’t seem to care that someone doesn’t have a substantial career training, education or accomplishment. Procurement just goes with the low-cost provider.

So I am not sure that a master’s degree makes as much difference as it would in another field.

The second thing: to judge from your background, you have a breadth of experience, and you have engaged with the world, and that means, I am assuming, you are prepared to go places other angels fear to tread.

Many organizations are saying things like, “Geez, I wonder if there is an opportunity/problem opening up in this new place, new industry, new community.” More and more, organizations are confronted with “unknown unknowns” and the best thing to do is to drop someone into the place/industry/community and have them think their way home again.  This takes a kind of pattern recognition (aka problem cognition) that anthropologists, some anthropologists, are particularly good at.  (My clients used to ask me for “to find the right answer,” increasingly they ask me “to find the right question…then the right answer.”)  

In my intro to Steve Portigal’s new book on ethnography, I praise him for being a Mars Rover, someone you can send anywhere to capture the culture in place. A lot of anthro-consultants would wilt under the pressure. So they eliminate themselves from the competitive set. (On this website, about 4 posts ago.)

This is not to say that I can identify the exact clients out there who would want to hire you. But I believe once you had established yourself as someone who perform this kind of problem recognition, you will have many clients largely to yourself. (For more on being a “self sustaining anthropologist,” see my contribution to Riall Nolan’s Handbook on Practicing Anthropology. http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Practicing-Anthropology-Riall-Nolan/dp/0470674598/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2.)

So my advice comes down to this.  In the absence of a really strong program and clients who are sensitive to professional credentials, it might make sense to take the year (or two) you would give to a master’s program, and spent in a “proof of concept” project where you go after a big problem and in the process deepen your skills and show what you can do.

Blog it, then turn it into a book.  And that’s your calling card.  Lead with a total, open, intellectual curiosity and an eye to problem-solving pattern recognition. (Lots of people can do the first or the second. Advantage goes to people who can do both.)  This is a “self invention” scenario, but if you trust your powers and experience, I suspect you can transform yourself more effectively than a Masters’ program can.  

I hope this is helpful. I hope you don’t mind but I am going to post this note to my website. Naturally, I will not use your name or pass it along.

Best, Grant

p.s., I am writing this from a Hilton in Columbus, Ohio where a philanthropic foundation has me for the week, talking to Americans about politics and community.  It is absolutely interesting.  I am listening to people reinventing their ideas of who they are and what community is.  In almost real time.  So keep at it.  This is a spectacularly interesting career. 

Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users

This is my Foreword for a new book on ethnographic method from Steve Portigal, Interviewing Users.  


I was just looking at YouTube in a brave attempt to keep in touch with popular music, and I found the musician Macklemore doing a hip-hop celebration of the thrift store. (“Passing up on those moccasins someone else been walking in.”) Google results indicate that Macklemore is a product of Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington. And this is interesting because Evergreen produces a lot of ferociously creative kids—wild things who care nothing for our orthodoxy, and still less for our sanctimony.

Now, our curiosity roused, we might well decide to go visit Evergreen College, because as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Evergreen would be an excellent place to look for our futures. But it wouldn’t be easy or pleasant. We would struggle to get a fix on the sheer volcanic invention taking place here. Our sensibilities would be scandalized. We would feel ourselves at sea.

And that’s where ethnography comes in. It is, hands down, the best method for making our way through data that is multiple, shifting, and mysterious. It works brilliantly to help us see how other people see themselves and the world. Before ethnography, Evergreen is a bewildering place. After ethnography, it’s a place we “get.” (Not perfectly. Not comprehensively. But the basics are there, and the bridge is built.)

And that’s where Steve Portigal comes in. Armed with his method of interviewing, years of experience, a sustained devotion to the hard problems that our culture throws off (not just at Evergreen State College), and a penetrating intelligence, Steve could capture much of what we need to know about Evergreen, and he could do it in a week. And that’s saying something. Steve is like a Mars Rover. You can fire him into just about any environment, and he will come back with the fundamentals anatomized and insights that illuminate the terrain like flares in a night sky. Using his gift and ethnography, Steve Portigal can capture virtually any world from the inside out. Now we can recognize, enter, and participate in it. Now we can innovate for it, speak to it, serve it.

And if this is all Steve and ethnography can do, well, that would be enough. But Steve and the method can do something still more miraculous. He can report not just on exotic worlds like Evergreen, but the worlds we know—the living room, the boardroom, the not-for-profit, and the design firm. This is noble work because we think we grasp the world we occupy. How would we manage otherwise? But, in fact, we negotiate these worlds thanks to a series of powerful, intricate assumptions. The thing about these assumptions is that, well, we assume them. This means they are concealed from view.

We can’t see them. We don’t know they are active. We don’t know they’re there. Ethnography and Steve come in here, too. They are uniquely qualified to unearth these assumptions, to discover, in the immortal words of Macklemore, those moccasins we all go walking in.

This is a wonderful book. Steve can teach us how to improve our ability to penetrate other worlds and examine our assumptions. Ethnography has suffered terribly in the last few years. Lots of people claim to know it, but in fact the art and science of the method have been badly damaged by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

Let’s seize this book as an opportunity to start again. Let Steve Portigal be our inspired guide.

Use discount code mccracken2013 to get 20% off Steve’s book here.(http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/interviewing-users/).