Everyday there is evidence that ethnography is entering the general business vernacular. And there is also plenty of evidence that it remains woefully misunderstood. I’ve heard it bandied about as just another tool for getting information about customers and users.
However, the fact is that ethnography is more than just a set of tools. It’s a practice which means there is a whole way of thinking that must go into applying the tools in an honest, coherent way. This is why I get incredibly frustrated when untrained individuals think they can just go out and do ethnography. That’s like me saying that I’m going to go out and build a skyscraper. Just as you wouldn’t want me to be your architect, don’t be so fast to employ some fast-talking market research consultant with zero actual training to do something that requires careful study, preparation, and understanding.
- Ask them for some credentials. Where did they study or get their ethnography training? If it amounts to zilch or appears dubious boot them out.
- Ask them about the ethics of conducting ethnography. Are they aware of possible ethical situations that might arise? If they seem clueless or cavalier about it, then boot them out.
- Ask them about their prior experiences and demand they give examples. Don’t fall for ethnographic techniques that are just interviews in disguise. If they don’t know the difference between interviews and ethnography, then yes, give them the boot. Hell, give them another boot for trying to pull a fast one on you.
And one more thing. While no social science has a monopoly on conducting ethnography, it’s purpose isn’t to reveal individual customer or user psychology. Don’t expect to know how a product makes someone feel or understand personality traits of a buyer or focus on a person’s psyche. If that’s what you want, hire a psychologist for answers.
What we do as business-oriented anthropologists is to help our clients understand how a customer, user, or buyer ascribes meaning to their everyday world. We seek to understand how people situate themselves in their existence. We look at how their actions match or contradict the words they use to describe themselves or their behavior. We view people holistically and seek to understand them within the context of their cultural surroundings.
Why would you want this information? Because it will mean the difference between whether your sparkly new product or revolutionary new service not only sells but gets used, gets talked about, gets people coming back for more. Because we help clients create things that make a difference in the lives of their customers.
Sorry yet another rant but I can’t sit idly while I see misinformed people continuing to degrade anthropology and ethnographic methods in order to be something they clearly are not.