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Ethnography – an antifragile practice?

Ethnography – an antifragile practice?

In the introduction to his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes the concept as follows:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

I wonder if it’s helpful to think about ethnography as an anti-fragile practice? It’s been thrown lots of challenges over the years but it seems really capable of responding and strengthening.

In the first two posts in this series examined ethnography as practiced in two different contexts – the (1) market research industry and (2) corporate R&D labs.  I argued that ethnography in ‘MR’ has been devalued as a serious approach to understanding the world through lazy and incurious application. I suggested that ethnography had fared rather better in corporate R&D environments but that challenges exist there too.

This third post makes five initial suggestions for strengthening and developing ethnographic practices in a context of change.

1. Redouble efforts to understand systems and their dynamics: revel in cultural flux

 When we talk about the world speeding up or becoming more complex or unpredictable we’re signalling a change in the way that cultural systems work.

One way of understanding culture is in terms of ideas and modes of thought, how these are externalised (or given form) and how these ideas or forms are distributed.

It was probably never the case that culture was bound to a place but in the 21st century we can’t let the fiction that ‘culture’ resides in ‘place’ be given any airtime. Nor can we think of the world as something constituted by bounded cultural entities or conceptualised as a mosaic of separate cultures. The rise of technological mediation has sharply accelerated the flows of culture and the patterns of distribution of ideas and cultural forms.

But the methodology of anthropology (a single anthropologist, in one village, with limited time and scope for meeting more than mere representatives of the ‘culture’ ) long dominated the discipline theoretically.  The same is true of much commercial ethnographic work.

New ways of exploring cultural processes, and ideas and institutions in flux, are required to understand how cultural systems work and a world in which the relationship between culture and  place are more complex than ever.

This might involve longer term engagement with specific themes or contexts to understand the dynamics of change as they play out. It requires us to think about what or how we constitute our fieldsites – should we be thinking more about contexts – streets (as Danny Miller did in The Comfort of Things), institutions, environments – than more bounded entities like homes and households? How will we engage with these sites? 

2. Embrace technological tools but don’t forget that the situated observer and analyst remain at the heart of the ethnographic endeavour

 There are many new tools and technologies available to support ethnographic research. The smartphone is probably the most powerful and enables context aware data collection. But the collection of data – automated or otherwise – should not be confused with the work of analysis.

The emergence of apps to collect data – or have people collect and comment on it for you (auto-ethnography?) – has not been accompanied by much in the way of new thinking about how to engage with people collecting that data or, more crucially, how to make sense of it.

 Whatever the potential of data analytics, interpretation of cultural data remains a situated, human activity. Meaning making from unstructured qualitative data is not something that can be out-sourced to algorithms.

3. Show your workings – or don’t hide behind the interpretation

Confronted with ‘ethnographic’ work done by others in the commercial domain I’m struck by how closed off from further analysis it is. The analysis is presented as a done deal. Small traces of data may get left behind but it’s largely impossible to look under the bonnet to see what other, alternative ways of thinking about the issue might exist.

In the same way that  children are taught to ‘show their workings’ in their maths I think there’s value in ethnographers leaving the door open to others to engage with their data. The best ethnography – academic or otherwise – lays out the material and then presents an interpretation and a point of view.  The audience has the opportunity to engage: an interpretive space is left.

I’m not arguing that the work of analysis be left to others. I’m suggesting that the strongest work, done by those confident in their analytic abilities, leaves the door opening for alternative readings and for perspectives to build on each other.

4. Simple doesn’t mean the same as simplistic

Life is complex. Systems of culture and meaning are knotty and complex. It’s tempting to cross the line that divides the simple from the simplistic. Creating the impression that world exists as a series of linear, causal relationships between things might seem like a sensible thing to do but will obscure the messiness that needs to be engaged with to make successful solutions, products or service stick. The rich mess is likely where the answer is hiding in plain sight. Telling the simple story – to yourself or others – might mean you miss it.

5. Ethnography should act as the start point for collaboration

Leaving the door open for informed and constructive engagement with ethnographic material is one way to use ethnography as a platform for collaboration. Allowing people to be confronted by, and truly engage with ethnographic narratives and accounts is one of the most powerful arguments for its use in business contexts.

But engaging over the meaning and implications of research shouldn’t be the end of collaborative working approaches. We believe that new models of engagement between ‘agencies’ and ‘clients’ are required that break down the tendency for research or insights to be thrown over the wall. Good ethnographic should be just the beginning, not signal the end of collaboration.