Ethnography Magpies and Shiny Things

 This is the first of a three posts exploring the rise, fall and possible futures of ethnography in commercial settings. 

This piece explores how ethnography fell victim of the enduring quest for fashion and the need to differentiate in market research. It’s not just a lament – but a call for reinvigoration.

The second piece will explore contexts in which ethnography has been used to greater potential – and chart the threats it now faces. The third will attempt a resolution of the first two posts – charting a course for the future. 

Dedicated followers of fashion

Someone in fmcg that we’ve been working with recently said, with a mixture of exhaustion and frustration: “…if I hear another consultancy talking about behavioural economics I’ll…”

His voice then trailed off leaving the air of veiled threat hanging in the air.

The world of business likes shiny new things. And consultants are most often those who bring shiny news things to their clients.

Right now in the world of market research, behavioural economics is in fashion. Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 distinction is now doing the rounds. Not long ago it seemed like the answers to many marketing challenges – and the mysteries of humanity – lay in neuroscience. Now many seek answers to intractable problems in behavioural economics.

David Cameron took the book Nudge on holiday with him in 2008 and so market researchers are hardly ahead of the curve. But now the herd has locked onto this area of thinking. There’s little risk attached to moving with the herd and there’s comfort of being in the company of others. Sex sells, and as Matt Ridley observed in a TED talk, ideas like to have sex. Behavioural economics is no wallflower of an idea.

Shiny things sell

Those selling new shiny ideas to clients take few risks (except the wrath of world-weary clients). But there’s something at stake for the integrity of the ideas themselves.

  1. They can be mistaken for a ‘unified theory of everything’ or a magic bullet. Behavioural economics illuminates how and why people make decisions, but it is in danger of falling into this trap’
  2. The ideas can be over-simplified. Simplification can be a good thing. But it can also go too far when they lose their integrity.
  3. Many of fashionable ideas can suffer over claim. I’m not denying the vitality and importance of his ideas but Kahnman himself is on record as saying that much of his work has tended to provide proof for centuries old ‘folk wisdom’: “Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t” is one way to talk about endowment effects.

And what, you might ask, has this got to do with ethnography?

Well, ethnography was once a shiny new thing in the world of market research, But it has lost its shine. It was over sold, watered-down and simplified to within an inch of its life. I think it’s time to put some life back into the idea that ethnography can help solve difficult business problems and create real value.

Ethnography got lost in translation

Dating the arrival of a shiny new things is always hard but ethnography probably emerged into the world of market research in the late 1990s.

When ethnography met market research there was a sense of excitement that it might change the industry and how served its clients. But it soon became a fashion. Market research turned ethnography in a commodity by modelling it on existing product categories, merging it with techniques and force fitting it with existing theories of how consumers think and what makes them tick.

Ethnography became a ‘sexed up’ way to do more of the same without thinking differently.

Doing an quick interview in someone’s sitting room became ethnography. A selection of video clips become video ethnography. In the hands of some a 20 minute call on Skype claimed to be ethnography. Ethnography become all method and no thinking – all mouth and no trousers.

Ethnography became just another route to documenting ‘needs’ or generating a needstate map. It became a part of the market research toolkit and just another product to sell.

The result: the potential of ethnography got lost in translation. The shine came off ethnography.

Ethnography –different but the same?

Ethnography as product was not accompanied by a wider interrogation of research industry assumptions: For example, how might ethnography change how we understand people, their social worlds and cultural processes. It didn’t question if the principal focus of our investigations should be individuals (or ‘individual consumers’) to the neglect of any broader social systems or groups.

But most fundamentally, the question that didn’t get asked was this:

How can ethnography change how we think about people?

Ethnography became, in my view, a methodological novelty that didn’t deliver much extra beyond a new way of doing research. It was a chance to encourage new thinking about how to understand the relationship between individuals and broader social and cultural forms.

Ethnography’s arrival on the scene offered an invitation to question assumptions about what market research could deliver and what it was for. That invitation was declined.

In a recent interview, anthropologist Danny Miller said the following about ethnography:  “I really do believe in it as the best form of social enquiry that we have ever discovered.”

Ethnography as a mean of understanding the world was discovered a long time ago. It may not be new, and may no longer be shiny. But it works and it creates value. It’s time to reinvigorate and revive ethnography.


To follow…

My next post will explore a different and rather more successful parallel career story for ethnography that has played out over nearly 50 years in different business contexts. I’ll use the story of this trajectory to identify routes for reinvention.