Tue 19 Jul 2005
A story about the use of ethnography in marketing on last Monday's edition of Marketplace on NPR sparked some interesting discussion. (NPR has had a few other stories about ethnography in the past year – see this or this.) The story, in a nutshell, is this: marketers and advertisers are catching on to the value of ethnography for understanding people (read: consumers). Ethnographers are everywhere these days, from Google to NASA to Madison Avenue. The NPR story even quotes David Grzelak, Director of Ethnography at TenUnited, an ad agency. I share the NPR reporter's incredulity (and excitement) that such a post exists.
So what about it? Should anthropologists be worried? On the one hand the popularization of ethnography has led to increased attention and opportunities for anthropologists. On the other hand, the popular definition of ethnography is the bastard stepchild of what ethnography really is – totally divorced from theory, history, or anthropological perspective. Anyone who observes and records has become an ethnographer. In fact, anyone who does any qualitative work at all seems to call themselves an ethnographer these days.
If you're one who understands and believes in the value of ethnography done right, then this new phenomenon might be rather painful. I see ethnography being put to all sorts of uses that don't seem quite right from a number of standpoints, not all of which I'm on-board with.
Theoretical: Ethnography is best when it exists within the framework of theory, history, and perspective that anthropology provides. Data gathering is the easy part – it's the ethnographic analysis that really requires skills and knowledge. Without theory, ethnography can be ungrounded and comparatively useless.
Practical: The draw seems to be to use ethnography for finding out anything and everything these days, regardless of whether it's the right method for the job. I like to say that ethnography is useful for finding out a lot about a little (as opposed to a little about a lot, e.g. surveys). It's not that ethnography can't be used to inform generalizations and broader knowledge, it's that the process involves the aggregation of individual ethnographic case studies. I worry that there's no realization of the limits of ethnography out there, and that the popular uses are too generalized, without the caveats and boundaries that are the mark of good research. (See my previous rant – I mean post on limitations.)
Ethical: Anthropologists, at least classically, have often had leanings towards advocacy for marginalized groups, for better or for worse. Ethnography was developed within that framework. Now that ethnography is being employed to increase profits rather than understanding or quality of life, I can see how ethical issues would arise for some folks.
I think these are all important concerns, and I share them to varying degrees. Practical concerns, quite a lot. Theoretical concerns, somewhat. Ethical concerns, hardly.
The real issue for me is the dilution of the value of the method – that people don't see the point in hiring a trained anthropologist when they can hire fresh faced English and Political Science majors to go do all the ethnography they need. If ethnography was all that anthropologists had to offer, we'd certainly all be out of a job, at least in the applied world. My former advisor and friend, Felicity Northcott, put it to me this way about 6 years ago: "Anthropologists no longer have the luxury of a monopoly on ethnography." We have to face the fact that the method is diffusing, and work harder to make the case for anthropologists in a sea of ethnographers. This is the real challenge: making the pitch. This is why you need an anthropologist. This is what an anthropologist can do for you that a hack ethnographer can't. And I think, because this post is too long already, I'll just say that I've made the case in the sections above. We have theory, we have history, we know the limitations of our field, and more importantly, we have the ethnographic perspective. The real value in ethnography, after all, isn't just in collecting the data but in knowing what to make of it.