Oh the people we have met!

July 7, 2020 Leave a comment

We never really know what to expect when we roll up to do ethnographic fieldwork. Even though we’ve been doing ethnography for more than 30 years, arriving at a participant’s home or workplace always feels a little like our first day on the job. We’re anxious and hopeful that everything will go okay but are never really sure what is going happen when we walk through the front door and into someone’s life. Some contexts are more exciting or more unnerving than others, but we have to be prepared for almost anyone or anything. And boy-o-boy, have we not been disappointed. We have met so many interesting people and heard so many interesting stories over the years.

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 1,000 times—we’ve got the best job in the world. One reason it is such a great job is that it gives us the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. As sociologists, we believe that people are inherently interesting and what we’ve discovered as professional ethnographers is that EVERYONE has a story to tell that is uniquely captivating. If you take time to learn about someone, you discover that they are way more multi-dimensional than they appear at first blush. Although our job is usually to focus on the patterns that tie people together, we generally get there by first listening to and trying to understand each individual and what makes them who they are.

Over the years we have met thousands of people. We have been invited into their homes and into their lives and have found ourselves entertained and inspired by most of them. Here are some of the people who have stuck out as being particularly impressive, entertaining, or inspiring.

  • Alma from Missouri was 85 years old, played the organ, and kept a refrigerator stocked with six different kinds of soda (she lived alone). She had a Facebook page and texted before either were mainstream and recorded herself reading books so that her kids could listen to her homemade books on tape.
  • Dina from Pennsylvania was a twenty-something year old mother of two diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. We met her when we conducted a study on chronic pain. She had one of the most positive attitudes and brightest smiles of anyone we’ve ever met.
  • Robert from Georgia was a postal worker we met during a study on diabetes. He had hardly traveled outside Atlanta except for a tour of Korea while in the army. He was soft-spoken and exceedingly polite and spent a lot of time wondering how scientific theories intersected with philosophy and religion.
  • Rene from Kansas single-handedly cared for her husband with dementia even though she was in her 70s. She was amazing and truly inspiring and gave us a new appreciation for unconditional love.
  • Chubby from Georgia was a really thin man receiving treatment for cancer but was far more concerned about his wife’s happiness and comfort than his own.  
  • Dr. Anderson from Minnesota was a primary care doctor who had been treating most of his patients for several decades. He moonlighted as the primary fundraiser, organizer, and healthcare provider for massive shipments of medical supplies and treatment of patients in the Philippines.
  • Deanna from Arizona was a young mom who had spent a few years in a prison where she worked as a firefighter, then met her husband at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and together they built the kind of suburban life for their kids that they never had.  
  • Edwin from Georgia was a barber who delivered a homily with every trim, complete with a bible that he encouraged patrons to open to the page of their choice from which he would extemporaneously preach in a strong baritone.
  • Fanny and Lloyd from rural Louisiana owned and ran a booming roadside fish restaurant, in their retirement.
  • Annie from Missouri was a single woman with no kids, until she met and married a widower with eight kids, after which she became a stay-at-home mom.
  • Brenda, a physician’s assistant from Oregon, had a treatment style that combined science, tough love, and a bohemian philosophy to motivate her patients to get healthy.
  • Sheila from California was diagnosed with a serious chronic lung disease that caused her to be fatigued and winded virtually all of the time but refused to take on the role of “sick person” no matter what came her way.
  • Samantha a restaurant manager and bartender from Illinois highlighted her love of cats and witches in her talented artwork.
  • Angela in Tennessee, after meeting her husband on an oldie’s music cruise, decided to quit her job as an architect in Washington and move cross-country to live with him and start a second career as an uber driver.
  • Candace and Dean from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan were in their 70s but still shoveled their own rooftops (we didn’t know people did that either!). Dean has decided to donate his body to science and has been getting medical trivia tattooed on his body for the last several years to make it more interesting and educational for whoever does his autopsy.
  • Dr. Monroe, a veterinarian in rural Kansas, treated every kind of animal under the sun and did professional ballroom dancing on the side.  

Our research over the years has included more interesting characters than the Marvel Universe. They might not be able to fly or bend metal with their minds, but they’re all superheroes to us—doing their own things and making their own, unique life stories. We are just thankful that they have been kind and generous enough to share their rich experiences with us. We are so excited to see who we get to meet and learn from during the next 20 years!  

Categories: Uncategorized

Developing empathy and understanding with ethnography

July 6, 2020 Leave a comment

The political divide in the United States has been a stark reminder of how people can experience and interpret the world in very different ways. No matter what side you are on, it can be hard to see where the other side is coming from, what they’re feeling, and what drives them to think and do what they do. Developing this sort of empathy is essential to ethnography and to each part of our research process. We need empathy to ensure that we gather data that is deep and trustworthy. We need empathy to help us organize and sort that data in a way that accurately reflects the experiences and viewpoints of our participants. We need empathy to hold ourselves and our clients accountable and grounded during the reporting phases of our work. Still, maintaining empathy is sometimes easier said than done. Although most of the time we can connect with people and their stories right away, sometimes we just can’t relate to their experiences and viewpoints. Let’s explore some ways that ethnographers can develop empathy and understanding, especially in contexts where those might be hard to come by.

History, physical space, and relationships

Spending time with people is obviously the first step for ethnographers. Developing empathy is typically just a matter of really listening and hanging out with participants, trying to walk in their shoes as much as we can. Usually this goes a long way towards gaining insight into their perspectives. Even if it isn’t directly related to what we’re studying, investing time to learn a little bit about where they come from and about the context of their daily life pays dividends in helping us walk away with an empathetically grounded understanding of our research topic.

Touring a participant’s home or workspace provides another great opportunity to build empathy. Going room to room, sharing stories about their recent purchases and favorite belongings, there’s a good chance that we will run into something that will help us understand what their life is like and what’s really important to them.

We also try to involve our participants’ friends and families in the process whenever we can. They may show a different side of themselves when they’re playing with their kids or when they’re talking shop with a colleague. This can help us see them in a whole new light. People play many different roles in their lives, and the more roles we can observe, the more complete our understanding will be.

Public discourse, media, and marketing

We can also build empathy if we step back and look at the impact of the larger cultural context on our participants’ attitudes and actions. Macro sources of behaviors and beliefs are often ignored, but they can be quite powerful in molding and shaping individuals. Tracing the influences of marketing messages, information sources, government systems, religious structures, and social media all help us gain a better understanding of who our participants are.

We usually do this through “contextual mapping.” This means we examine how what we’re studying is represented in public discourse. If we want to understand cat owners, for example, we’ll dive into social media to see how cat care is discussed. We’ll survey ads about cat care, looking at the messages they convey and the symbols they use. We’ll explore the world of cat care influencers, like Jackson Galaxy, to see what they’re teaching others. We’ll also watch lots of cute cat videos just for the heck of it, but the goal is to understand how all of this background noise impacts and shapes people with cats in their lives. Contextual mapping would help even the most die-hard “dog person” empathize with their cat-loving neighbors.

Colleagues and theory

When we’re having trouble getting our heads around what’s going on with our participants, sometimes it helps to get another perspective. Getting a colleague’s input is great. Sometimes we need someone else to remind us to be more empathetic and to stop letting our own baggage get in the way. Social science theory also helps us reposition our thinking and see our data and our participants from a different angle. As odd as it may seem, reading theory can even help when the theory has nothing to do with the research topic. You can read Foucault when you’re studying paper towels, and it still might spark a big idea. Theory is an ethnographer’s yoga—it resets your mind and leads you straight towards empathy and enlightenment.

Induction and reflexivity

A good ethnographer is always working inductively, but sometimes we put the cart before the horse and start making assumptions. This can prevent us from developing empathy and getting at the heart of what’s going on with our data. If this happens, we need to take a deep breath and brush off those assumptions as quickly as we can.

The whole process requires self-reflection. When what someone thinks or does seems a little confusing, we try to remind ourselves that our thoughts or actions would probably be just as confusing to them. If we continue to have trouble understanding someone’s behaviors or motives, there’s a decent chance that we might be our own roadblock; a prejudice of one sort or another might be standing in our way. It helps to take an inventory of our own beliefs and practices, being critical of their origins and how they shape our viewpoints. This is a key step in developing empathy. If we want to walk in the shoes of the people we’re trying to learn from, we’ve got to take our own shoes off first.

Five challenges ethnographers face in health care settings and how to overcome them

June 22, 2020 Leave a comment

It’s not our imagination—observing health care provider/patient interactions was simpler when Ethnographic Research, Inc. opened its doors in 2001. This was before HIPAA’s Privacy Rule, its Security Rule, and its HITECH Rule all went into effect, and although these are all important and necessary, the required processes and paperwork can be intimidating for our clients, for the HCPs we meet, and for us too.

This article will highlight some of the challenges involved in doing observational research in health care spaces and provide some insights into how we have adapted and continue to do work in these settings. Whether you’re a researcher or you are thinking about hiring ethnographers to observe health care in action, we hope these provide you with some food for thought.

1.    Getting your foot in the door is difficult.

HIPAA regulations can make recruiting an enormous challenge; the HCPs have to trust that we, complete strangers, will treat their patient data as sacredly as they do. Even without HIPAA, HCPs would likely be uncomfortable with the idea of folks showing up at their work with cameras. That’s true of any workplace, particularly customer-facing workplaces. By letting us in, they’re vouching for us and that’s a risk for them.

Compounding the challenge are gatekeepers, usually office managers, whose job it is to filter the calls that make it to the decision-makers, usually physicians. This is another uphill battle, a kind of modern-day gauntlet. Finally, these are busy places, and they simply don’t have time for us. We have to convince them that we’ll be as little of a bother as possible and that their practice can function almost as efficiently as it normally does.

What is the secret sauce to recruiting health care providers? Persistence and an indestructible will. Also, although it isn’t always practical, we have found that recruiting in-person can go a long way in showing sincerity and resolve. When dealing with a tight timeline, getting the help of a third party recruiter can also be a viable option.

2.    Incentives can be complicated.

HIPAA isn’t the only regulatory barrier we contend with doing healthcare research. There’s also the Sunshine Act, and although it sounds very pleasant, it can make incentives for participants a little tricky. The Physicians Payments Sunshine Act is anti-bribery legislation designed to keep pharmaceutical companies and others from incentivizing physicians to prescribe their products. It seems totally removed from ethnography, but we have to make sure that any incentives we pay health care providers don’t top fair market value.

As a result, our incentives are never so much that they will really drive HCPs’ participation. So, again, we need to make sure that participating in our research causes as little inconvenience as possible and that their time with us is, if not loads of fun, at least mildly interesting.

3.    Be careful what data you collect.

Once we’re in the door, keeping the data we collect safe and sound is always our top priority. It is essential for everyone involved: the patient, the practice we are observing, our client, and our company. The first step is to only collect patient data when necessary. This can be hard if we’re videotaping the research. Here, video’s greatest strength, that it records everything, becomes its biggest weakness, that it records everything. Like a vacuum cleaner inhales random coins, hairpins, and the occasional sock, the camera is going to record off-camera conversations, random patients walking in front of the camera, and computer screens displaying patient data. We minimize this by:

  • Not recording in hallways and waiting rooms whenever possible (where other patients tend to roam).
  • Being far enough away from computer screens that they aren’t legible on the recording.
  • Only having the camera on and recording when necessary. 
  • Being careful not to record patient data unnecessarily (e.g., if we don’t really need to record a patient’s face, we don’t record their faces).

Also, we get informed consent from anyone whose data we collect so they know what we’re collecting and how it is going to be used.

4.    Be careful how you store and transmit your collected data.

After we’re done with data collection, that data needs to stay safe. It is important to have solid security policies ahead of time—multiple layers of protection in place to prevent unauthorized access. It helps to enlist a professional with a background in information security to make sure that everything is airtight.

5.    You may need to take a few extra steps to protect your clients.

All of our clients have different needs when it comes to regulatory compliance, and it is best to discuss their needs from the start. Again, we make sure our planned incentive won’t cause our client any unnecessary hassle. We also see whether our client needs the study to be blinded or double-blinded. Like other industries, it is common for health care clients to want their identity withheld from participants. That might make recruiting more difficult, but it is fairly routine. If they need the research to be double-blinded, for whatever reason, we need to take a few additional steps. We will need to remove names and other information that may identify the practices in anything we give to the client, including initial sample spreadsheets and final reporting. We’ll also need to mask all of the video in the video deliverable. This includes participant faces, ID tags, and any paperwork with the practice’s name on it—it is always surprising how many identifiers need blurring. Understanding a client’s needs from the start is extremely helpful in preventing bumps down the road as the research unfolds.

So those are five things to be thinking about when undertaking in-context research in health care settings. It can be a challenge for sure, but there are ways you can navigate the challenges and get the job done. The insights possible from seeing health care providers in action are very much worth the effort.

Categories: Ethnography

Some of our favorite theories for doing ethnography in health care spaces

June 16, 2020 Leave a comment

At Ethnographic Research, Inc., we always emphasize the value of social theory in ethnography and its ability to add depth and nuance to our results. It is like having the ghosts of sociology’s past prodding us to consider looking at our data this way or that way, just in case there might be a big insight around the corner. Research for the health care industry is no exception. In fact, given how challenging in-context observations of health care settings can be, it’s a crying shame not to make the most out of that data. That’s where theory lend a hand. There is a ton out there, but here are a few theories we tend to use the most:

Stigma: Emile Durkheim, Erving Goffman. Stigma is an essential variable to consider when we do projects on living with an illness. Sometimes the stigma is the result of the physical effects of an illness, its accompanying behaviors (like injecting insulin in public), or by just having the illness (like a sexually transmitted disease). The impact of stigma can be as traumatic as the physical effects of the illness itself, and Durkheim and Goffman helped us understand these dynamics.

The sick role: Talcott Parsons. Talcott Parsons’ functionalism hasn’t necessarily stood the test of time, but we still use his idea of the “sick role.” The basic notion is that when we’re deemed “sick” and take on the “sick role,” we’re excused from normal responsibilities while also being required to work towards getting better. For us, we often use it more broadly in examining how having a specific illness impacts a person’s social roles and their engagement with the world around them. Given our long history of studying different conditions, we can then compare the “sick role” of X illness with the many other illnesses we’ve studied in the past.

Gender theory: Simone de Beauvoir. We always make sure to attend to how gender roles impact the interactions and behaviors we observe. You could pick many influential gender theorists, but de Beauvoir was one of the first to draw the line between sex and gender, and this idea of the social construction of gender is arguably the fundamental starting point of most or even all current gender theory.

She also wrote that women and their bodies were the “inessential other,” deemed both alien to and lesser than men and men’s bodies. We can see this in women’s experiences of health care. In a study we did on a rare, difficult to diagnose illness, women, in trying to find out what was going on with them, weren’t taken seriously by the HCPs. Their physicians downplayed their symptoms as “just stress” or “just needing to lose some weight” when they had a condition that would be fatal if left untreated. 

Presentation of the self: Erving Goffman. Goffman is back for a second round! For Goffman, when we interact with others we act, as if in a play, and our choice of words and our body language are designed to convey a certain image to the person we’re interacting with. This concept is essential when trying to decipher the interactions that patients have with their health care providers. It helps us make sense of how both sides communicate and how those communications are interpreted, which ultimately shapes treatment decisions and patient outcomes.

These interactions usually play out in the exam room, what Goffman would call the “front stage,” the stage that our clients tend to be most interested in. We always argue that we should also observe the “backstage,” their offices, labs, and break rooms, to see what HCPs are doing outside of direct patient care, to see how they interact with other staff members, and to get the entire picture of what’s involved in their day’s work.

This front stage and backstage distinction of Goffman’s is also important when we study the experiences people have with their illnesses away from the doctor’s office. It’s our job to understand how the public face of someone’s experience of an illness might differ from the private, backstage experience they keep to themselves or just share with their closest friends and family. It is often only in this backstage space where we can see what’s really going on.

The quantified self: Deborah Lupton. Just so we can include something from this century, the quantified self has become a more influential theory in the last couple of years in both our health care research and our technology research. It basically explores how we are increasingly measuring the wellbeing of our bodies with numbers. The most common example is fitness tracking (e.g., FitBits and Apple Watches), but you can see it elsewhere, like assessing diabetes status through the numerical output of a glucometer.

The quantified self can be considered a kind of extension or offshoot of the “medicalization of society,” another valuable theory from the previous century, the 70’s. It contends that more and more aspects of our lives are falling under the umbrella of medicine. A classic example of medicalization is giving birth. Where once done with family in the comfort of the home, now having babies in hospitals is the norm. Medicalization comes up periodically in our research too, like a project we did on Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). Our participants’ friends and family didn’t take RLS seriously; they didn’t believe it was a real condition (rather the result of the medicalization of society). This led our participants to feel the stigma of having a “fake” condition and it impeded their ability to take on the sick role.

Often we combine these theories in our quest to understand and organize our fieldwork, our analysis and our reporting. What are some theories you love to use in your work?

Four ways to help transform ethnographic insights into action

June 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Like carpenters who build dream houses from simple wood and concrete, it takes a lot of work for ethnographers to build dazzling insights from raw data. Doing analysis is where we spend the vast majority of our time. Still, an essential step in creating value for our clients is presenting our findings in a way they can easily digest and incorporate into their platforms and strategies. Here are four things we do to help our clients transform ethnographic insights into action:

  1. Insights that are compelling to begin with

First you need a good foundation. Having great data collection and analytical processes that make the most of that data goes a long way in creating compelling reporting.

We study a lot of ordinary things like cooking, cleaning, personal care, using technology, and managing health and illness. Frequently our clients have spent years working in these categories and most of their lives engaging in the behaviors themselves. It becomes our challenge to bring fresh insights to the table, powerful enough to change the ways our clients think about topics they are already very familiar with. To do that consistently takes our entire toolkit: including sociological theory, inductive data collection and analysis, and just a lot of hard work. This is step one. You can shine and shine shallow findings, but they will still be shallow.

  • Reporting for success

Once we have strong findings based on strong data, we make sure to report it in a way that’s engaging and exciting for our clients. The insights aren’t going to gain traction if people fall asleep while we are sharing them.

Typically, we have more findings than we have time, so just the fact that we have to fit a lot into our presentations makes them fast-paced and entertaining. We also make sure to pair our findings with stories from the field. Sharing real life examples helps the audience get a better sense of what an insight looks like in practice, hopefully in ways that our clients can relate to and connect with solutions.

  • Video from the field

Almost all of our presentations use video clips to illustrate key insights. Seeing our participants in action helps clients get to know their needs on a more personal level.

Video helps us to demonstrate patterns and call out opportunities for innovation visually. We try to choose video clips that are empathetic, engaging, and entertaining. This level of engagement helps make the insights sticky. Individual clips will live in clients’ memories long after the presentation is over, and ultimately, the accompanying insight might find itself shaping the direction of their brand.

  • Ideation sessions

We regularly use ideation sessions to help clients develop action steps from ethnographic work. This is an extended brainstorming session shortly after we present our findings, usually the same day or the next day. The structure of the session differs depending on how much time we have and the audience size, but usually ethnographers and client stakeholders break up into small groups and come up with lists of ideas inspired by the ethnographic insights. We then compile and refine those ideas, spending time discussing and developing a select group to move forward with. Later, we send the client a report of all of the ideas for their reference. Ideation sessions are a great way to ensure concrete, direct solutions right away.

There you have it. Four ways we help our clients transform their insights into action. What other ways have you found helpful in making the most out of your research findings?

Categories: Uncategorized

Improving Online Research

June 12, 2020 Leave a comment

With COVID-19 moving a lot of market research online, we thought it’d be a good idea to highlight some considerations for getting deeper insights using remote and online methodologies. Although most of our work usually includes an in-person visit, we are big fans of video diaries and generally include those in our project toolkit as well as the occasional online interview. Right now, we think pairing online interviews with video diaries makes for a great, one-two punch.

Stay in-context if possible

Just because we aren’t there, doesn’t mean that life isn’t going on and that people aren’t still doing all of the things we are interested in learning about. The key for ethnographers is always trying to capture those moments (and the context around those moments) that help us learn about how something occurs. Being able to watch a person do something is exponentially more interesting than asking them to describe it. The messiness of observing real life is not replaceable, but we have found that it is possible to do some of that remotely.

Encourage participants to show and tell you more

When we visit participants in their homes or at their workplaces, we always let them know that we will likely want to see everything. Ethnographers know that it is not enough to ask people to show you the thing that you are interested in without seeing how it fits into the daily life and the physical space of the person using it. We always go deep in trying to get a handle on the routines, rituals, and habits of our participants. We also generally ask for tours of their whole homes because we know that the front stage spaces of someone’s home or work usually tells us far less than the backstage stage spaces. Touring homes remotely is possible. We have been doing them for years, usually with video diaries.

Be inductive

We approach all of our work assuming that we don’t already know the answers. We look to our participants to show us not only what is important but also in how to think about and talk about what is important. We learned a long time ago that no matter how much we would like to be the expert, when we are trying to get a handle on how a specific person uses a product or what it is like to live with a particular disease, no one knows more than the person in question. Therefore, all of our observations, interviews, and analyses are funneled through an inductive approach, which is just as easy to do remotely as in person.

Give it some time

Deep understanding takes some time to achieve. It would be great if we could drop into someone’s life for a few hours and learn everything we needed to know to ground a brand or to design a new product, but life (and especially culture) is more complicated than that. Whether you are trying out online interviews or launching some video diaries, it is probably a good idea to plan on investing a little more time than your initial instinct. Not only does more time result in more instances of what you want to observe, it also allows for more opportunities to capture variation in routine. Allowing our participants to keep diaries for a few weeks always results in way better data. Allowing them to keep video diaries for a few months is always amazing.

Categories: Uncategorized

Out of the mouths of babes

May 1, 2014 Leave a comment

One of the great things about being a sociologist AND a mom is that I got to watch 3 kids grow up from scratch. If I hadn’t been so exhausted when my kids were younger, I would have taken better notes on all of the interesting and sociologically insightful things they did and said.   It was fascinating stuff. It was so cool to watch them figure out their physical and social worlds. They were always negotiating language and social norms and trying to classify and categorize EVERYTHING. I always thought that in a lot of ways, my kids were like little social scientists who were trying to figure out their social and cultural context. They were always refining their understanding of the categories and classifications to which various types of people belonged and the unspoken rules about what was and was not socially appropriate behavior.

But learning is hard, especially when you are trying to learn something as complicated as social patterns or social norms. This is because social norms are often simultaneously obvious and invisible. On the one hand, most of us know what the rules are and we do a pretty good job of following them (at least most of the time). But on the other hand, the majority of social norms are taken for granted and are often not formally taught. Young kids have to learn them through careful observation and often through a process of trial and error. This often results in kids making widely inappropriate and politically incorrect observations and (to their parents’ horror) comments as they negotiate their understanding.

Since my kids are older, I had forgotten about how interesting it was to watch them figure all of this out. But recently, my colleague, Kazuyo, shared a story with me about her five year old son, Marcel, that got me to thinking about all of this again. Marcel, who is bilingual and bicultural told Kazuyo that one of his friends (who is from Chinese decent) ate noodles for breakfast. Marcel thought it was ‘crazy’. Kazuyo was mortified and quickly set about educating Marcel on the variety of things that people from different cultures eat for breakfast. She told him that when she was growing up in Japan, many of her friends ate rice, soup, and fish for breakfast, but that her family ate toast. Marcel immediately wanted to know why her family didn’t eat soup. Kazuyo then realized that Marcel wasn’t making a judgment about his friend and that her initial fears of having raised an ethnocentric child were unfounded. Marcel was just trying to refine his understanding of how things work.

This story reminded me of a couple of times that my kids let me know they were struggling with social classifications. When my oldest daughter was about two she went to day care for the first time. She was in a class with lots of other two-year olds and one day she came home and announced “Kevin is a boy.” Smartly, I asked, “how do you know if someone is a boy?” Rebecca thought about it for a minute and then said, “boys use their outside voices when they are inside.”   I asked if there were other differences between boys and girls and Rebecca said, “boys are not very good listeners.” I asked if there was anything else and she finally said, “what is that thing?” Although I knew as a sociologist that gender differences were often more important than sex differences, I was still surprised that Rebecca listed two (stereotypical) gender differences before she got around to noting a sex difference.  

Several years later, after attending a talent show at the elementary school, my four year old, Isabel, was running around the house repeating a phrase from one of the skits that went something like “I’ve got a girlfriend.” Her five year old brother, Sam, quickly jumped in to correct her by saying, “Isabel, you are a girl, so you would have a boyfriend.” At this point, my nine year old, Rebecca, corrected Sam by saying “She can have a girlfriend if she wants to, there is nothing wrong with that.” I remember thinking that this was a perfect snapshot of three stages of social and cultural development and understanding.

There are so many social and cultural rules and classifications that we don’t talk about. This is partly because we don’t need to (because we think we know and understand the rules) and partly because we aren’t comfortable discussing differences between people. But if you ever want a quick lesson in the sociology of gender or ethnicity, or anything else for that matter, spend a few hours with a preschooler and ask them to tell you what they notice. Chances are, you will find that they are working hard to map out their social environment and therefore are noticing (and commenting on) lots of things every single day that most of us either just ignore or aren’t comfortable discussing.

Categories: Uncategorized

We’ve been everywhere, man: Participant observation and in-context interviewing

March 17, 2014 Leave a comment

I like to say that our theme song here at Ethnographic Research, Inc. is I’ve been everywhere man.  We travel a lot, a whole lot, but more importantly, our ‘office’ (when doing fieldwork) can be almost anywhere.  Since one of the most important mandates of ethnography is to be there to observe the thing you are interested in, while it is happening, we find ourselves ‘going to work’ in a lot of unusual places.  When we were hired to understand how oral care happens, we spent months hanging out in bathrooms watching people brush, spit, and gargle all over the world.  When we were hired to understand how Gen Y families used their cars, we logged hundreds of miles squeezed into back seats, in between car seats.  When we were hired to understand teenage gamers, we hung out in strip mall card shops observing late night Dungeons’ and Dragons’ games.  When we were hired to understand pet health, we spent the day in veterinary clinics.  In fact, we spend the majority of our time hanging out in places where we have never been before.  Each new day of fieldwork presents a new context to explore. 

For most of the best ethnographers I know, this is a fairly easy challenge.  Sure it is a little unsettling to report to work at a different ‘office’ each day, but once you get used to it, it is kind of fun.  And most of the time, the transition period is fairly short.  In fact, it is almost imperative that we hit the ground running and get comfortable as soon as possible.  In each new setting there are unique distractions that must be overcome.  And really, we never know what each setting will bring.   Sometimes there are unique sights, smells, or sounds that we have to get used to.  Often there are additional people (especially in public places) that we must filter in or out depending on our goals.  Since we approach our work assuming that everything is potentially data, we generally try to take in as much as possible in each setting whether it is someone’s kitchen or a hospital operating room.  But there are some times that the ‘background’ of a particular setting asserts itself as foreground, and ethnographers have to struggle to focus on the topic at hand. 

This happened one day when I was working on a project designed to understand travel and tourism in Atlanta.  I had spent weeks hanging out in all of the usual tourist spots, seeing historical sites, eating at great restaurants, and visiting local attractions.  Based on what I was learning about what people did when they visited Atlanta, it became increasingly clear that I needed to visit the Cheetah (a very famous high-end gentlemen’s club) if I was to get a complete understanding of what drew visitors to the ATL.  So, we set about getting the appropriate permission and finding the right contacts.  Surprisingly it was fairly easy to gain access and we scheduled a time to visit the next day.  I had never been inside a gentlemen’s club before and really didn’t know what to expect, but I approached it like any other fieldwork setting, assuming that everything was potentially data and ready to take in all that was unique to the Cheetah.  Our visit started with a tour and then we settled in and began to talk to some of the employees and customers.  Just as we sat down, a show began around us.  Several, mostly nude, women were dancing on elevated stages in front, behind, and beside us. Although the people I was talking to were saying very interesting things, things that were probably really important to my understanding of tourism in Atlanta, I found it increasingly difficult to hear what they were saying.  My attention was drawn more and more to the dancing women and I found that I really just wanted to talk to them.  It’s important to note that this rarely happens to me.  No matter what the topic, I generally find whatever it is I’m studying to be pretty riveting.  Participants are always saying ‘you must be bored to death’, but the truth is, almost everything can be interesting if you know how and what to ask.  So, I found it a little bit unsettling to be struggling to stay focused.  But then I remembered that participant observation requires me to not only make observations and conduct interviews, but also to immerse myself into the experience and to become a true participant in the action.  And so I did.  I stopped trying to focus only on the patrons (the primary target of our research), and begin to take in the experience of being at the Cheetah. 

When we left the Cheetah, I felt like I had a very good understanding of the culture and history of the space, and why the Cheetah was such an important tourist draw for Atlanta.  As we got into our car, my colleague and I began to debrief and realized that we had both had trouble applying our usual approach to fieldwork during our time at the Cheetah.  Our typical ability to ‘jump right in’ and be-at-one with the space and with our participants had been put to the test.  Although both of us had found ourselves in lots of unusual and even uncomfortable fieldwork situations, we had never tried to conduct fieldwork in a space quite like the Cheetah.  As we drove through the ATL, I felt like I had passed another ethnographic rite of passage, and knew that I had definitely gathered another interesting story.    

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How to get invited into people’s lives: Pick up lines from a corporate ethnographer

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment

I had been doing ethnographic research for almost a decade when I began working for businesses about 17 years ago.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure that the methodology would ‘transfer’ very well.  Prior to my work for corporate consumption, I had done much more traditional ethnographic fieldwork; this usually entailed spending months trying to work my way into settings, getting to know people, and building rapport.  If there was one thing I was sure of, ethnographic fieldwork could not be rushed.  Almost by definition, ethnography requires patience and a lot of persistence. 

So when my colleague suggested that we could conduct all of our fieldwork for a retail project within a few weeks, I was . . . uncomfortable.  But blessed with an open mind and a tendency to see the glass as half full, I decided to hear him out.  For this project, we were trying to learn about how certain holidays fit into modern American culture.  Our goal was to understand how consumers shopped for and celebrated these events.  Coming from a traditional ethnographic approach, I saw all sorts of problems with a research plan that assumed our access to the right people and the right contexts could be secured so quickly.  And even if we were lucky enough to find the right people and places, I was sure that it would take some time and effort to convince them to let us in. 

Part of my skepticism was based on my ethnographic training, which always seemed to tell me that gaining access to any group of which I was not a member was going to take some time and effort. I had experienced this firsthand, too.  My first ethnographic project involved spending a couple of years hanging out with police officers.  And I had seen how long it had taken for me to gain access to THAT group!   

Still, we forged ahead with a plan to begin fieldwork in retail spaces (where permission had already been granted).  As I begin to approach consumers and ask them if I could hang out with them as they shopped, I was REALLY surprised at how many said yes.  In fact, hardly anyone said no.  Not only were they letting me shop with them, they were seemingly letting me into the process in a way that went above and beyond an observational exchange.  As they pondered which greeting cards they should choose for their loved ones, they began to share wonderful stories about their relationships, their history, their feelings and values.  Within a matter of a few minutes, we were able to establish a rapport that gave me access to lots of intimate details of their lives.  I was a little bit confused.  I was accustomed to spending days, weeks, and sometimes months building relationships with my study participants before trying to segue into the ‘deep’ stuff.  

My colleagues and I, encouraged by our success, decided to take things a step further and see if some of the people we were approaching in the retail shops would allow us to follow them home in order to add some context to what we were learning in the stores. My colleague suggested that we offer to bring a pizza with us as an incentive.  Again, I was skeptical.  I remember saying “they are NOT going to let us do that.”  But, we gave it a shot.  And again, I was shocked to find that the majority of people we asked were game.  Most responded with something like this: “You are going to be so bored, I’m not very exciting, but if you want to come over, it’s fine with me.”  It was this response that started to give me some insight into exactly WHY it had been so easy to convince people to not only let us shop with them, but also to let us into their homes and into their lives.  It turns out that most of us don’t often have someone who is really interested in us, much less someone who views us as an expert.  Not only did the people I approached not find my request offensive, in many ways they found it a welcome opportunity.  It is a very compelling thing to have someone interested in your experiences, ideas, and values.  When I explained  WHY it was so important that I learn about them ‘in context’ they got it, even if they thought it was a little bit odd.   

Of course there are methodological and insight sacrifices that we corporate ethnographers make while trying to do our work within the deadlines and other constraints that come with working in the business world, but after almost two decades of working in this realm, I am convinced that gaining access to the right types of people and contexts need not be one of those sacrifices.

 

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How can you tell if someone is a stripper?

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment

A few months ago I had an interesting interaction on an airplane that illustrated how different the ethnographic approach to understanding is from the typical American’s approach to knowing.

We regularly make assumptions about situations and people in daily life, and of course we have to.  If every decision required us to systematically collect and analyze data and then carefully place our findings into the appropriate social and cultural context before acting, no one would ever get anything accomplished.

But looking around, I realize that we are a culture of know-it-alls and assumption makers who often base snap decisions on nothing but careless interpretation of limited data and hunches. In contrast, the ethnographic approach requires us to make careful systematic observations from multiple vantage points and to do rigorous methodical analysis before we can claim to understand or explain.  And this mandate is one of the things that I LOVE about my job! Because often the ‘obvious’ interpretation of an event (or person) is not so accurate.

But back to the flight that sparked this reflection.  I had just given a presentation and was looking forward to a flight home filled with nothing but reading.  I had settled into my seat, turned on my kindle, and was wrapped up in my book when my aisle partner started up a conversation.  He asked me what I was reading (Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn).  He said, “Wow, that is a new one.  How did you stumble upon that?” (I hadn’t stumbled upon it, it had been on my list of things I wanted to read for a long time).  We made small talk about books for a few minutes and then he asked me what I did for a living (I am a sociologist).  Without skipping a beat, he launched into some ‘people problems’ he was having and asked for my input in solving them.  He started with a coworker that no matter what he did or said, was always trying to ‘out-do’ or ‘out-say’ him.  He asked me why I thought she did that.  I told him that I really had no way of knowing, having never met her or having never seen the two of them interact. So he moved on to his next ‘problem’ which was a young lady sitting across the aisle from us.  He told me that she had been trying to get his attention since before we boarded.  He said he had deduced that she was obviously a stripper (based on her attire and attitude, which for the record I thought was less ‘stripper-like’ than he did), and asked me if I agreed.  I told him that I didn’t think she was a stripper.  He said, “come on, you are a people expert, right?”

I’ll be the first to admit that I think I have good instincts and that I’m probably better than the average person at quickly making assessments about people and social situations. However, it is precisely because I AM a people expert that I know how dangerous snap judgments can be, how very wrong first impressions often are, and how important it is to collect as much data as possible before making assumptions about ANYTHING.

One of the most important questions that an ethnographer asks herself/himself is:  how do you know what you think you know?  Careful attention to this question is the backbone of ethnographic analysis and how ethnographers make sure that findings are trustworthy accounts of cultural patterns and not misunderstood interpretations of observations or glimpses of esoteric events.   Ethnographers know that most people and certainly most cultural patterns are complicated and require deep examination in order to unravel meaning.  And it is really that deep examination that makes ethnography so useful and what makes my job so interesting and fun.  I’m usually surprised at the depth and complexity of the people I meet and the social situations I observe.  I truly never know what each day of fieldwork holds.

As my aisle partner and I deplaned, he asked me if I wanted to place a wager on the occupation of the young lady in question.  I declined, but I’m willing to bet that the actual story is more interesting than the assumed one.

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