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.
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.
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.
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.
All cultures have their own language and ways of communicating meaning that extend well beyond the spoken/written word. Signs, symbols, gestures, and icons all have varying meaning, depending on the context in which they are found. Often sub-cultures have ways of communicating that those outside of their circle don’t understand, a secret language of sorts, that allows them to pass coded information in a way that keeps outsiders unaware.
A few years ago, I got the chance to take a quick trip to India. I was only there about 4 days, and really that is not long enough to get over jet lag, let alone to really experience a place. Nonetheless, I was determined to squeeze in as much as possible. For the first three days, I was traveling and in meetings so I didn’t have much of a chance to experience India outside of a large corporate office and a fancy hotel. But on the fourth day, my colleagues and I set out to immerse ourselves in some shopping and sightseeing. We had planned to visit a local open-air market and so we jumped into a taxi and told our driver our plans. The taxi driver immediately began to try to talk us into making him our tour guide. We negotiated a price and felt really good that we had found a knowledgeable guide for the day. My colleague gave the driver the address of the market we wanted to visit, and we all sat back in and took in the sights and sounds of Delhi as our driver began our trek to the market.
After several minutes, we arrived at a high-end store that looked nothing like the market we had in mind. The driver explained that this store was in route to the market and that we were assured to find many nice things to buy there. Not wanting to be rude, we piled out of the taxi and into the store. The store was nice, but very touristy and over priced. We politely perused the shop and then got back into the taxi, assuming our next stop would be the market. But after several minutes we stopped at another shop. Again, the driver assured us that we wanted to go inside and that this shop was also on the way to the market. We went into the shop, purchased a few items, and returned to the taxi. On the way out the door, I noticed that our driver was talking to the shopkeeper. They seemed to be well acquainted and I realized that our arriving at this shop (and the previous shop) was no coincidence. And although both shops had been nice, they were not providing us with the sort of ‘authentic’ experience we were seeking. So, my colleague became insistent that our driver take us to the market we had originally wanted to visit. He agreed.
As we drove on, again, presumably towards the market this time, our driver asked us if we would like to see a beautiful temple. He said we were driving by there anyway, and really should stop to see it. Of course we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see a beautiful temple, so we agreed. The driver pulled up to the temple, which was actually on a very busy, noisy, dirty street. And just as promised, the temple was beautiful. We went into a side room and took off our shoes and placed our things into a locker. It had been a long morning and we were already very hot, over stimulated, sweaty, and tired. But immediately upon entering the temple, I felt a sense of calmness wash over me. It was several degrees cooler in the temple than outside (despite the fact that there was no air conditioning). It was very quiet (despite the fact that the noise of Delhi was right outside the door). And it was just so peaceful. I remember thinking that I hoped I would never forget that feeling. As we moved through the temple, a man came up to me and put a necklace of flowers around my neck and welcomed me into the temple. I felt so special to be singled out. But after a few minutes the man indicated that I should pay him! I realized that what was happening was not at all what I thought. Still, I went ahead and paid the man and became resolved to not let that interfere with the experience I was having. As soon as the man took my money, he also removed the flower necklace and put it around my colleague’s neck. He consoled me by placing a marking upon my forehead with some red powder (I assumed it was a religious ritual that everyone did upon coming to the temple).
After exploring the temple for a while, my colleagues and I returned to the taxi and continued our tour of Delhi. We visited some ancient buildings, some government offices, some opulent palaces, and saw some beautiful plant life. Finally, we arrived at the market we had set out for several hours earlier! The market was wonderful and just what we had hoped. We were getting a taste of ‘real life’ in Delhi. Most of the other customers were locals, not tourists, like ourselves. The market contained dozens of small shops and we wandered through most of them. At each shop, the worker would greet us, show us their wares, and try to make a sale. Everyone paid a lot of attention to us.
In fact, we had attracted a lot of attention virtually everywhere we had gone that day (except for the first few shops we visited). We obviously did not fit in and everyone seemed to notice us. I assumed this was due to our lighter complexions and accents. But towards the end of the day, I met a young man that let me know there was another reason there had been so much pointing, staring, and attention. He approached me and asked where I was from. I told him I lived in Kansas and asked if he had ever heard of it. He said he had and then asked me where I had gotten the red mark on my forehead. I told him that we had visited the temple earlier in the day. He explained to me that the mark was not for religious reasons but indicated that people could easily take my money. Initially, I found myself wanting to dispute his claim. I told him that I had seen others at the temple with similar markings. He explained to me that yes, the ritual does exist for religious reasons, but that in my case, the location and specific marking of the powder had been placed on my forehead as a way of branding me as someone who would easily give away money. He told me to wash it off immediately. I quickly began to replay the afternoon and all the people who had taken notice of me and realized that I had stood out for different reasons than I had assumed. I had been labeled as an ‘easy mark’ and had been treated accordingly. I was completely unaware of the hidden meaning behind the marking and with this new information was able to reevaluate the events of the day with a totally different sociological lens. Obviously I went home with a completely different story than I would have if I hadn’t run into the teenager in the market who took pity on me and shared his insider information.
In my business it is important to try to blend in. No matter who we are hanging out with, it is essential that we look like we belong and are able to put our participants at ease. Each ethnographer has her/his own way of achieving this goal, but generally we have to be comfortable in a variety of different types of situations and the natural ethnographer does this, well naturally. Most of the best ethnographers I’ve known don’t have to work at blending in, they just do.
At Ethnographic Research, Inc. we started referring to ourselves as cultural chameleons a few years ago, because that is really who we are. We have spent time with doctors as well as people who have been unable to work for years due to chronic pain. We have hung out with academics as well as sex workers. We have worked along side high-end sales folks and inner city social workers. We have learned from people diagnosed with mental illness as well as suburban soccer moms. And in each case, we have usually been invited to come back and hang out again.
It’s true that traditional ethnographic work provides ethnographers longer periods of time to work their way into a setting and into relationships. But for those of us who work in business contexts, the time we get to make others comfortable with our presence is sometimes only a matter of minutes. Hence our cultural chameleon abilities are even more important. And for the most part, I’ve been very successful as a cultural chameleon. But there was that one time. . . .
When I did fieldwork in the Philippines a few years ago, I got to experience what it feels like to really stick out. For starters I am very white, the kind of white that glows in the dark. In fact, my nick-name in high school was Casper. Also, at five foot four, I’m not particularly tall, but compared to the average Filipino woman, I am gigantic. Since I spent most of my time in neighborhoods where most westerners don’t go, I stuck out EVERYWHERE. In many neighborhoods we created such a spectacle that people would lean out of their windows or even come out of their houses to watch us go by. Often they called out ‘Hey Joe!’ (a reference to American GIs). Several times, the neighborhood kids would form a pack and follow us down the street, creating a carnival like atmosphere. I felt like the pied piper.
In this particular setting, there was no ‘blending in’ so I just embraced my status as an outsider and made observations from that vantage point. It was as the pied piper that I did most of my contextual mapping in the Philippines. Walking around from neighborhood to neighborhood, I met up with and had the opportunity to observe hundred of people. I was in Manila trying to understand how moms take care of their babies, so it was convenient for me that many parents brought their children outside to see me as I walked down the street.
In the end, whether we are able to blend in and be a cultural chameleon or whether we stick out like a sore thumb, the skilled ethnographer uses each status to their advantage. The best understandings of any subject or context come from examining and analyzing data from both an insider and outsider perspective, so although ethnographers generally don’t like to stand out, acting as the pied piper once in awhile provides a nice change of pace and a nice change of perspective.