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Texting and Driving. Which is the primary act?

June 30, 2010 Leave a comment

by John Kille

Driving scares me. I have never been good at it. I’ve had a number of car wrecks, like a vicious one just two weeks after I bought my first car as a teenager. Yes, it was my fault. Driving has never been good to me either.

I have been hit by a car while riding my bike at ages 7, 12, 13, 28, and the other day had another close call (whew!). Most of those were not my fault.

Driving is quite commonplace in our road warrior culture and takes up a large part of our day. A necessity in most towns and cities, it’s become a standard technology in everyday life. As cities expanded and people drove longer distances, the car introduced various features to keep the driver entertained and informed while driving to work, home or grandma’s house. For example, the radio, seen as a distraction when first introduced, now is standard in every car. This was a change in the way a society viewed its technology, or a shift in the cultural norm.

As we have been studying technology in society recently (a study we did for ourselves, so don’t worry, we’re not violating anyone’s CDA), one of the most interesting cultural norms I have found is related to our new standard for doing more than one thing at the same time, particularly when it comes to technology, which is creating new opportunities for business.

People admitted to texting while driving, which is illegal in some states. It’s actually causing accidents in a lot, if not all, of them. One participant told us how she actually uses her peripheral vision for driving while she texts in the car, another explained her dad texts so much while driving they are afraid to ride with him, a third said she only texts while at stop lights, while someone else bragged she doesn’t need to look at her phone when she texts while driving. Yeah, we didn’t feel any better knowing that, but we all had to admit we’ve done at least some of that stuff ourselves.

Sometimes, as ethnographer, we listen to people tell us that they “sometimes” break rules, or don’t follow the rules, or don’t do things the way they are supposed to do, such as texting while driving. As professional strangers, we listen and learn about these cultural norms and watch them change, turn in either direction, slow down or speed up.

It is one of the interesting things about working as an ethnographer, watching and learning about cultural norms changing. And not getting hit by cars. I’ll expand on this changing, turning and slowing/speeding thing in a few.

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It’s not a contradiction. It’s an insight!

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

We left our last conversation talking about narrative and how we get to learn a whole lot about people by dropping our assumptions about their experiences. In other words, we let them guide our process of understanding through their narrative, and it’s through our analysis of their experience we can really put existing knowledge about them in the proper context.

Which brings us to the second assumption taken from Nurture Shock , the book that recently blew my mind as a parent and an ethnographer. I find the authors’ recommendation to drop a second assumption really relevant in our work.

Bronson and Merryman say, “We tend to think that good behavior, positive emotions, and good outcomes are a package deal: together, the good things will protect a child from all the bad behavior and negative emotions…”

The book pretty much offers a slew of evidence that shows how this is not always true. In the end (and this is the part I really love, the part that makes me jump up and down) they said, “The researchers are concluding that the good stuff and the bad stuff are not on opposite ends of a single spectrum. They are what’s termed orthogonal–mutually independent. Because of this, kids can seem to be walking contradictions.”

Again, we could substitute the word “kids” with “moms with toddler girls” or “people with diabetes” or “men losing their hair.” And again, we can really place what seems like contradictions in the proper context through…wait for it…wait for it…our analytic process.

See, we always tell our clients that a lot of people who say they do ethnography actually don’t. Doing an in-home interview is great, videotaping it and editing a summary of all those interviews is great, but that alone isn’t making it ethnography. It’s the systematic analysis of our fieldwork, those in-home visits, as well as how we contextually map our topic of study in the places we do fieldwork, that helps to make it so.

We actually start doing analysis once we start recruiting, all along during our fieldwork, but the really intensive systematic analysis occurs after we have left the field. To do it right, it takes about 4 to 6 hours for every hour we spent in the field, to really understand what we learned.

And here’s why. Remember that assumption we just talked about. People can seem like walking contradictions. We typically find that there are disconnects between what people say and what people do.  If we rely simply on what they say, it will look like a contradiction. Or it will be taken at face value through literal interpretation, thereby discounting all the observational stuff (and ultimately, what explains what’s really going on) we may not have noticed during that precise moment.

By going back and systematically analyzing not only what was said but what was done, how it was done and why, and looking at it across all our participants to find pattners in similaries and patterns in differences, we can say “Aha! This is what’s happening.” We simply cannot overlook any subtlety or nuance. Otherwise, it’s just not insight.

So, try dropping a couple of assumptions. Like my seventh grade math teacher said, “It just makes an ass out of u and me.”

Categories: context, Ethnography, Process

How Narrative Shapes Understanding

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I just finished the book Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children (2009, Hachette Book Group) by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It blew my mind as a parent and as an ethnographer because it provided an overwhelming presentation of social science, neuroscience and more as it relates to child development. In their chapter about the science of teen rebellion, Bronson and Merryman say, “We carry dual narratives whenever a phenomenon can’t be characterized by a singular explanation…The danger is when these narratives don’t just reflect, they steer.” As ethnographers we really get into that because it’s through narrative that we understand how our participants apprehend and give coherence to the world around them.

Ethnography is really great for teasing out insights produced from previous market research, typically the results of surveys, focus groups, and the like. Whenever we enter a participant setting–at home, in the office or another location, we start by asking our participants to share their story. By doing this we give them a really good jumping off point and arm them with the power and authority to frame their everyday routines and rituals, attitudes and behavior around our topic of study.

Which brings me back to Nurture Shock. In their conclusion the authors remark, “…a treasure trove of wisdom about children is there for the grasping after one lets go of those two common assumptions.” The first assumption they discuss is that things work in children in the same way that they work in adults.

The issue of reference bias affects all kinds of decision-making. For our purposes, we can literally substitute the words “children” and “adults” with virtually any combination–“patients” and “doctors,” “people who use washing machines” and “mechanical engineers,” “consumers” and “brand managers.” In other words, the experiences of the former are often described and understood based on the perception of that experience by the latter.

One of the reasons to do ethnography is to get a better understanding of a group of people. Often when we do this, our clients can spot when a set of commonly held beliefs about who their customer is stems from their frame of reference. In other words, a designer or product manager may tell us, “I never knew people experienced it like that!”

That’s one of the great things about ethnography. We can study all kinds of categories of people: young families, people with acromegaly, promotional product salespeople, chemotherapy nurses, people living with chronic pain, moms who like to create photo cards, people with arthritis, HVAC repair people, people who eat out, etc. etc. Our process and approach lends itself to throwing out assumptions, and often we end up figuring out that seemingly contradictory happenings aren’t contradictory at all.

What’s this other assumption, and how do you get there? Well, it’s kind of tied to contradiction. And it’s about what we do after we hear their stories. Stay tuned!

Categories: Ethnography, Process

The Culture of Vuvuzelas?

June 16, 2010 Leave a comment

My cousin did the Peace Corps in South Africa in the early 2000s. Last night while talking with her on the phone I asked about the history of the vuvuzela. She laughed and responded, “I didn’t see a single vuvuzela when I was in South Africa. I went to soccer games, cricket games and rugby games, and not once did I see those things. I only lived there for two years so maybe that’s one part of South African culture I didn’t learn about.”

Source: Reuters

Photo Source: UK Reuters

So that got me thinking, what exactly is the history of the vuvuzela? It’s certainly become big news as some fans argue for a ban on the horn while others say that doing so is ethnocentric. Curious, I did some searching and came across this post in a 2009 thread from the Language Log.

“The vuvuzela, contrary to revisionist history, is not a traditional South African trumpet, but the product of a very recent, corporatist inspired history. That’s problematic of course, but I would even be forgiving, if it wasn’t so annoying.”

The post led me to Football is Coming Home, where a 2009 blog post discussed how the first vuvuzela prototype actually came from the U.S., and that further inquiry traces its roots back to a Chinese woman’s basketball team. Apparently vuvuzela controversy began as South Africa geared up for the World Cup, and now the rest of the world is catching on.

Cultural emergence? Perhaps. Socially constructed? Absolutely. I am not here to debate the true origins of the vuvuzela or to under/overstate its importance in World Cup 2010 and South African soccer. Love it or hate it, the vuvuzela IS part of South African football culture, at the very least for this World Cup (and maybe even worldwide football culture after this), whether that culture began hundreds of years ago or 10 days ago. How about that?

Categories: Social Norms

World Cup 2010: Ethnographic Opportunity

June 3, 2010 Leave a comment

As the world’s most watched sport, soccer [or football as it’s know throughout much of the world] dates back thousands of years. In this year’s World Cup in South Africa, 32 teams will battle for glory, each carrying forth a tradition of honor in the hopes of being propelled into elite status by bringing home the golden cup.

While some sources, such as EA Sports, predict Spain will defeat Brazil in the finals to take the cup, others have used quantitative methods to name England the 2010 champion.

Our own Rebecca took this on her Tanzanian Journey

We’re excited. Not because we care who wins. Our summer includes several stops in Europe and Asia as we conduct fieldwork for a variety of projects. What excites us is learning a whole lot more about the social worlds undoubtedly living in a fever pitch from June to July 11.

Did you know that Asia predicts a record number of World Cup viewers this summer? Being there, where the fans will be living and working, we’ll be able to tell you a thing or two about why this World Cup differs from the tourneys of year’s past.

And how about a host of other insights? About nationalism. Pride. Sportsmanship. Leisure. Work culture. Archetypes—hero, athlete, fan, winner and loser. The role of gender in playing, watching and talking about sports. New media and the sports experience. And the list could go on and on…

We’ll keep you posted!

Categories: Ethnography, International