Home > Ethnography, Process > How Narrative Shapes Understanding

How Narrative Shapes Understanding

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!

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Categories: Ethnography, Process
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