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

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

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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