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Leopard print bikinis and body exfoliation: Living outside my comfort zone

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Usually the things that I get to do in the field are sooooo cool. But my job also often requires me to do things that are outside of my comfort zone.  Seriously, I do things when I’m working that I would never do otherwise. It is almost like I have an alter ego that sometimes takes over when I’m in the field.  Outside the field I’m a somewhat antisocial, risk-averse, fussy vegetarian that likes the creature comforts of life.  But my alternate, fieldwork persona, we will call her Mel, is crazily social, fearless, impervious to embarrassment, above gastrointestinal upset, and generally unflappable.

When we were studying hair loss, I visited hair salons, talked to stylists and got my hair cut FOUR times.  When we studied tourism in Atlanta, I visited the Cheetah, a high-end gentleman’s club and also a world famous tourist spot.  I conducted in-context fieldwork while naked women danced all around me.  When we were studying infant nutrition in the Philippines I was offered an expensive delicacy for lunch that just so happened to be congealed cow’s blood!  Although I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve consumed cognac, homemade berry liquor, limoncello and lots of wine during fieldwork.

But last summer, I had one of my most interesting and challenging contextual mapping assignments.  It all began with a trip to Istanbul and a desire to understand hygiene rituals.  A logical stop in this trip was the local hamam (Turkish bath).  I was woefully uneducated about what to expect (this is actually a job requirement—taking an inductive approach so as not to have too many pre-conceived thoughts).

When I arrived in Istanbul, our local ethnographer called to arrange my visit to the hamam.  She told me they said I would need to bring a bikini.  It had been many years since I had owned a bikini, so I asked if it would be possible to do the exfoliation treatment nude (that is how I sometimes get massages and I thought this would be a similar experience).  I was imagining a private room, with towels and blankets to cover me.  My colleague informed me that the hamam was insisting that I wear a bikini but that I could purchase one there.

When I arrived at the hamam, I was given a box full of potential bikinis.  The one that fit best was a leopard print number that barely covered the essentials.  At this point I should tell you that non-fieldwork Melinda dresses pretty conservatively, usually in black.  No worries, however, Mel was there to put on the leopard print.

Once I walked into the room where the exfoliation experience was to take place, I realized why they had insisted that I wear a bikini.  It turns out that the exfoliation treatment happens in a communal area!  As I sat in the pool and waited for my turn, I experienced a rush of thoughts and emotions.  I went from being embarrassed and resentful of the leopard print bikini to being SOOOOOOO thankful that I had been forced to wear it.  I had rapid images of what WOULD have happened if they had granted my request to do the treatment nude.

My elation was short lived, however, once I had a good look at what was going to happen next. . . .  The exfoliation took place on a large marble slab where 2-3 women could lay at once.  The spa workers prepared each woman for her exfoliation by removing her bikini top and fashioning the bikini bottom into a thong.  Did I mention that my client was with me?  Yes, sitting in the pool, with my client, waiting for the eventual removal of the bikini top and conversion of the bikini bottom into a thong, Melinda and Mel began to have an internal dialogue.  Melinda was saying ‘this is so inappropriate and unprofessional.’  Mel was saying ‘don’t be ridiculous, this is fieldwork, you are just doing your job, pay attention to what is happening.’

Have you ever been so embarrassed that you felt like you were having an out of body experience? The exact moment this happened was during the actual exfoliation process.  There are a lot of details that I won’t share here, but did you know that when you visit a hamam, the exfoliation is so intense and vigorous that everything, and I do mean everything, is in motion?   Laying on the slab, without the shield of my leopard print bikini top, everything was wiggling and jiggling, every which way.  I had jiggles in places that I was well aware of, but also jiggles in places that I had no idea.  Luckily Mel wasn’t bothered.  She was fascinated by the whole experience. We left the hamam with a new leopard print bikini, perfectly smooth skin, and a bunch of interesting observations about hygiene, culture, and tradition.

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Grandma’s day at court: ethnography for understanding process

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

This morning I accompanied my 83-year-old grandma to court. Two weeks ago she received a ticket on her way home from church when she failed to move into the center lane as she passed a police officer who had pulled over another driver for speeding. When she called in to pay her fine, a clerk informed her she would have to go to traffic court. She had a date, time and address for her court appearance, but nothing else that could help prepare her for what to expect.

Ethnography is a particularly useful methodology for understanding process, especially when it comes to uncovering insights into how people experience products and services in context. As we go about our daily life, we often don’t even think about the steps that make up our behavior. If we were to ask a participant how she does X, she would most likely come to a succinct answer by weeding out everything she considers extraneous. As ethnographers the extraneous is precisely what we’re interested in because that’s what helps us really understand the unarticulated needs and wants of the consumer. And these are the insights that offer oodles of opportunities for innovation, branding and product placement.

Back to grandma. When we arrived to traffic court we had no idea what to do. It appeared as a random assortment of people and activities. After watching others and looking for signs, we learned how to check ourselves in. Then we waited. I observed.

The random assortment of people and activities started to coalesce, patterns started to emerge and I began to understand the process people undergo when they enter the courtroom. I learned about the types of offenses that bring people to traffic court. I learned about the division of labor that prepares the accused for their plea and how the different roles (ie., public defender, baliff, prosecutor) make up that process. I learned how those in the courtroom move through the space and how the space itself (ie., the placement of desks and tables) facilitates the plea process and separates officials from the public. More so, I learned a lot about what happens when people deviate from the social norms established by the court, like when someone approaches the prosecutor ‘out of turn’ or talks once the magistrate has started to hear cases.

I began to get a deeper sense of the undertones that ripple through the process. I learned how the process itself strips defendants of their privacy (and how shame accompanies that) and how once a defendant enters the courtroom, he loses all control and authority he may possess in everyday life (and more so, how he responds/adjusts to that). I began to understand some issues concerned with socioeconomic status and social capital, how the defendants can differ from employees of the court around these things and generally, what that means for the process as a whole.

I spent an hour and a half in traffic court with my grandma. Had this been a real ethnography, I would have spent several days. Over time I would have watched nearly 100 defendants go through the process to get an in-depth understanding of everything I just mentioned, and more. I would have spent time talking with defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, the bailiff, clerks and maybe even the magistrate. I would have learned where opportunities exist to make the process easier for both the court and the defendants.

Because ethnography takes us to where the action occurs, it is a great way to bring the experience, and the consumer, to life. My grandma would agree.