Archive for the ‘Process’ Category

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.

How do you become an ethnographer?

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been a professional ethnographer for more than a decade and there are recurring themes in the questions I’m asked about my work.  When I tell people what I do for a living, the first response is generally ‘I didn’t know that job existed.’  This is usually followed by ‘exactly how does someone becomes an ethnographer?’  It is true, ethnography is not a common career choice, but my path toward this work was perfectly logical.

I was always a nosy kid and now I’m a nosy adult.  I like to know the details. The details about what is going on.  The details about what people are doing.  The details about why they are doing it.  The details about their thoughts and feelings.  This sometimes makes me a little bit difficult to live with, but makes me ideally suited to be an ethnographer.

There were several key moments leading to my eventual career.  I don’t remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a sociologist, but I do remember the exact moment I got the label for what I wanted to be.  I was in my 11th grade sociology class and my teacher, Marcellus Reed, was explaining social stratification.  A light bulb went on and I remember thinking ‘oh, I want to be a sociologist’.  From that point on, I never waivered in my career choice.  I started college and immediately declared myself a sociology major.  I finished undergraduate school without ever considering a change.  I went to graduate school and held fast in my decision.  Never mind that EVERYONE was asking what I planned to do with a degree in sociology.  I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make a living ‘doing sociology’, I just knew I was supposed to be a sociologist.

I had noted a glimpse of my eventual career when I was taking an undergraduate qualitative methods class.  We were assigned an ethnographic research project and I decided to do mine on local police officers.  The assignment was some participant observation for a few weeks and then a written report.  But I was having so much fun, so I continued fieldwork for a couple of years.  I thought at the time ‘this is what I should be doing for a living.’  But that thought was quickly followed by ‘no one will ever pay me to do this, so I better have a back up plan.’

Once I got to graduate school, I realized I could teach and do ethnographic research on the side so that became my plan.  I would work in academia and do ethnographic research for fun.  I got my masters degree and then decided to go for my PhD.  Things had changed a little bit and I was gravitating more toward applied work.  I began doing ethnographic research projects in the not-for-profit arena and found that people WOULD pay me to do ethnography.  So I revised my plan.  I would still teach and do ethnographic research on the side, but I now knew that I could use ethnography to supplement my income.  Eventually, my not-for-profit work segued into full time ethnographic research for big corporations.

I tell my kids that their most important job is to identify their dharma.  They should try to find the thing that they are ideally suited to do and they should do that for a living.  Doing ethnographic research is my dharma.  How lucky am I? I have the coolest job in the world. I get to be nosy for a living.  I get to ask the ‘what is going on’ question about everyday, and not only do I not get in trouble for it (well, rarely), I get paid to do it.

Categories: context, Ethnography, Process

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

Exploring Austin: Iteration in Practice by John Kille

May 20, 2010 Leave a comment

As ethnographers, we get to travel to a lot of new places, but sometimes we visit places we’ve been to before. Recently I went to Austin, Texas, where I had lived four years ago when my oldest daughter was three. In Austin, we were studying young families with young children and how they use their cars, interesting stuff indeed.

I had flashbacks of taking my daughter to the kiddie pool at Travis Heights park, the train in Zilker Park, the fabulous City Museum, as well as just walking around South Congress and getting ice cream from Amy’s (which I did on this trip, yum!). I also got to revisit my understanding of Austin’s family side.

Coming back to Austin four years after I left brought back memories of the sunshine, the good food (I got to eat both Stubbs BAR-B-Q and Guero’s while there) and experiencing that infamous “Keep Austin Weird” vibe. The more we, as ethnographers, get to explore a place and the people inside it, the more we get to know its essence.

I was able to re-explore what I had seen before, and like going through video data and field notes after fieldwork, saw new and exciting things re-visiting Austin.

In ethnography, we undertake an analytical process to explore and re-explore video of our interactions with participants, context mapping video and notes and our hand written field notes to learn what we may have missed the first time. This is the long (and tedious) task of watching and transcribing hours upon hours of video and pouring through our notes. But it’s very fruitful.

For each hour of video, we spend at least 4 hours diving into the data, learning and re-learning. Sure, this is a long process, but it’s what produces the new and exciting insights and answers our clients are searching for.

One of the things that I remembered about Austin and got to explore further in my recent fieldwork was the traffic—bumper to bumper, slow moving, hot, layered with smells of grimy exhaust and diesel fuel, and with lots and lots of BIG trucks. Pick up trucks, SUVs, and semi trucks and trailers rule the road in Texas.

As we were learning about smaller cars and SUVs, we were always riding in them, and at times, I was hoping that a giant pick up truck would not side swipe us at the stoplight. However, families travel a lot in Austin by car, and therefore, they spend hours and hours per week sitting in this stuff. In my revisit to Austin, I gained new perspective and learned more about the traffic that I certainly did not miss, and when I return sometime down the road, I will learn more.

Categories: Process

Analysis, Analysis, Analysis

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

We’re sitting here getting ready to start analysis from 3:30-9:30 p.m. to share what we have learned over the past four weeks. Picture the four of us sitting in a room for two days hashing it out, watching video, agreeing, disagreeing and then coming to consensus. Whoa, it’s going to be interesting. More later!

Categories: Process