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Reconstructing Reality: What do you see?

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Social scientists and philosophers have been arguing about ‘reality’ for a while now.  There are generally two approaches to how reality is understood and measured by social scientists.  Those taking a positivistic approach believe that although people may ‘see’ things differently, there is an objective reality.  On the other hand, those taking a phenomenological approach assume multiple realities to any given situation.  As an ethnographer, I generally skew toward the phenomenological viewpoint.  I realize that not all versions of reality hold up equally well, but I have seen many instances of people creating their own reality around their experiences and around products/services.

I usually use the classic film ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’ to help illustrate this concept.  So, in the film, there is a pilot that is flying over the Kalahari Desert and he drinks a coke and then throws the bottle out of the window of his plane.  A man named Xi finds the coke bottle and assumes that it is a gift from the gods and he and his tribe find TONS of uses for the bottle—it is a tool, it is a toy, it is a musical instrument, etc.  In other words, they construct an alternate reality around the bottle.  And so the movie is a parable to illustrate how one man’s trash can become another man’s treasure.

This is one way in which the social construction of reality comes to life in my work.  I do see many instances of people finding all kinds of interesting (but unintended) uses for products.  They might fashion an expensive piece of electronic equipment into a workbench or they might use a medical device in ways that are not consistent with instructions, but which fit better into their particular needs.  In these situations, my job becomes one in which I help my client understand not only WHAT they are doing, but WHY.  This often requires me to walk a delicate line.  Generally, my client has given a lot of thought to design and they have created a product that does what it is designed to do pretty well.  However, sometimes I have to help them understand that it isn’t all about what this product does.  Sometimes it is more important to understand the social world in which the product lives and how their vision of what the product should be might not be consistent with the reality in which the product lives.

For example, many years ago, we were hired by a manufacturer of high-end electronic equipment.  This company had given A LOT of thought to their product line and were really, really proud of all of the bells and whistles their products had.  But after spending a few weeks in the field, observing and talking to the people who used their products, I realized that the bells and whistles were not only NOT appreciated by the customers, they were often feared!  Many consumers lived in constant fear that someone else would change some of the settings on this device and then they would have to spend hours trying to figure out how to reset it.  There was clearly a disconnect in the ‘reality’ of what this thing was and especially around what the expectations of it were.  For my client, the real VALUE of their product and what they believed really differentiated their brand from others were the bells and whistles (this was evidenced by their advertising, but also by the angry response we got from designers and engineers when we presented our findings)!  But for the consumer, the value of the thing was that it turned on when it was supposed to and allowed them to do their job without being too complicated or distracting them from their real task.

As I said before, not all versions of ‘reality’ are tolerated equally, but it does pay to try to understand how your product might fit into the reality of daily life and how your customer might be constructing their own story about exactly what your product is and especially how (and for what) it is valued.

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Keeping our balance in a world of rapid change: Lessons from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

 

When I used to teach introduction to sociology and sociology of marriage and family, I always had my classes watch the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”.  It was a great way to bring to life many of the sociological concepts that we were learning in class. In that one movie, there are probably more than 100 sociological lessons, and the music is pretty fantastic too.

My favorite part of the whole movie is the opening sequence.  The main character, Tevye, asks and answers the question:  “How do we keep our balance?”  “That I can tell you in one word.”  “Tradition.”  “Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything.”  “How to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes.”  “You may ask, ‘how did this tradition get started?’’  “I’ll tell you. . . .I don’t know”  “But it’s a tradition, and because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

Truer words were never spoken, and in my line of work, I see Tevye’s observation in action all the time.   We could easily replace the word ‘tradition’ with the word ‘norm.’  No matter who the person, or what the context, behavior and ideas are driven and ruled by norms.  And this is the case, long after we have forgotten (or perhaps even before we have learned) the reason for the norm.  Norms are powerful forces that let each of us know who we are and what is expected of us.  The number and diversity of norms that each person follows every day is staggering.

My job as an ethnographer is to try to get a handle on the norms driving the thing I’m hired to understand.  Whether it is how people cook dinner or how one reacts to being diagnosed with a chronic disease, norms are ever present in determining how people think and behave.  There are often well-established patterns in how things are done and even in how people think about and place value upon things, so many norms are obvious and often slap us in the face as soon as we spend a little time watching and listening.  However, other norms are a little more subtle, and the patterns are not always so obvious until we see someone doing it differently or spend some time in analysis, really breaking down and organizing observations.

But the thing is, even the most obvious norms are often not so obvious unless you train yourself to look for them.  Although we all follow cultural norms each day, for the most part, we do it on automatic pilot. The classic sociological example used to bring this concept to life is to ask people to think about what they do when they enter an elevator.  There are some very rigid rules for behavior on elevators.  You must face the front, go to the alternate corner if someone else is already on the elevator, keep conversation to a minimum, etc.  Most of us do not remember reading a manual on elevator etiquette, but very few people ever violate these norms.  And why do you think that is?  T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N!

I learned a lot about the power of tradition a few years ago when I was in the Philippines studying how moms took care of their babies.  I had spent the afternoon with a young mom (who also happened to be a biologist) and her one-year old son.  We had spent a lot of our time talking about what was important to her as a mother, and how she made decisions about how to care for her son. She told me that she was very modern, but her own mother was very old-fashioned, and this often caused conflict when they were negotiating how her son was to be cared for.  One of the things that they didn’t agree on was whether he should be seen by a pediatrician or a traditional healer when he was ill.    My participant told me that because she was a scientist, she knew that modern medicine was based on scientific principals and that traditional medicine was based on superstitions and that she didn’t put much stock in superstitions.

I had been playing with the little boy, but after a few hours, it was time for me to leave, and when I walked out the door, the little boy started to cry.  Because I’m a Western mom, I thought I should walk away as quickly as possible because I had been taught the ‘get out of sight, and you will be out of mind’ approach to dealing with crying children.    As I rounded the corner, the mom came running after me and explained that she needed me to come back to her house.  She told me that her son was very upset and she was concerned that he would get sick, so she needed me to place some of my saliva on her son’s tummy.  Saliva from the offending person was the antidote to ward off potential illness.  I of course obliged and then said goodbye again.

At first I thought maybe I had misunderstood the conversation with the mom and her seemed rejection of traditional practices and beliefs.  But after seeing some other mothers, I realized there was a pattern when it came to western versus traditional medicine and that these norms were interlocked with rapid change and younger women’s desires to be more ‘modern.’  This all resulted in a complicated system of ideals, values, and behaviors that actually contained several seeming contradictions.   In a nutshell, times were a-changing BUT many of the behavioral norms were lagging behind the changes in ideals.  And so it turned out that the mother who seemed to WANT to reject traditional medicine, but who didn’t want to take a chance on her son getting ill, wasn’t unusual and wasn’t really a contradiction once the puzzle was put together and the power of TRADITION was factored in.