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How can you tell if someone is a stripper?

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment

A few months ago I had an interesting interaction on an airplane that illustrated how different the ethnographic approach to understanding is from the typical American’s approach to knowing.

We regularly make assumptions about situations and people in daily life, and of course we have to.  If every decision required us to systematically collect and analyze data and then carefully place our findings into the appropriate social and cultural context before acting, no one would ever get anything accomplished.

But looking around, I realize that we are a culture of know-it-alls and assumption makers who often base snap decisions on nothing but careless interpretation of limited data and hunches. In contrast, the ethnographic approach requires us to make careful systematic observations from multiple vantage points and to do rigorous methodical analysis before we can claim to understand or explain.  And this mandate is one of the things that I LOVE about my job! Because often the ‘obvious’ interpretation of an event (or person) is not so accurate.

But back to the flight that sparked this reflection.  I had just given a presentation and was looking forward to a flight home filled with nothing but reading.  I had settled into my seat, turned on my kindle, and was wrapped up in my book when my aisle partner started up a conversation.  He asked me what I was reading (Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn).  He said, “Wow, that is a new one.  How did you stumble upon that?” (I hadn’t stumbled upon it, it had been on my list of things I wanted to read for a long time).  We made small talk about books for a few minutes and then he asked me what I did for a living (I am a sociologist).  Without skipping a beat, he launched into some ‘people problems’ he was having and asked for my input in solving them.  He started with a coworker that no matter what he did or said, was always trying to ‘out-do’ or ‘out-say’ him.  He asked me why I thought she did that.  I told him that I really had no way of knowing, having never met her or having never seen the two of them interact. So he moved on to his next ‘problem’ which was a young lady sitting across the aisle from us.  He told me that she had been trying to get his attention since before we boarded.  He said he had deduced that she was obviously a stripper (based on her attire and attitude, which for the record I thought was less ‘stripper-like’ than he did), and asked me if I agreed.  I told him that I didn’t think she was a stripper.  He said, “come on, you are a people expert, right?”

I’ll be the first to admit that I think I have good instincts and that I’m probably better than the average person at quickly making assessments about people and social situations. However, it is precisely because I AM a people expert that I know how dangerous snap judgments can be, how very wrong first impressions often are, and how important it is to collect as much data as possible before making assumptions about ANYTHING.

One of the most important questions that an ethnographer asks herself/himself is:  how do you know what you think you know?  Careful attention to this question is the backbone of ethnographic analysis and how ethnographers make sure that findings are trustworthy accounts of cultural patterns and not misunderstood interpretations of observations or glimpses of esoteric events.   Ethnographers know that most people and certainly most cultural patterns are complicated and require deep examination in order to unravel meaning.  And it is really that deep examination that makes ethnography so useful and what makes my job so interesting and fun.  I’m usually surprised at the depth and complexity of the people I meet and the social situations I observe.  I truly never know what each day of fieldwork holds.

As my aisle partner and I deplaned, he asked me if I wanted to place a wager on the occupation of the young lady in question.  I declined, but I’m willing to bet that the actual story is more interesting than the assumed one.

Categories: Uncategorized

The In(sider)s and Out(sider)s of Shared Meaning

February 14, 2014 Leave a comment

All cultures have their own language and ways of communicating meaning that extend well beyond the spoken/written word. Signs, symbols, gestures, and icons all have varying meaning, depending on the context in which they are found. Often sub-cultures have ways of communicating that those outside of their circle don’t understand, a secret language of sorts, that allows them to pass coded information in a way that keeps outsiders unaware.

A few years ago, I got the chance to take a quick trip to India. I was only there about 4 days, and really that is not long enough to get over jet lag, let alone to really experience a place. Nonetheless, I was determined to squeeze in as much as possible. For the first three days, I was traveling and in meetings so I didn’t have much of a chance to experience India outside of a large corporate office and a fancy hotel. But on the fourth day, my colleagues and I set out to immerse ourselves in some shopping and sightseeing. We had planned to visit a local open-air market and so we jumped into a taxi and told our driver our plans. The taxi driver immediately began to try to talk us into making him our tour guide. We negotiated a price and felt really good that we had found a knowledgeable guide for the day. My colleague gave the driver the address of the market we wanted to visit, and we all sat back in and took in the sights and sounds of Delhi as our driver began our trek to the market.

After several minutes, we arrived at a high-end store that looked nothing like the market we had in mind. The driver explained that this store was in route to the market and that we were assured to find many nice things to buy there. Not wanting to be rude, we piled out of the taxi and into the store. The store was nice, but very touristy and over priced. We politely perused the shop and then got back into the taxi, assuming our next stop would be the market. But after several minutes we stopped at another shop. Again, the driver assured us that we wanted to go inside and that this shop was also on the way to the market. We went into the shop, purchased a few items, and returned to the taxi. On the way out the door, I noticed that our driver was talking to the shopkeeper. They seemed to be well acquainted and I realized that our arriving at this shop (and the previous shop) was no coincidence. And although both shops had been nice, they were not providing us with the sort of ‘authentic’ experience we were seeking. So, my colleague became insistent that our driver take us to the market we had originally wanted to visit. He agreed.

As we drove on, again, presumably towards the market this time, our driver asked us if we would like to see a beautiful temple. He said we were driving by there anyway, and really should stop to see it. Of course we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see a beautiful temple, so we agreed. The driver pulled up to the temple, which was actually on a very busy, noisy, dirty street. And just as promised, the temple was beautiful. We went into a side room and took off our shoes and placed our things into a locker. It had been a long morning and we were already very hot, over stimulated, sweaty, and tired. But immediately upon entering the temple, I felt a sense of calmness wash over me. It was several degrees cooler in the temple than outside (despite the fact that there was no air conditioning). It was very quiet (despite the fact that the noise of Delhi was right outside the door). And it was just so peaceful. I remember thinking that I hoped I would never forget that feeling. As we moved through the temple, a man came up to me and put a necklace of flowers around my neck and welcomed me into the temple. I felt so special to be singled out. But after a few minutes the man indicated that I should pay him! I realized that what was happening was not at all what I thought. Still, I went ahead and paid the man and became resolved to not let that interfere with the experience I was having. As soon as the man took my money, he also removed the flower necklace and put it around my colleague’s neck. He consoled me by placing a marking upon my forehead with some red powder (I assumed it was a religious ritual that everyone did upon coming to the temple).

After exploring the temple for a while, my colleagues and I returned to the taxi and continued our tour of Delhi. We visited some ancient buildings, some government offices, some opulent palaces, and saw some beautiful plant life. Finally, we arrived at the market we had set out for several hours earlier! The market was wonderful and just what we had hoped. We were getting a taste of ‘real life’ in Delhi. Most of the other customers were locals, not tourists, like ourselves. The market contained dozens of small shops and we wandered through most of them. At each shop, the worker would greet us, show us their wares, and try to make a sale. Everyone paid a lot of attention to us.

In fact, we had attracted a lot of attention virtually everywhere we had gone that day (except for the first few shops we visited). We obviously did not fit in and everyone seemed to notice us. I assumed this was due to our lighter complexions and accents. But towards the end of the day, I met a young man that let me know there was another reason there had been so much pointing, staring, and attention. He approached me and asked where I was from. I told him I lived in Kansas and asked if he had ever heard of it. He said he had and then asked me where I had gotten the red mark on my forehead. I told him that we had visited the temple earlier in the day. He explained to me that the mark was not for religious reasons but indicated that people could easily take my money. Initially, I found myself wanting to dispute his claim. I told him that I had seen others at the temple with similar markings. He explained to me that yes, the ritual does exist for religious reasons, but that in my case, the location and specific marking of the powder had been placed on my forehead as a way of branding me as someone who would easily give away money. He told me to wash it off immediately. I quickly began to replay the afternoon and all the people who had taken notice of me and realized that I had stood out for different reasons than I had assumed. I had been labeled as an ‘easy mark’ and had been treated accordingly. I was completely unaware of the hidden meaning behind the marking and with this new information was able to reevaluate the events of the day with a totally different sociological lens. Obviously I went home with a completely different story than I would have if I hadn’t run into the teenager in the market who took pity on me and shared his insider information.
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Categories: Uncategorized

Getting real: Life IS messy!

March 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Remember a few years ago when Bissell came out with the tag line ‘Life is messy, clean it up’?  I LOVED that campaign and also the sentiment behind it.  Because the truth is, life IS messy.  And consequently, real answers to questions about daily life are often not very cut and dry.

I’m sometimes asked about how ‘reliable’ or ‘valid’ ethnographic research is.  Validity is easy to address because you can’t get more ‘valid’ than real life.  Sure, people don’t always act EXACTLY like they would if you weren’t there.  Almost all research impacts how people behave, and ethnography is no exception.  But, over the years, we have collected lots of evidence (participants yelling at each other, people telling us about things even their spouse didn’t know about them, etc.) that we do get closer to real life than most other research methodologies.

But when it comes to reliability, ethnographers approach the issue a little bit differently.  For example, think about the last 10 times you went grocery shopping.   There were probably some patterns in the way that you did it.  You probably went to the same place (at least most of those times), you probably started at the same end of the store, you probably had a list (or didn’t have a list), etc.  But, there was probably a good deal of variation too, and a lot of the variation was probably attributable to the context of the trip.  For example, did you go shopping alone or with someone else? Did you go shopping on a Tuesday evening or a Saturday afternoon?  Where you stopping by to pick up an ingredient you had forgotten or were you going to the store for the first time in a month?  All of these trips to the store can constitute ‘typical’ grocery shopping within a single household, but each can demonstrate very different types of patterns, and therefore can produce results that can appear a little bit unreliable.  But that is because real life is complex and variable.

There are actually very few behaviors that get routinized to the degree that there is little or no variation in the way they are done.  So for me, the question is not ‘is your ethnographic project reliable’, it is ‘how well does your ethnographic project capture the way(s) this thing is done’?  It is obviously important to make sure we get to see what is typical, but we also want to make sure we get to see variation and why it exists.  And this is important to try to understand both within and between households/people.

One of the things that concerns me a lot about my discipline (business/corporate ethnography) is that many people are now doing ‘ethnographic research’ without any real attention to the importance of context and the range of complexity that context brings to behavior.  They assume that ‘context’ is covered by being there and watching people do something.  But for me, context is so much more than that.  Obviously the place where the thing happens is an important context to see and understand, but there are generally hundreds if not thousands of other contextual variables that come into play around any particular behavior. The skilled ethnographer will be cataloging and trying to understand as many of those as possible.  And as you can see, this can get very messy, very quickly.  But there is no reason to panic, the skilled ethnographer is also really good at systematically organizing those variables into an understandable story. I believe that the REAL value of ethnography is in its ability to explain the messiness of life and human behavior and to pull out the patterned similarities AND the patterned differences in how a thing is done.

Why I like hanging with the frogs

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I always tell clients that one of the benefits of an ethnographic approach is that you get really close to the action or the ‘thing’ that you want to learn about.  And I do mean REALLY close.  I often compare an ethnographic research study to a telephoto snapshot.  Imagine you are at a football game and you want to capture an understanding about what is happening in the stadium.  You have a couple of options at your disposal.  You can take a wide-angle photo and capture the entire stadium.  In this photo you will see EVERYTHING, but you won’t be able to see ANYTHING very clearly. Or you can take a telephoto picture and capture a specific area of the stadium.  In this photo you will see only a small portion of what is going on in the stadium, but you will see that in detail and with clarity.  The wide-angled photo is the kind of picture you get with large quantitative studies, and the telephoto picture is what you get with an ethnographic study.  Both representations of the stadium are accurate and useful. In fact, they are complimentary.  Ideally you would consult both before coming to any conclusions about what is happening at the football stadium.

I have a lot of respect for my statistics gathering colleagues (in fact I used to teach statistics).  I like to know what they are learning because it helps to provide context for my fieldwork and sometimes even provides a framework for project design or analysis.  But I really get excited about capturing that telephoto image.

Another way to think about this difference in perspective is to use the analogy of a frog’s eye view versus a bird’s eye view.  Statistics give us a high level view of what is happening, from far away.  Whereas an ethnographic approach gives us a frog’s eye view.  In order to get the frog’s eye view, you usually need to get down in the thick of things and that is why I love being an ethnographer.  I think it is so exciting to see things happen in real time and to be able to understand it all in the context in which it occurs.  Real life is often unpredictable, messy, exciting, and frustrating, and ethnography helps to bring all of this to life.  Over the course of my career I’ve had a frog’s eye view of so many interesting things and this has proven invaluable to me and my clients because it allows me to uncover insights and perspective that just can’t be obtained in any other way.  For example, there is just no better way to understand the world of teenage gamers than to hang out with them for a summer and to try to get into their world.  Yep, I got to do that!   Or to hear the first hand stories and experience the daily life routines and rituals of people who are living with chronic pain and literally SEE how their world has shrunk into their living room or kitchen.  Sure sometimes I get a little mud on me, but that is part of the experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tales from the field: India

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

We’re doing our collaborative analysis this week for our study on the luxury lifestyle in India. In honor of that, here are a few more tales we haven’t told from John’s and Kazuyo’s weeks in Mumbai, Ludhiana and Bangalore.

Hospitality of Indian People
I was pleasantly surprised how hospitable Indian culture is.  As a part of our fieldwork, we are to go to a place they frequent. But the thing is that we ‘invited ourselves’ to do this, so of course, we are going to pick up the bill. How many times I had to insist to pay!  With one participant, he ended up taking us to dinner because we paid for other things!

How Quickly The Store Comes Down on the Price
Yes, it’s a bargain culture.  It’s a part of culture, but the level of bargaining is quite different here in India. One day, John and I are doing our context mapping and going to various stores.  We have gone to a few stores, including some carpet stores.  We are shown all silk hand-made carpet in various sizes, some wool/silk combo carpet, etc. They are feast to my eyes for sure.  I ask for the price, they ask me whether I want to know in Rupees or in US dollars.  I tell them Rupees.  They start rattling price of all those carpets.  Well, it’s a bargain price compared to what people pay in the US.  As we are there for about 20 minutes looking at it, and we are not making any commitment to buy any carpet.  They suddenly tell us that they will sell us TWO carpets for the price of one. I look at him and had to repeat the same sentence to make sure.  They say yes, but they say that we have to make a decision AT THAT MOMENT. Of course, we didn’t take their offer, but was surprised how quickly they came down on the price. They are a good price, BUT it’s not inexpensive.

Toilet in India
First day in Bangalore, I check into my hotel.  I had no sleep coming to Delhi and I ended up not sleeping at all when I checked into the hotel in Delhi and I had to take a very early flight out to come to Bangalore.  So mind you, I am pretty tired.  I check in and go to the bathroom, I am very confused.  There is no bathtub, but a little hand-held shower head next to my toilet. I think to myself, “Is this the shower? Really?”  So I go out from my room and find a housekeeping person and ask, “Does any of your room have a bath tub?”  They say no.  I ask “So, I am supposed to use a little shower next to toilet?”  They say yes.  I am thinking OMG.  Well, it turns out that little shower head next to toilet is their version of bidet! Apparently, it’s very easy to use, but I was afraid I would make a mess on myself, so I was not brave enough to try it.  It’s everywhere—public restroom, etc.  I am sure that it’s a lot more hygienic than using just toilet paper.  In Japan, we have a built in bidet and they are nice.

It’s a Male-Dominant Culture
Indian women I met are strong.  They are smart and they speak up. But when it comes to public space, it’s still a male-dominant culture.  When I went to context mapping with John, at several stores, they completely ignored me and only spoke to John—especially when it came to price.  At restaurants and bars, they ALWAYS bring a bill to a male who is in our party.  They look very confused when I bring out my credit card to pay a bill. Even though I am the one who is putting down my credit card, a server often brings a bill to John (or a male person who is together).  They just do not seem to get it!

Service Sector is Superb in India—except at the airport
Service in India is something to be said.  I wish that it is like that in America.  At a restaurant, hotel, bar, shops (even though they might be trying to sell things with higher prices), people are very nice, polite and pleasant.  They say “Yes, Mom”, “No, Madam”, and they do pay attention to your needs and fairy quickly to meet our needs.  Even at one hotel I was not even a guest, they gave us several recommendation to where we should go, made some calls for us, etc.  Unheard of in America, right?  Do not expect from airport staff though.  It’s kind of a huge downer especially as the last stop to leave India.  Maybe it’s because it is an international airport and there are just simply too many people. But airport guard almost sent me away because I didn’t have an itinery which made me frantic because I was catching a flight to come home!  But another guard came to rescue me after hearing me screaming at him and straightened a matter.  I think it would have been difficult for ERI to come bail me out from a jail in India.

Texting and Driving. Which is the primary act?

June 30, 2010 Leave a comment

by John Kille

Driving scares me. I have never been good at it. I’ve had a number of car wrecks, like a vicious one just two weeks after I bought my first car as a teenager. Yes, it was my fault. Driving has never been good to me either.

I have been hit by a car while riding my bike at ages 7, 12, 13, 28, and the other day had another close call (whew!). Most of those were not my fault.

Driving is quite commonplace in our road warrior culture and takes up a large part of our day. A necessity in most towns and cities, it’s become a standard technology in everyday life. As cities expanded and people drove longer distances, the car introduced various features to keep the driver entertained and informed while driving to work, home or grandma’s house. For example, the radio, seen as a distraction when first introduced, now is standard in every car. This was a change in the way a society viewed its technology, or a shift in the cultural norm.

As we have been studying technology in society recently (a study we did for ourselves, so don’t worry, we’re not violating anyone’s CDA), one of the most interesting cultural norms I have found is related to our new standard for doing more than one thing at the same time, particularly when it comes to technology, which is creating new opportunities for business.

People admitted to texting while driving, which is illegal in some states. It’s actually causing accidents in a lot, if not all, of them. One participant told us how she actually uses her peripheral vision for driving while she texts in the car, another explained her dad texts so much while driving they are afraid to ride with him, a third said she only texts while at stop lights, while someone else bragged she doesn’t need to look at her phone when she texts while driving. Yeah, we didn’t feel any better knowing that, but we all had to admit we’ve done at least some of that stuff ourselves.

Sometimes, as ethnographer, we listen to people tell us that they “sometimes” break rules, or don’t follow the rules, or don’t do things the way they are supposed to do, such as texting while driving. As professional strangers, we listen and learn about these cultural norms and watch them change, turn in either direction, slow down or speed up.

It is one of the interesting things about working as an ethnographer, watching and learning about cultural norms changing. And not getting hit by cars. I’ll expand on this changing, turning and slowing/speeding thing in a few.