Editor’s note: Alicia Menanteau is founder and president of Insights360. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “The selfie and techie revolution: The case for keeping trained ethnographers on the battlefield.” 

parent holding selfie stick in kitchen with two childrenIf your experience has been anything like mine, the past year has been a blur of Zoom meetings, online research sessions and virtual conferences touting, “Tech is king! DIY research is queen!” Specifically, in the field of ethnography, I’ve heard:

  • Send participants a camera!
  • Push them questions!
  • Give them a selfie stick and a neck device!
  • Have them press levers, check boxes, move slide bars, input key words!

As a sociologist and ethnographer, I can hear myself warning, “Hang on! Aren’t we missing something?” Are these technologies providing us with tools to capture better, deeper, more authentic insights, or just reflections of what participants want us to see (or what they think we want to hear)?

Let me be clear: I am not anti-technology. I’m not resisting change or downplaying the need to be agile. Instead, I want to be sure we keep all that is good about classic ethnographies, while embracing all that is good in our techie/selfie/DIY culture.

What is ethnography?

Let’s define ethnography as the art and science of describing a group or culture, whether they are a tribal group in an exotic land or a family in suburban Dallas. An ethnographer’s job resembles that of a reporter, but with a few key differences.

An ethnographer:

  • Interviews relevant people (or observes them performing tasks).
  • Reviews records (for quallies, this would be assigning pre-work or diaries).
  • Weighs credibility of one person’s opinions against another’s.
  • Looks for ties to special interest groups and organizations.
  • Writes the story (for clients/stakeholders).

The key difference is that the reporter typically seek out the unusual – the exceptional, the problem, the wrong that needs to be righted, the unmet needs. The ethnographer writes about the routine, daily lives of people. 

  • It’s about history – knowing the origins of ethnographic research so we can blend the best of the classic with the best of the new.
  • It’s about agency – confidently advising clients/stakeholders how to achieve their objectives.
  • It’s about value – knowing and calling our place in the ring and in the stands.

1. History: looking back.

Imagine your 20-something daughter going off into a culture that speaks a different language. She takes some cash in a money belt, but no cell phone and is off the grid for a year or more to learn, engage, write and return.

That’s part of my personal story, as well as the story of Margaret Mead. Born in 1901, Mead was an American anthropologist who earned both MA and PhD degrees in the 1920s – what a courageous and confident woman she must have been! After expeditions to Samoa and New Guinea, she published Coming of Age in Somoa, which became a best seller. She made 24 field trips among six South Pacific people and is credited with changing the way we study different human cultures. 

From Mead – and other great ethnographers who have followed her – we are reminded that good research isn’t just about “talking to people.” It is a discipline that has both rigor and a defined process. Before asking the first question, we need to:

  • Begin with the problem.
  • Identify a theory or model, the lens through which to examine the problem.
  • Design the research.
  • Specify data collection techniques.
  • Determine tools for analysis.
  • Specific writing style (e.g., audience specific).

It’s also critically important that we acknowledge the biases and preconceived notions we have about what people think and how they behave. Even our choice of markets, segments and recruiting specifications reflect various biases. On the plus side, these biases focus and limit the study. On the negative side, they can undermine the quality of our research. To mitigate the downsides, responsible researchers must make specific biases explicit, and should include additional quality controls, like triangulation, contextualization and a non-judgmental orientation. 

2. Advising clients.

Every good researcher’s goal is to meet their client’s business objectives for the research. But great researchers seek a deep understanding of people and their culture or subculture. This informs what they believe, how they form meaning, what they desire (and aspire to), their language, their norms that instruct behavior and more!

In research, we are cultural explorers and advisors. Here are ways to be a cultural explorer in your future ethnographies, either online or in person:

- Engage as a participant-observer. This is the essence of ethnography: engage, participate and interact as a local (participant), asking questions when it’s not intrusive (observer).

Application: First, identify your “way in” (classically, through a “primary informant” who vouches for you); define your role (Who will you say you are?); and set your approach. For instance, rather than asking questions after each task, embrace your role as the participant-observer and observe meaning participants ascribe to tasks, ritual and beliefs by being fully present, and then, subsequently verify what you observed.

- Know it’s all a performance. Sociologist Erving Goffman offers an important perspective to the social construction and presentation of self in his dramaturgical model. As in theater, there are front and back stages where we constantly flip through roles as we move from one interaction to the next. Additionally, we are forever in the impression management business by the “expressions we give” (things we say, poses, performed body language, facial expressions) and the “expressions we give off” (less control over these inconsistencies between word and actions).

Application: Identify those inconsistencies in your research, call them out as another expression and seek to understand the underlying roles. In ethnographies for market research, I typically assess participants’ roles (what I’ve observed) and then verify by asking them add to the list. I ask them to describe the role, its significance, markers of success/failure, where they perceive themselves to be along the continuum, and so on. Watch for role shifts and impression management. Most importantly, when possible, triangulate methods to eliminate bias. For example, engage with people who are part of their social network and assess the fit between the presentations of self in these various contexts. Friendship groups are great for this.

- Expose weak ties/strong ties. The work of another sociologist, Mark Granovetter, offers us ways to account for how people are connected. Basically, he posits that our interpersonal relationships (both close and removed), all have the power to bind disparate groups, pass information and influence, and bring circles of networks in contact with each other. For marketing, this is crucial because we can extrapolate how far brand messaging can go when these ties are multiplexed.

Application: Explore the array of social networks that your participant has – from Facebook and LinkedIn, to neighborhood, school and social groups (their own and their family’s). Draw lines that represent weak and strong ties and explore the nature of communication and information that passes from one to the other.

- Look for symbols. While most of us are not trained semioticians, we can become adept observers of symbols in people’s surroundings and in their rituals.

Application: Bring a paper calendar to an interview and ask participants to share what they do at key times of the calendar year, using this paper prop to trigger their memories. Another application is asking participants to search for artifacts in their world and share their significance. Some may be too obvious for them to even think about calling out (e.g., the cross over the door, the mezuzah at the entry, the remnants of incense in the living room) – and that’s where your participant-observer skills come in!

3. Bring it to research!

Whether your background is sociology, anthropology or something else, it’s so important that we apply our expertise with the same rigor and enthusiasm as the day we were handed our diploma. And for most of us, the lessons of academia have been augmented and seasoned by years of experience. Don’t let technology be the focus, make it a valuable tool in your research toolbox.

There’s a reason people still value craftsmanship! When I lived in France and Germany, we’d go to the leather man for a jacket or purse; to the chocolate shop for special treats; and the furniture maker for a unique piece. Here in the U.S., I love supporting artists of all kinds, from art to homemade soaps and textiles. Why? Because these craftspeople bring a knowledge, expertise and passion to their work that can’t be replaced by technology. Here’s to being the artisans of qualitative research – using the best tools and techniques of yesterday and today!