Ethnographers vs. Moderators: Know What You Are Buying

The other day I was speaking with someone about ethnography and was informed by the person in question that she too was a “moderator.” She, of course, practiced ethnography, such as it is, and informed me she had been “moderating ethnographies” for years.  Yes, it made my skin crawl. Not because someone was crossing disciplinary boundaries, but because the choice of words told that ethnography was indeed the last thing she practiced, but had no doubt sold her self-defined ethnographic prowess into many a company. And unfortunately, this is precisely what continues to water down and cheapen the methodology and its use in business settings.

Let me state that I am not a moderator, I am an ethnographer and an anthropologist. And while both moderators and ethnographers speak to people, they are hardly one and the same.  On the surface it no doubt seems like I’m splitting hairs, but this isn’t just a simple matter of differing opinions or semantic variation, it is at the heart of how practitioners execute their work and how they practice ethnography.

A moderator is defined as a presenter, or host.  A moderator is a person or organization responsible for running an event.  A moderator is a person given special powers to enforce the rules of a collective event, be it a focus group, a forum, a blog, etc.  Moderation is the process of eliminating or lessening extremes. It is used to ensure normality throughout the medium on which it is being conducted. In other words, moderators assume control and direct. They maintain power and tease out information that is essentially qualitative hypothesis testing. Understand, I have no problem with moderation and moderators, but the practice of moderation is anything but ethnographic.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group.  Data collection methods are meant to capture the social meanings and ordinary activities of people in naturally occurring settings that are commonly referred to as “the field.” The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher does not impose any of their own bias on the data. Multiple methods of data collection may be employed to facilitate a relationship that allows for a more personal and in-depth portrait of the informants and their community. These can include participant observation, field notes, interviews, and surveys.  In order to accomplish a neutral observation a great deal of reflexivity on the part of the researcher is required. Reflexivity asks us to explore the ways in which a researcher’s involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research.  The goal is to minimize the power structure and allow people, our participants, to inform and guide the researcher according to what matters most to them, be it spoken or unspoken. In other words, we are not moderating, we are learning and exploring.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because when a client chooses to do ethnographic research, they need to know that they are getting what they paid for – people who understand the theoretical models governing cultural behavior and the training to tease out information and opportunities that traditional methods do not yield.  Ethnography’s strength comes from the ability to work fluidly with participants as opposed to moderating a setting or social interaction. The researcher who refers to him or herself as a moderator of ethnography, through his or her choice of words, is indicating how they will do fieldwork, how they will interpret findings and how they subconsciously see their role in the field. And again, while there is nothing wrong with “moderating”, selling it as ethnography or assuming that the word “moderator” is synonymous with “ethnographer” is like saying that because I can do basic money management I can now call myself an accountant. Or because I own a copy of The Lotus Sutra I am an expert in Buddhism. Or because I can change my oil I am a mechanic.  You get the point.  Not only is it a disservice to the discipline, it is a disservice to the client.

Simply put, if you’re going to hire an ethnographer, it isn’t enough to ask what markets they will work in or how big the sample population will be. If you’re going to spend the money, the time and the effort ask the obvious question: “What do you call yourself.” Then get them to articulate not only their methods, but the rationale behind them. It’s your money. Be sure you are paying for what you have commissioned.

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9 thoughts on “Ethnographers vs. Moderators: Know What You Are Buying

  1. I can add one more comparisson: Hiring an ethographer just to moderate focus groups is like hiring a pastry chef to sell bread at the bakery.

  2. Nice post Gavin. I also find that often in business “researchers” fail to remove bias from their studies. Indeed they often don’t even realize that this is important. Likewise when it comes to data analysis after data collection, standard practices like understanding the use of controls is often disregarded. If methods for collecting and analyzing data are disclosed as a part of research dissemination, it’s often easy to see these biases and therefore disregard or at least discount subsequent conclusions.

  3. Very nice piece. Not being an ethnographer or anthropologist, I think it is very important that when a client asks me to undertake an ethnography (or “ethno” as many like to say), they clearly articulate their expectations. More often than not, they are merely using the term to describe some in-home interviews or observations. I sense it annoys my peers at times, but I am adamant that clients understand the difference and know what they are asking for. The difference in quality, time and price is dramatic. The worst scenario is when researchers call themselves ethnographers and a client hires that service, actually not even wanting ethnography but simply using the trendy phrase.

  4. And what is really funny is when you post a response, there is a phrase underneath that says “your comment is awaiting moderation.” Quite humorous.

  5. When people asked me twenty years ago what I did for a marketing research company, my focus included hands on research, research out in the field, and process observation. In others words, I was interested in what motivated people to do what they do, document their experience, and find out how they felt, and understand why, and identify what was missing from the experience, and the actions they took as a result. It wasn’t until 1998 that I took on work as a moderator. I structured those sessions around a similar format so participants could paint a picture of their experience in words, pictures, and feelings. However, a good moderator has to get out into that place — it’s not all rosy, perfect, or fun, and it can even be dark and dirty, but it’s the place to be.

    That’s not to say that’s all I did, but it is the most fulfilling.

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