Ethnography is two things: (1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology, and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results. Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time.
In order to answer their research questions and gather research material, ethnographers often live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable amount of time with them. While there, ethnographers engage in “participant observation”, which means that they participate as much as possible in local daily life (everything from important ceremonies and rituals to ordinary things like meal preparation and consumption) while also carefully observing everything they can about it. Through this, ethnographers seek to gain what is called an “emic” perspective, or the “native’s point(s) of view” without imposing their own conceptual frameworks. The emic world view, which may be quite different from the “etic”, or outsider’s perspective on local life, is a unique and critical part of anthropology.
Unfortunately, it is the element of time that is increasingly overlooked in business-focused ethnographic work. The two-hour interview seems to tell us everything we need to know, rather than expansive learning. While there are legitimate concerns over cost and time in most business structures, there is a point at which anything of real value is lost when we don’t push back with clients, internal and external, and relay the true value of a good ethnographic project – depth. Depth does not come from a shallow interaction, it comes from internalization, critical observation and reflection.
Think of it like the relationships you have in your own life. The first date, indeed the first few months, are giddy and exciting, often filled with moments you will never forget. But are they a reflection of the person with whom you are engaged or a brief moment defined by the context of dating. What we know after being involved with someone for a few months or years is significantly richer than what we know after a few hours. Why? Because we learn to understand the other person’s worldview along with our own. We learn to observe, ask better questions and think about things in we may not have noticed in the early days of courtship.
There is value in short interviews, whether you take an ethnographic approach or not. But there is as much, if not more value in taking the time necessary to really think, experience and reflect. It may not be good for the quarterly bottom line, but it is when looking at the long-term viability of a brand, product, or company.
I wrote the other day about the misuse of the term “ethnography” and seemed to raise the ire of a few folks. Ethnography, I was informed, is indeed the collective property of all researchers and it’s definition is subject to the chosen uses of the day. Being the anthropologist and would be semiotician that I am, I would concur insofar as meaning changes through time, is subject to cultural interpretation, etc. True enough. However, I would also argue that before meaning can change, it still needs to be grounded in something. To do otherwise is no different than me saying “Peaches are books because I said so.” I may indeed make that definition, and on a grand cosmic scale it may be true, but if I choose to read a peach today or bite into a book when I’m hungry, I’m will to bet I will be sadly disappointed. Thus so, it behooves us to think about what ethnography actually means and why it means it. “Ethnography” has come to be equated with virtually any qualitative research project.
While an ethnographic approach to research is no longer “owned” solely by of the sociologist, cultural anthropologist or sociolinguist, it doesn’t mean we should tuck our tails between our legs and simply accept any definition put before us. A more precise definition needs to be rooted in ethnography’s disciplinary home of anthropology. There lies it’s origin and therefore it has a place in the formation and definition, whether practiced by anthropologists or more general market researchers and product developers. Thus, ethnography may be defined as both a qualitative research process and method (one conducts an ethnography, not a bunch of “ethnographies,” by the by) and product (the outcome of the process is an ethnography, as in a literary genre). The aim is cultural interpretation, not simply a series of anecdotes about individual behaviors. The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience. Specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these details represent what Geertz called “webs of meaning.” It seeks to understand and explain the cultural constructions in which we live.
This means that ethnographers generate understandings of culture through representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what might be described as the “‘insider’s point of view.” The emphasis in this representation is on allowing critical categories and meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter rather than imposing these from existing models. An etic perspective, by contrast, refers to a more distant, analytical orientation to experience. Both emic and etic factor into the final product and require triangulation or data and a theoretical framework. It also means taking into account more than interview data and considering the totality of the setting, the context and the interplay between people in the encounter. An ethnographic understanding is developed through close exploration of multiple sources of data. Using these data sources as a foundation, the ethnographer relies on a cultural frame of analysis. In other words, it means having an holistic approach to understanding how the human condition unfolds and an finds expression.
So yes, “ethnography” is, like all language, defined in the act of communication. It will no doubt change again before all is said and done as a broader range of disciplines adopt it as another method, another writing style and another way of understanding the world. Hopefully it won’t be watered down to the point of uselessness in the meantime. It is sometimes important to take a stand on what things mean and how they come to mean them. Not just for ourselves, but for the people who hire us.