Are we all anthropologists now?

Anthropology – the study of humanity using observational techniques – is an inspirational, thought-provoking subject for researchers. February’s Radio 4 series “From Savage to Self” was a good primer on its origins and history. Thanks to Dr Nick Southgate for recommending it.

I learned most from the episode which focussed on commercial anthropology. It argued that practices taken from anthropology have seeped into everyday life – hence the title We are all anthropologists now. Quite a bold claim when you think about it.

Host Dr Farrah Jarral interviewed ReD Associates’ Claire Straty after a long day’s fieldwork.

As she described her work, Straty described the all too familiar gap between what participants say and what they do, illustrating the role of ethnography. Her purpose as a commercial ethnographer?

“We seek to find asymmetries. Between how a client sees the world and the lived realities of the people that these companies serve. There usually is a big gap between those two things and it is my job to go and find what that asymmetry is.”

Jarral pressed her on the rigour of her practice. Straty’s typical fieldwork period is 2 consecutive days, which is slightly more practical than the 12-15 months required for typical PhD thesis. Whilst narrower in its focus, in her view applied ethnography is no less valid: she describes it as more productive and more gratifying than academic practice.

There’s a theme here. Read any academic commentary on ethnography and it soon becomes apparent that there is hostility to commercial market researchers claiming to use ethnographic methods. Professor Danny Miller from UCL is clear: there are no shortcuts to understanding. You should enter your study with no hypotheses so not to bias your observations. You understand the community you are embedded with holistically, and this generates understanding of your topic of interest.

Whilst no comparison can be made to being embedded within a community for a year or so, any market researcher used to conducting both qualitative and ethnographic methods will know the nuanced understanding that spending extended periods of time with participants brings. Even spending a day with a participant – about five times the length of a focus group – gives much more than five times as much depth. For me the benchmark therefore isn’t academic ethnography but “in and out” techniques typical of market research which used in isolation provide limited context or immersion.

The tension between the academic and commercial world is unlikely to recede soon. We might find academia overly rigid, but we should understand their objections and use the word ethnography with respect.

For anyone interested in what academic anthropology can achieve, a team from UCL have just published ‘Why We Post’ – a global research project looking into the cultural norms of social media usage across nine countries. The findings are a challenge to the notion that people use technology in the same way – norms seem to differ wildly within and between countries. UCL have done a fantastic job in making their work accessible, with a great website compete with video, downloadable ebooks and lay summaries. Kudos to them.

Figure: Social media platforms used by English school pupils, from the ‘How the world changed’ ebook published for the ‘Why We Post’ research project


About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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