Truth, Lies and Videotape

Academic debates about ethnography? Who cares? Philly Desai tells us why we, and our clients, should

Imagine asking a group of eight year olds to present the results of a study on children’s eating habits. Suppose you wrote in a report how annoying your teenage respondents were, because they wouldn’t stop mucking about. Think about asking a team of single mothers to conduct an important social research project on attitudes to childcare. Or maybe show a new consumer typology to the respondents it was based on, and ditch it if they say they don’t recognise themselves.

Commercial suicide for a researcher looking forward to early retirement, or a challenging, energising approach to inspire researchers and clients alike? These ideas come from recent thinking and controversy in academic ethnography and anthropology and I will argue that ongoing debates within academia are directly relevant to commercial market researchers in at least two ways. First, they address core problems of truth, objectivity and cultural understanding which are central to qualitative market research. Second, they also provide us with a source of new and more inspiring ways to help us conduct, analyse and present our research to clients.

Back to the future

Ethnography is not a new method, although it may be novel to some commercial researchers. For a good general introduction see Hy Mariampolski’s paper, ‘The Power of Ethnography’ (1999). Its beginnings are usually traced to the work of the social anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) and Franz Boas (1911; 1927) in the early 20th Century.

Malinowksi conducted fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific and his major contribution was to establish participant observation as key to ethnographic research. He also emphasised the importance of the relationships between different elements of a social system.

Boas, on the other hand, stressed the meticulous collection of data while emphasising the differences and particularities of cultural groups. By the 1920s the key aspects of ethnographic method were well established. These included long-term immersion in an alien culture; learning the language of the people; participating in as well as observing their social lives; and analysing all aspects of culture, to produce a complete account of the group being studied. (Clearly, commercial ethnography is different, with researchers spending less time with participants and having a more focused research topic... but let’s leave that to one side for now.)

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