After being assigned ethnographic business research on two occasions last and this year, I think I’ve dabbled around enough in the world of business anthropology to get a sort of view of how things work.
I honestly don’t know what to think about it. On the one hand, I don’t want to be backward and dislike any innovation in the application of anthropological methods a priori, but there are some sides about business anthropology that strike me. One of these points is the matter of time spent in the field.
The anthropologists will typically spend two days with people, or families […]
Same with me. Last time I’ve spent not even a full day with each respondent and his family. Jan Chipchase put it perfectly right when he wrote in his post that Without sufficient time for reflection what could be meaningful data is just noise. Being a product of capitalism, business anthropology is subjugated to other issues than scientific insight. It’s plain and simple rentability. A simple cost-benefit calculation is being applied: Bring home the most data in the shortest time possible, since time is bare money. The inevitable distortion of results through generalizations is elegantly antagonized by a paradigmatic change in the teleology of ethnography: “We actually don’t wat to know it that exactly. We just want the a vector alongside we can develop our plans.”
No problem. Remember: It’s not science. It’s business.
I’m doing vibrant, rich, rewarding work that’s intellectually exciting
I believe that it’s rewarding, but anybody believing in the science’s concern would find business methods intellectually disturbing. Individuals are often reduced to their stereotypical sociocultural background and spending two days with one respondent (and that’s pretty much!) cannot lead to anything serious. On the contrary it leads to the production of a falsified because distorted picture of the people observed. The benefits for either business, society or science are doubtful.
On the other hand: When you’re a student and you’ve got the possibility of working as a business ethnographer: do it! It’s a great opportunity of practising the whole spectre of field techniques in a challenging situation.
Short term observation is fast paced. Sometimes you don’t spend more than half an hour in a given situation with the respondent. It is tricky to sense the useable data right in the moment when it’s happening, since you cannot record everything all of the time. And the short time in the field brings along the risk of “missing things". Personally, I think I’m going to profit a great deal from this perceptional drill.
Thanks for your comment and reminding us on Capitalism and the problems of “High speed ethnographies”, that “It’s not science. It’s business.”
Can you really generalize that “spending two days with one respondent cannot lead to anything serious". These business anthropologists study many different families, and some INTEL-ethnographers actually spent four years studying how people use PCs. Maybe two days per informant / family is enough if you have 100 different families to compare your insights with? I don’t know.
Would be interesting to hear more about your experience, of course. I can’t remember you’ve blogged about it?
Now, it depends on how a business ethnography is done. Four years in the field goes even beyond the classical ethnographic dictum of “1 year or more” in the field.
But the typical ethnographical market survey is different in my opinion: Let´s imagine a project that takes place during one week in, let´s say, two cities in three different European countries where the cultural differences are obvious, at least in the cliché, for instance France, Germany and Spain. Each ethnographer accompanies up two to four persons in each city. That sums up to information obtained by approx. 18-20 persons in the course of one week. But the quantity of persons with whom you´ve spent time with doesn´t make up the quality of the information obtained.
I´ve typically spent summa summarum half a day with each person/family, though split up on “key situations” according to the rsearch subject throughout the day. What you´ll get is a collection of snapshots of very specific situations and in the end, even if you´ll ask a hundred persons, you´ll get the arithmetical average of specific situations. You may argue that culture is not made up by one single person. But that these results are generalizations is in my opinion undoubtable.
This method has a 19th century “survey” nature, when you came, made your questions and physical measurements and went on for some more island hopping. I do subscribe very much to the comparison of colonial and business ethnography.
edit: No I didn´t blog about it, since I undertook the second field research quite recently and didn´t get this kind of insights from the first one yet. Any my blog has been lying idle until I reanimated it. I´ve been typing some drafts for my view on business anthropology, I might publish it some times.
Interesting your comparison between colonial and business ethnography - especially if you think of capitalism as their driving force. Yes, you should definitely blog about it!
Comment from: anna kirah [Visitor]
Ciao and greetings on my way to a remote island in Africa (not work but holiday). I just wanted to say that I agree that ethnographers who do mini studies are not necessarily doing ethnographies but “site visits” particulary if they have a specific goal or product in mind (already coloured by the company need and not the motivations and aspirations of everyday people in their everyday lives . We have been doing a Life Stages project for years studying families all over the world looking for trends in life stages and looking at a variety of variables. I would DEFINITELY call it a science and the work, as Genevieve Bell said is rich and rewarding. Yes, we work for businesses, but business and science do not need to be at odds with each other. When I hopped off academia, I have never looked back. I find each visit with a family is a gift and a beautiful part of my life. I feel humbled by the knowledge and meaning they give me in their everyday lives and I am humbled when I hear and see their voices in the products and services we create for them. I see much of the work as for the people and by the people. I could write forever on this, but I just wanted to put in a little blurb before going on holiday. I object mostly to the idea that “anyone” can do the work we do as anthropologists, I object to the idea that anyone can take a course in ethnographic methods and be an ethnographer. I have learned from my mistakes and failures within the corporate world and from that have learned how to speak the language of everyday people and how to speak the language of the corporate world> a language just as foreign as walking in to any tribe where you must learn the rituals and meanings taking place around you. Anyway…great BLOG site, love it! And yes, capitalism is a driving force but that is not the same thing as saying our work is business and not a science. Ciao and I would love to read more when I get back from a much deserved holiday.
I feel humbled by the knowledge and meaning they give me in their everyday lives and I am humbled when I hear and see their voices in the products and services we create for them. I see much of the work as for the people and by the people.
I fully agree to this point. I´ve grown a a great deal, methodically and personally speaking. There´s no doubt that work done on a face-to-face level in anthropology (and elsewhere) is captivating and rewarding.
The comparison of colonialism and capitalism is, applied to the full spectrum of the topic, of course polemical. The way “the natives", i.e. the respondents are dealt with depends very much on the personal social skill of the ethnographer and is less the impersonal survey from a hierarchically elevated position.
But I think it´s justified, when I say that what we business ethnographers are doing in the field is not science. We do use scientific methods to acquire our data and being trained in anthropology is in my eyes a sine qua non for doing applied business anthropology.
What I wanted to point out is, that there´s a completely different telos behind scientifical ethnology and business ethnography. Ethnology as science is (ideally!) supposed to move in front of a scientific-philosophical background, whereas business anthropology is about the bucks, how beatufiul and rewarding the experiences you had in the field might be. I´ve experienced every day with my peers as a gift to, but in my opinion, personal experiences, how humbling and beautiful they might be are the ethnographers personal life and not the goal of doing this kind of work. Ideally, ethnographers shouldn´t go into the field to find gifts and beautiful experiences. To be more realistic most of them do it for this reason alone.
What I meant with “intellectually disturbing” is the carelessness the meta-products of those ethnographies are dealt with. Gross generalizations are taken into account as inevitable, because “the market” does often not allow “academical nitpicking", never-ending intertextual discussion and self-reflections distilled in masses of paper. But still it´s widely called “business anthropology” or even more elegantly “applied business anthropology". It is a -graphy and not a -logy, in the sense of the occidental tradition of science. And if we´re adorn ourselved with the terms of occidental science, we should do it consequently or simply call it differently.
As a ethnographic business researcher employed by Kairos Future for last year or two I must say that critical thoughts about business related “Turbo Anthropology” has striked me once or twice. And I must say that I agree that the short research time in the field of business could be seen as somewhat too short if one’s primary goal is to reach a holistic perspectives of everyday live’s of the people we study. However, I must add, society needs anthropology. That goes, not only for the academic milleus, but for all fields of society, politics and business alike. Without anthropology we cannot hope to get any closer to understandings we all need so even if there is limited amount of time on our hands when we are working as turbo anthropologists - we still can proudly offer what others buy themselves cannot - and that is to get at least a one or two steps closer to needed and wanted understandings. We must get to know our selves in order to help ourselves and the most ultimate tool to achieve that, to understand humans as a sociocultural creatures, we find in anthropology.
Comment from: David Biggins [Visitor]
I got a 403 that asked me to leave a comment.
There was no spamming involved from the source. You got linked from the Guardian talk board, via TinyURL.
When did you get the 403 error? An Error message that asked you to leave a comment? Can you explain?