Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 1 of 3)

Ethnography Matters is happy to start the new year with a series of posts from guest writer, Sam Ladner. In this piece, Sam examines the different temporal conceptions of ethnographic fieldwork in industry and academia. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Sam’s discussion where she discusses how corporate ethnographers can avoid compromising research.   

 Sam is a sociologist specializing in the social aspects of technological change. She mixes private-sector consulting work with academic research and teaching. Primarily an ethnographer, Sam is founder and principal with Copernicus Consulting, a social research company that consults on digital and industrial product design, organizational change, and consumer culture. She is also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. She  has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Time & Society and The Canadian Journal of Communication. She is currently managing the Mobile Work Life project, which is investigating smartphones and work/life balance.

Part 1: A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography

Corporate ethnography’s emergence ignited criticism that its quality and rigour was not as good as the ethnography practiced by academics. Academically trained social scientists have argued that private-sector practitioners are often not trained in anthropology or sociology, much less in the actual method of ethnography. Academics have argued that using ethnography for marketing and advertising is just more evidence of underhanded marketers attempting to dupe people into consumerism (Caron & Caronia, 2007).

And they are right.

Much of private-sector ethnography is as banal as it is ironic. In its bland quest to “understand the consumer,” it reduces culture to mere consumerism and thereby fails to achieve its own stated goal of understanding. This cynical veneer of cultural research disregards the truly transformative effect of “going native,” which is the first step to deriving both deep insight and innovation. Private-sector “ethnographers” are frequently ignorant to what ethnography actually is. The real essence of ethnography is the study of culture or as Geertz would say, the “webs of significance” or the meaning individual social actors ascribe to objects, events, or people. “Ethno” derives from the Greek word “ethnos” meaning folk or culture, while “graphy” derives from “grapho” or “to write.” Most corporate ethnographers neither study culture nor write about it. Instead, ethnography is simply as “on-site research,” such as an in-home interview, and “written up” as a series of meaningless video clips or as the truly stupefying Power Point presentation.

But these critical academics are also wrong.

Academics frequently criticize corporate ethnography simply as “too short.” But this is just as shallow an insight as is the idea that culture=consumerism. Academics, of all people, should know that culture drives practice. The rapid pace of contemporary corporate life clearly and reasonably demands shorter time horizons for any research project. It is more than obvious that time differs in academia. Time is what Kluckhohn (1953) calls a fundamental “value orientation,” or a universal feature of all cultures. A culture can be past oriented, meaning it reveres the past through symbolic gestures and everyday behaviours. A culture can be present oriented, by focusing on what is immediately temporally present.

Academia is a past-oriented society, with its obsession with paying homage to past greats of the literature and constant “reviews” of what others have previously found. The private sector, by contrast, worships the present (though it may portray itself as future-oriented, this is often stymied by a relentless focus on the near future). Both “cultures” mark time differently, making it completely natural to do rapid research in the private sector, and perfectly ethnocentric for academics to criticize such research based on normative assumptions of “appropriate” time frames. Symbols of time in academia are typically longer, not “better.”

Take the notion of a “year,” for example. “September” is a perennial ritual in which streams of undergraduates and graduates begin their studies at universities. It may indeed explain the obligatory one-year’s fieldwork unspoken guideline in anthropology. The typical rationale for one year is that so the ethnographer can witness the entire season, but in effect, it may be because it conveniently dovetails with the academic year itself.

There is no equivalent to “September” in industry. Work begins again when the accounting department “closes the books” at month-end. It begins again when a new directive from the C-Suite sends the organization scurrying. It begins once more when a new email arrives. Life in the private sector has nothing like “September,” much less the luxury of thinking in terms of a full year. This shorter time cycle is evident in the tenure of executives. The average CEO is at the helm for just 6 years. The average tenure of a Chief Marketing Officer is even shorter — just 28.4 months (Kirdahy, 2008). This is not to say that “one year” means nothing in the corporate context, but just that it means comparatively less than it does in the academy. Academic social researchers may judge these shorter time horizons as lacking in rigour, but it may have more to do industry’s normative assumptions of time reckoning. Instead, it is more a rejection of the calendar year than it is a rejection of rigour itself.

In my next post, I will review methods to match this shorter time horizon in the private sector, without compromising the quality of the research.

READ: Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3)  by Sam Ladner

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41 Responses to “Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. January 13, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    An excellent start – I look forward to how this series develops. Very very refreshing to read something on commercial research with citations & intellectual hinterland after the dross of bland non-statement that passes for much “market research” blogging.

    Coming from the UK anthropology tradition, I’m inclined to define ethnography as something as not just cultural, not just “webs of meaning”, but webs of meaning quite firmly anchored in a particular social environment, time and place. From this perspective it is not just *duration* that defines ethnography but also *immersion* into the situation studied – allowing us, first, an easy way to disambiguate it from simple in-home qual interviews where the participants are only met once.

    Yet on the other hand, the commercial researcher is perhaps more likely than the orthodox academic anthropologist to be studying a segment of society very close to their own “native” environment. Could we argue that this mitigates some of the shorter duration through pre-won familiarity with the cultural codes and social norms under observation? Of course reflexivity then becomes twice as important for overcoming the researcher’s own assumptions…

    • Sam Ladner
      January 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Jay. You definitely could argue being “more native” alleviates some of the traditional academic burden, for sure. And yes, reflexivity must be part of that process. It offers other challenges — eg. formulating a coherent theory or hypotheses of what you’re looking for. When it’s not “exotic” it’s hard to notice things in front of your nose.

      The immersiveness of ethnography? In my experience, corporate types seem to get that, at least partly. They know there is something about the context of activity that matters. This is particularly true for design researchers working in industrial design. That immersion is key to understanding the “webs of significance,” as you rightly say.

      Design researchers are getting better at this research. Market researchers are…well let’s just say they have a long way to go before they do it well. I’m hoping to be offering a workshop on ethnography at the Market Research Intelligence Association’s qualitative conference, coming up here in Toronto in February (though I have yet to hear if my proposal is accepted).

      Thanks for being part of the ethnography matters community!

  2. curious
    January 16, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Sam, I’m a big fan of yours, and I appreciate your desire to be “provocative.” But I question why you, such a well-educated and thoughtful person, would ask if something “sucks.”

    I mean, what if somebody wrote a piece called “Are Ph.D.’s moronic? A thoughtful and applied critique of the academic world”?

    I just don’t see how saying something sucks is designed to foster creative, grown-up debate.

    • Sam Ladner
      January 16, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

      Hi Curious,

      Thanks for the comment. Of course, I will beg to differ.

      “Are PhDs moronic?” is clearly a personal insult against PhDs. Did I say “Do corporate ethnograPHERS suck?” No, I didn’t, and wouldn’t. Instead I used colloquial language that I tend to use everyday (yes, I say things suck! Even though I have a PhD! Imagine!). I did this for a reason: I wanted this to be a dialogue between academics and non-academics.

      Note I also did not say, “Do corporate ethnographies comply with normative temporal practices of academia?” or “Do corporate ethnographers construct parallel and/or contesting subjectivities in the temporal realm?” No, I didn’t, even though those would be perfectly natural in the academic world. Personally, I think that kind of language sucks. Oh! There she goes again! *stage whisper: hard to believe she has a PhD!

      Thanks for participating in the dialogue. I don’t think using the word “suck” is sophomoric as you might suggest. I’m sad that it somehow diminishes me in your mind, but then it doesn’t diminish me in my own mind, so I guess I come out neutral.

      • curious
        January 16, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

        Okay Sam, how about if I wrote an article called “Is getting a Ph.D. moronic”? And I made it clear that I thought the degree was stupid, not the person getting it. (Although you know, the sentence “Are Ph.D.’s moronic” could be referring to the degree or to the person… so maybe you jumped to a bit of a conclusion. If I had been criticizing the people I probably would have said “Are Ph.D’s morons” … but *stage whisper I only got an A- in my English class, so maybe I shouldn’t say anything) In any case… now that we’re done splitting hairs…

        Sure, sucks is colloquial language. I speak like this too. But I’ve noticed that when I do, people tend to tune me out, especially in professional environments. Whereas if I use precise words that explain my objections or concerns, the conversation seems to go better. And that’s what you’re looking for, right? Conversation?

        • Sam Ladner
          January 16, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

          Hi Curious,
          If you had written “Is getting a PhD moronic?” I totally would have +1’d that, because I happen to believe it IS moronic…in an absurd, existentialist way. Sadly “Ph.D.s” = both people with Ph.D.s and multiple Ph.D. degrees, so there’s a dissatisfying lack of precision there in the grammar. But enough!

          Do people tune me out when I use words like “suck”? I suppose they might. When would I choose to avoid that tuning out? Perhaps when I deliver a lecture, or conduct a client meeting, or have a conversation with my mother-in-law. Would I normally avoid use “suck” in a blog post? No.

          I am intentionally inviting debate in a particularly colloquial fashion. I wanted this to be approachable and interesting, not academic and inscrutable. If you read the post in its entirety, I believe I hit the mark in terms of both precision and parsimony. In fact, I took pride in my ability to mix academic analytical acuity with colloquial language.

    • January 16, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

      Hi Curious! I’m Tricia Wang, one of the contributors of Ethnography Matters.
      I do understand your concern – because “suck” is also borderline mean, and we don’t want people to write mean posts on Ethnography Matters. But I didn’t interpreted Sam’s use of the word in that context. I believe Sam’s post is in line with the vision that Ethnography Matters has tried to implement – that is writing is about ethnography that is super accessible, timely, and dialogue provoking.

      I invited Sam Ladner to write a guest post for this blog because of her ability to cut through heavy academic discourse that tends to result in obfuscation at the expense of clarity. I actually loved that the title of her post has the word suck precisely because suck is a word that is understood by many people. I love “suck” as much as I love the word “Awesome.” The word sucks makes you WANT to read on…and so much of what we read online – well is sooooo boring!

      Well, I hope our readers are more like you, who do read beyond the title instead of tuning people out for using colloquial words.

  3. January 16, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    Most of the shortcomings I see in corporate research (as a consultant in that world) come from (a) corporations asking the wrong question and (b) corporations requesting the wrong method. In both cases, corporations fail to completely disclosure just what they hope to achieve, thinking they are better off specifying the research approach and methods. Ideally, internal researchers or consultants should guide corporations but it’s not always that easy. If the team can bring in all stakeholders, fully discuss the project, and align around the objectives, key questions, and decisions/actions riding on the outcomes its far more likely to be successful.

    However, I will stick up for corporations in that its unrealistic to think their goal is to truly understand their consumer; not everything about that consumer is relevant. And the more time spent moving away from what’s relevant the most costly it gets and return on investment goes down. Now there is a sweet spot, probably beyond where many corporations look, where a wider lens would actually result in more valuable data. I think this is in line with your second point from the article and I’ll be curious to see your next post.

    Ideally, we would all start by aligning around the need for this research, then are all grounded in when certain methods are applicable, and finally we address the corporations constraints (time, money, personnel, etc.). When any of those aren’t addressed up front is when I see research be the least effective.

    And as an aside, I appreciate you trying to address the “not as good” critique and it may help to identify where the success criteria for academic and corporate don’t align; good is not defined the same for each.

    • Sam Ladner
      January 16, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

      Hi Taylor,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’re right, I think, that corporations don’t need to know “everything” about consumers. Sure, that’s probably true. But I guess my general beef is that they don’t even know the basics sometimes, and fill up their lack of knowledge with a bunch of stereotypes. “Moms on the go,” and “single guys” and “married men.” It’s not a cohesive understanding if they don’t understand gendered roles and performance. Do they need to know how their customers feel about, say, wearing fleece when they sell car batteries? Probably not. But they do need to situate their customers in proper context.

      I would argue it’s more costly to never have an open-ended, vertstehen-pursuing research agenda — at least in the long run. Some corporations do this really well. Others have no idea why anyone would want a coherent understanding.

      And yes, I’m sticking up for corporate research too. Some of it is quite good, and, quite frankly, there are many academic studies that lack this cohesion as well. It’s not a corporate v. academic divide, really. It’s about what is the unit of analysis. I argue that it is the social context of a product’s use, and not the product itself (oops. Spoiler for future posts!).

  4. January 17, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    Nice post.

    To be completely literal, yes ethnography is generally understood as a book (an ethnographic book) but γράφω (grapho) probably evokes different forms of representation (in the way for example we talk about graphic arts), not limited to writing. And of course there is a rich tradition of ethnographic film which tries to distance itself from the ethnographic book.

    That small point aside, where ethnographic practice and academia converge, from my perspective, is that they are different forms of storytelling, with stories written for different audiences, drawing from different experiences, with some different political and economic agendas etc. They have ion that sense more in common that they seem to think.

    I agree with you that academia and industry operate with a very different kind of outlook, jargon, interests, objectives. It’s so fascinating to me for example, since I evolve in both worlds, to see how corporate ethnographers are desperately looking for “models” especially graphic models. There is the fetish of the experience model. In academia, of course, there is a kind of fetishization of the academic reference, and the statistic. In that sense these are different cultures, or rather communities of practice.

    I do see a lof of bashing of corporate ethnography from academics, informally and formally. To me though, some of the studies done in the corporate world are extremely refreshing. They do offer a great grasp of the present. And I really don’t care if Jan Chipchase is an ethnographer or not, or does ethnography or not, if I want to understand something about technology today, his stories are amazingly insightful.

    I will be looking forward to more posts.

    • Sam Ladner
      January 17, 2012 at 1:37 am #

      Well put, Julien! Well put indeed! You are of course correct in pointing out that the “grapho” part is too narrowly understood as “writing” per se. Yes, ethnographic film, as you point out, is very much part of this tradition as well.

      That said, however, the representational practices of many corporate ethnographies fail. I might even say epic fail, if I were to be speaking colloquially. Ahem.

      I am on the fence about your assertion that they are just different ways of storytelling. I’m a former journalist, and I can tell you, the kind of storytelling I did as a journalist were typically bereft of any analytical precision whatsoever. Certainly I told stories, but did I provide any insight into the socio-cultural domain? Not really. There is the infamous, hilarious joke: how does a journalist count? Answer: 1, 2, TREND. Sadly this is true.

      I do so hope that academics can see through the poorly conducted research and embrace the truly interesting and innovative work of so many corporate researchers. Please: more people from the academy here!

      • January 17, 2012 at 4:38 am #

        Elizabeth Wanock Fernea’s account description of an Iraqi village is not that analytical, and she is not an anthropologist, but it seems so insightful about what it means to be a woman in an Iraqi village in the 1950s. Emile Zola wrote a great novel about a Parisian department store “le Bonheur des Dames”: ethnographic storytelling in different genres, all valuable in different ways. Eventually, stories can be appraised.

        The one metaphor that comes to my mind, when I think of corporate ethnographers, is the bricoleur. A nice word to talk about improvisation, and using whatever tool / theory at hand to make sense of a problem. Some corporate ethnographers do that quite well, and the founders of Elab icould have called themselves “Market Bricoleurs”.

        And yes, of course, there is poorly constructed work in the corporate world. But most of the same problems apply to academia. A lot of the research I review for academic journals is insular, narrow-minded, obtuse, badly written and often ill-informed. Many of the corporate ethnographers I meet read more widely than academics. Some of my academic colleagues in business schools have even stopped reading books (the phrase “you can read everything in journals, online” is a sure sign you will never have an enriching conversation with this particular academic).

        Corporate ethnographers should embrace the ‘bricoleur’ identity, draw from a wide range of fields (in the same way for example that Geertz drew heavily from philosophy and Levi Strauss from linguistics) and ignore most academic critiques about the purity of their methodological / analytical apparatus. How about Organizational Bricoleur?

        • Sam Ladner
          January 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

          Would you not agree that to be a *good* bricoleur, you must at least have read (and perhaps dismissed) a canon? That is why I left Communication in favour of Sociology, because as a discipline, Sociology has less of a problem with defining its canon that Communication. In the corporate world, there appears to be no canon whatsoever. I find that deeply problematic. Straying from the canon? I encourage that. Not having the canon? No, I cannot support that.

          Read widely. Think deeply. But acknowledge the canon, please! Bricoleurs are delightful, unless they’re simply dilettantes.

  5. myers
    January 18, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    This is the ethical, aesthetic, and scientific boundary between ‘good’ and ‘good enough’. Policy requires a little truth and a lot of action.

    Look at ethnography in applied vs descriptive settings.
    Does the US Census or Walmart marketing data (were it public) provide a clearer portrait of the US? Neither, they both dominate in certain areas, and are unable to provide a clear image in others. Remember how classical ethnography did well with native americans in one sense, but isn’t going to say much about how Jack Abermoff did the casino deals?
    I use every trick anthro/soci taught me when outsourcing a biz process in a firm. Context rules

    • Sam Ladner
      January 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Thanks, Myers. You’re giving away some of my next post! Instead of totally spoiling it, I will leave this with a simple thank you!

  6. Michael Powell
    January 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    This is a compelling post. Thanks Sam. I thought the introduction and title are poignant and memorable.

    At the risk of turning the conversation into a discursive turn, I nonetheless had a question about audiences. I almost wonder if the label “ethnography” has as much to do with an intended audience of fellow anthropologists, typically academics, than with the text itself. In a corporate context, of course, the audience is (most?) often a client organization. Regardless of the quality of the data collected or our rapport or relationship with our subjects, a “corporate ethnography” needs to be tailored to our specific client audience. Certainly, I agree with you that there is a different temporality at play here, which you nicely analyze above. In addition, as an anthropologist working in the business world, I often find myself breaking free from ethnographic convention simply in order to make the points that need to be made. My goal doesn’t just include a better portrait of the consumer or the market, but often includes issues of client organization dynamics, internal cultures and/or the larger social context.

    If I can rephrase this point and add some other thoughts it engenders in the form of a question: In your ongoing analysis of critiques of corporate ethnography, have you discovered anything to suggest that anthropologists are bothered, more generally, by non-anthropologist audiences reading, engaging with and perhaps acting upon ethnography or ethnographic insights? Or, put differently (and just hammering on the same point), is this a question of whether corporate ethnography is bad, or a critique of anthropologists for working in the corporate world itself and addressing corporate audiences?

    • Sam Ladner
      January 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

      Hi Michael,

      thanks for joining our conversation.

      I hadn’t intended to discuss the anthro/non-anthro divide in my future posts, but you do bring up a very interesting point. Sociologists are not as bothered by the use of the word ethnography in corporate contexts, in my experience. Anthropology clearly has ownership over the method and the word (sociologists tend to use “participant observation,” which, it can be argued, differs in a few key ways).

      But what you seem to be touching on is the de-professionalization inherent in moving the method out of the academy and into the corporate sector, where anthropologists do not set the agenda, much less define the terms of what constitutes a “professional.”

      If you’re on the AnthroDesign listserv, you have likely witnessed this debate first hand, with many designers angrily denouncing anthropologists for being elitist, and anthropologists just as angrily denouncing the designers as dilettantes. The anti-intellectualism undercurrent in this debate is very important, I think, in trying to understand the hesitance academically trained researchers have in entering the corporate world.

      In short, “we don’t get (the right amount of) respect.” Those with MBAs, not PhDs, make decisions in the corporate world, even if they have absolutely no expertise in the area (e.g., in culture). It’s a difficult place to be and is manifest by resistance to exporting the method, IMO.

  7. January 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    A harsh attack on the work of your colleagues to get attention? A well-respected tradition of academia. But in this case, one without any merit or substance.

    To compare the publicly available work of corporate consultants to publicly available work of academics, is a non-event, uninteresting, trite. Consultants don’t publish their real work in public forums. Why? Because they matter. Large organizations are staking their future on our results, and competitors are eager to find out any hints of the path they will be taking. One of Usography’s recent video ethnographies helped guide the user experience strategy of a top player in a $300 billion dollar industry. You think we can publish any of those results or specifics about how we arrived at them?

    Academics on the other hand (including wannabe consultants) can put all their rigor into their publications, and scratch and claw at each other about the finer points of Malinowsky-esque rigor because, well, nobody cares besides others like them. Nothing is on the line. It is much ado about nothing.

    You will never have a chance to review the real work of corporate researchers or user experience strategists who use ethnography as one of many research tools. The public work that you ridicule as “meaningless” and “stupefying” are simply teasers and side studies to understand trends and to give conference talks. The real work is kept under wraps. It’s too important to publish as a means of fluffing our intellectual feathers.

    • Sam Ladner
      January 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

      Hi Paul,
      Thank you for joining us here. I mean that. I’m happy to welcome you to the conversation. My goal with this post is to start conversations like this.

      I do in fact see many productions of corporate ethnography. I often am called in after ethnography has “failed” for a corporate customer, and I am asked to salvage whatever budget is left. This isn’t exactly peer review, but it does give me an opportunity to understand what is being done typically in the private sector.

      I do so wish we could engage in peer review — not so we can snipe at each other like academics so often do — but so we can improve the overall quality of our work (as academics often do also, incidentally).

      You seem to be suggesting that refining results is tantamount to “caring about nothing,” and nothing could be further from the truth. Please come and see my next post, coming this week, which will articulate some of the most common problems we experience in the corporate sector. Just because you cannot publish your results in a peer-reviewed journal does NOT mean you cannot improve its quality.

      Most specifically, let’s talk about “shopping.” In the video I linked to, I saw very little insight into the cultural meaning of shopping, or its gendered experience. Does this “not matter”? Of course it does! It’s very difficult to have clients appreciate why, but that’s the challenge. I have clients that base their decisions, typically, on no more than a survey result. Now I’m asking them to be anthropologists in their own right. Challenging? Absolutely. But it *matters* that we care about the socio-cultural insight we gather.

      If the “real work” has more there, please share what you can! We want corporate ethnography to gain esteem.

  8. Michael Powell
    January 23, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    I just read Paul’s comment and Sam’s reply. And I keep thinking of a long, drawn-out idea that leads to a question.

    As Sam referenced in her reply to me, this type of “debate” between academic and corporate anthropology (funny how even assigning a label to what is not academic anthro gives me pause) has been ongoing in sites like the anthrodesign listserv. And I have sifted through many of those emails in the past few years. But these debates often suffer from a lack of specificity. I think we’d be better off talking about specific ethnographies that are problematic, whether academic or corporate. And I don’t say that because of a need to be sensitive to each individual’s output, but more so because the discourse on a general level is too categorical. You begin with the divide, then place the right terms under each category. This is just one way to proceed analytically, and perhaps not the most productive route.

    Paul stated, “nobody cares [about the academic ethnographies] besides others like them. Nothing is on the line. It is much ado about nothing.” Wow, tough criticism. But not unwarranted either. How exactly are academics approaching this problem? If I was to imagine a strange rearrangement of roles, where this group was my client, I would probably assume that this is a sensitive subject for anthropologists and they’ll be pretty defensive about it.

    Speaking of specificity, here’s an example. I had worked on a project for several years concerning the cultural life of government secrecy, with a focus on the US and Poland. In 2006, Joseph Masco published The Nuclear Borderlands. This is a highly sophisticated and theoretically complex work that, in the words of the publisher: “argues that the U.S. focus on potential nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War obscured the broader effects of the nuclear complex on American society. The atomic bomb, he demonstrates, is not just the engine of American technoscientific modernity; it has produced a new cognitive orientation toward everyday life, provoking cross-cultural experiences of what Masco calls a “nuclear uncanny.”” I read it. And I’m sure others read it, too. Anthropologists really loved it. I cannot speak to the book’s fuller reception outside of academia with the exception of a community of information access experts that I come in contact with still. None of them read it or understood the book’s significance or relevance to their work. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be useful to them or that there isn’t some other group out there who this book was relevant and important to. That audience may be out there.

    I sort of like how Paul stated that, “Consultants don’t publish their real work in public forums.” It’s true. At the same time, aren’t we defining “real work” in terms of relevance? So, Masco’s work has a lot of relevance for anthropologists and Paul’s work has a lot of relevance for his clients. But vice-versa? Probably not going to happen.

    Sounds like we need to reconsider how to approach this problem. I think this would begin by creating a new audience or new community, which would include both academic and corporate anthropologists. This could either be a hybrid community, a newly created community of interested groups or something else. I could envision this. In fact, I could imagine the work of some anthropologists focusing on creating these kinds of hybrid communities who would then become their audience.

    But what would be the purpose of the community? What would be the point? What would we strive for?

    Put differently, why should corporate ethnography be held in esteem by academic anthropologists, what would be the use, purpose and significance of that? I don’t think this is a rhetorical question or a question with an apparently obvious answer. I would be fascinated to hear the answers provided by the academics, above all.

    • Sam Ladner
      January 23, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

      Thanks again, Michael, for participating in this conversation. Your and Paul’s very act of posting actually opens the path to this community you propose!

      Why should corporate ethnographers indeed be held in esteem by academics? Good question. I don’t think they “should” at all, but I do think they should engage in exchange about ideas, quality, rigour, and relevance. And that would be a two-way street, by the way. The purpose I would see behind this is partly quite practical: academics are training the next generation of corporate ethnographers (or they should be anyway). Moreover, so few of PhDs become academics these days, so they should be exchanging with the private sector regularly before graduation.

      I would love to see more graduate students go into the corporate sector for internships. There they could learn what relevance (to business) means, and how to represent their findings in meaningful ways, including film, for example. Likewise, corporate researchers could learn from the graduate students who are classically trained in theory. I think this is extremely important, because so little corporate work that I’ve seen really contributes to the wider knowledge about social life, in general, and the implications for marketing, branding, product design and organizational innovation.

      So in short, I would love to see more exchange, likely in the form of internships and exchanges.

  9. Michael Powell
    January 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Sam, I think you’ve hit on a big point and a seemingly undeniable truth. I like your ideas about internships and the like.

    For better or worse, academic anthropology cannot sustain itself, producing only the exact number of graduates needed to teach the next generation of anthropologists. Unless, of course, the eventual goal is to shrink the field.

    So where will the field grow and how? This is pure speculation, but assuming that current trends and pressures continue, we can probably anticipate stagnation or possibly even shrinkage in much of the public sector, including government jobs and non-profits. I hope this doesn’t happen, but this seems to be a general trend. It seems like corporate ethnography or private-sector applications might be a place for the field to thrive.

    It would be great for an organization like the AAA to really help clarify this larger situation. And while this example doesn’t contradict this need or responsibility, nonetheless, the last email I received from the AAA called attention to all of the work focused on the AAA Code of Ethics which, among other things, states very clearly that all anthropologists must, “5. Make your results accessible”. This certainly adds a meaningful dimension to Paul Bryan’s comment above—much of corporate anthropology is not publicly accessible.

    One last point: I would add that the corporate world is a truly fascinating sector to be part of. I don’t always agree with the people or organizations I work with, just like anywhere else. But it strikes me that as increasing numbers of anthropologists seek to understand “capitalism” and its many forms, sweeping theories about, for example, “neoliberalism” often provide poor service for our analyses. In my opinion, the business world is not well understood by anthropologists. So while it’s probably true that my mini-ethnography of a supermarket might not be groundbreaking for the field as a whole, I think that our collective experiences in this heterogeneous world should be considered invaluable.

  10. January 23, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    As one who studied phenomenological hermeneutics ‘applied’ to program evaluation (for my PhD), I appreciate the deep scholarship necessary and associated with the cultural interpretive sciences. On the other hand, I am delighted as a Certified Market Research Professional (CMRP) with over 20 years away from academe that what could be considered a preoccupation with lived-experience — the customer experience trend — has hit the corporate world. This I believe has opened the C-Suite to ethnographic research.

    I wonder if the debate might turn more productively away from academic versus corporate and more towards the ‘hermeneutic turn’ — the need and difficulty for both academic and corporate researcher to ‘bracket’ their own ethnicity or world-views as they interpret the business world? For example, I was delighted with the idea of the September semester system as a dialectical force structuring the practice of ethnographic field research. At the same time in the corporate world, the fiscal yearly budget cycles and quarterly reporting demands have a dramatic effect on research time-frames – the construction of knowledge.

    As another, specific example, I have observed repeatedly how the sense-making of corporations is (not surprisingly) impacted by the disciplinary orientation of the executives. The engineering dominated firms (think Microsoft and Petro-Chemical), versus the financial (banking and insurance), versus the medical and pharmacological, etc. They have demonstrably different (business) world views.

    There are insightful critiques of business schools that elaborate the influence of the symbiotic relationship with corporate management practice: reciprocal legitimation and reproduction. Is there a place in such schools for ethnographic, anthropological or sociological disciplines? Since MBA’s decidedly fill the positions of marketing research — or at least the upper rungs of the CMO reporting structure — if the business schools do not sensitise post-graduates to the underlying rigour of the interpretive sciences, how will business folk know what ‘sucks’ and doesn’t?

    In short I think that the dichotomy between academic and corporate might detract from the welcome influence of these rich disciplines into the organisations and institutions that dominate the every-day working and consumer lives of oh so many people.

    • Sam Ladner
      January 24, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

      Hi Stephen,

      thank you for the thoughtful comment! You are right, of course, that this is not a “corporate” v. “academic” debate. If I were to do a deeper analysis of this, I would say it is an epistemological schism.

      In my observations, albeit unsystematic, the corporate world is facing an epistemological crisis: quantitative representations of problems (and solutions) constrain potential paths. In Heideggerian terms, I would say that tools of representation (MS Excel, charts, Power Point) “enframe” the reality to be one of minute tweaks of existing conditions. This is problematic because there is nothing left to cut from the supply chain. There is no more Six Sigma can do — we cannot eliminate enough waste or errors to see a significant contribution to the bottom line.

      The current corporate landscape requires a much more radical rethink, one that cannot be revealed with quantitative tools of representation. Hence the turn to ethnography and other symbolically rich representational forms (such as semiotics, for instance). And, you’re right — they are not ready to assess the quality of these types of representational forms. Business schools are not sensitising their graduates to these alternative forms, in part because business schools, unlike social sciences in general, did not experience their own “crisis of representation” in the postmodern turn.

      In business schools, modernism still reigns. A notable exception is Critical Management Studies, of which I’m a huge fan, but this is largely UK-based and has yet to make in-roads into North America. Here in Toronto, York University’s Schulich School of Business has done a good job promoting Consumer Culture Theory and I hope that continues.

      Thank you for elevating the discussion, Stephen! I truly enjoyed reading and responding!

  11. Agnes - student in User Centered Design
    February 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Hi, I am a user centered design student, and really found this post interesting. 🙂
    I was interested in the point that you made about time: you said that academy is more oriented towards the past, while companies are more present/future oriented.
    I see this really happening in the case of design, where we’re always striving for innovation, products of the future, and so on.

    I am currently working on a project to try and reuse old user research video footage in new contexts, and I would like to ask you: how would you see an engagement of design companies with the past?

    Design is based on practices and somehow intends to affects these practices. But these develop in a span of time, and transform and are transformed by products. Therefore,
    I would find it necessary for designers and companies to also sometimes “take a look back”.

    How do companies approach this aspect?
    Wouldn’t it be maybe useful somehow to try and develop a more reflective attitude on this? Design, in some cases, can have huge impacts on society, but it seems to me that designers think more in terms of “isolated interventions”: a series of single cases, projects with clear boundaries and there seems to be no real interest in their consequences.

    While it’s logic that companies need “thin” (and quick) descriptions, instead of the traditional “thick” ones of ethnography, and it’s not possible to to a one year long user research for a product, wouldn’t it be possible to find a compromise and sometimes look back?
    In my case I am trying to see what happens just looking again and what has been done, re-framing old footage maybe for an evaluation, a reflection… but would it be fruitful to search for some other ways in your opinion?

    • Sam Ladner
      February 4, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

      Hi Agnes,

      thanks for commenting.

      I think there are many ways designers can honour and reflect upon the past, though they are not typically trained to do so. One way is to know the history of an object, its social position, and its industry or category. Take for example, the car industry. A car designer who knows nothing of the tumultuous history of car-making would be doing a disservice to the product.

      So I like to know the “lay of the land” and how this object came to be, or how this industry came to be, or some of the institutional histories and stories of the stakeholders. When I do this with designers, I almost never make this an “official” deliverable because I find it’s often rejected as irrelevant. But that history matters, so I usually weave it into my personas or the end report.


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