Marketing Ethnography

Marketing ethnography, not selling it, but doing it in order to sell things, is profiled in _The Atlantic_’s [“Anthropology, Inc.”][1] The adaptation of ethnographic methods, “a movement to deploy social scientists on field research for corporate clients,” to market research seems pretty straightforward:

> The vodka giant Absolut had contracted with ReD to infiltrate American drinking cultures and report back on the elusive phenomenon known as the “home party.” This [party] was the latest in a series of home parties that Lieskovsky and her colleagues had joined in order to write an extended ethnographic survey of drinking practices, attempting to figure out the rules and rituals—spoken and unspoken—that govern Americans’ drinking lives, and by extension their vodka-buying habits.

The journalist somewhat tips his hand in his use of *infiltrate* — and later passages describe his “horror” at the intimacy that ethnographic methods can inculcate, but its otherwise an interesting read. For a time during my management development days, and occasionally since then, I toyed with the idea of trying to build a business around doing ethnographic research within organizations. For a time, I was going to do some of that kind of research on an open source project, and I may yet, but the problem with any kind of contracted research, different, I think, from sponsored research, is that ultimately you confront two possibilities:

1. You may not be able to do much with the work of your labor
apart from hand it over to your employer, which reveals, I
guess how tied I am to the idea that my production should
always remain within my control — as well as my fortune
that I remain in a position to do so (though the University
of Louisiana System seems hellbent on reversing that fortune)
2. You will, in all probability, have much control over the
outcomes of your research. For me, ethnography is a kind
of socratic literature: good people trying to do their
best given their circumstances. If there is a failing,
then it is a larger systemic failing. Few organizations
or few managers ever really want to take responsibility
for failure.

Those two things have always kept me from pursuing any kind of applied ethnography in the private sector, but, I confess, as the state and my university continue to try to squeeze faculty at every turn — through salaries, through removal of resources (travel budgets, library budgets, increasing inane travel restrictions) — I find myself both revisiting the basic idea and re-considering the concerns above.

Here is the fact of the matter: if we stay here, we will shortly not be able to afford to send out daughter to the private school she loves so much. We are not, in sending her to a private school, able to afford to save for retirement, or for her college fund, the way we should. (Which is to admit, not much at all.) This means two things:

1. find another job where the pay and benefits make it possible
to do those things, or
2. take on additional jobs.

Applied anthropology looks better and better in this light, and so like the quants who took over the stock market starting in the seventies when there were more physicists with advanced degrees than there were jobs, I wonder if we won’t see some similar transformations as we see more humanists and human scientists with advanced degrees than there are jobs.


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