For more than a decade now, we’ve witnessed the rising popularity of ethnographic methods in a wide range of settings. From designers to computer scientists to marketing specialists, many now realize that ethnographic insights can drive the successful development of new products, services, and systems from the customer’s perspective.

As an anthropologist, it’s encouraging to see ethnographic methods transform how professionals of all stripes innovate. However, many in my field, including me, have expressed concern about the ways in which these broader uses of ethnographic methods often fail to recognize the greater value of ethnographic thinking and the ways it goes beyond simply identifying “user needs.”

While I believe this is a legitimate concern, I want to pause and change the conversation. I want to shift the the way we talk about appropriating ethnographic methods from one that reinforces notions of disciplinary gatekeeping to one that extends the influence of anthropologists and professional ethnographers. I want to change the dialog from one centered within a protectionist mindset to one that embraces a mentoring mindset; from a focus on pedigree to a focus on coaching; and from a disposition of insiders to one of crusaders who champion the power that ethnographic thinking can provide.

So how do we do this?

First, it’s worth recognizing a few simple truths. Not everyone who practices ethnography is an anthropologist (nor should the be). Practicing ethnography doesn’t make you an anthropologist (and that’s OK). And, finally, practicing ethnography shapes the mind in ways that have inherent value (both personal and professional). I expand on this final claim much further in Ethnographic Thinking, but for the purposes of this post I want to identify those traits using the following table of what I call key traits of ethnographic thinking:

Continual CuriosityImmersive LearningHolistic Analysis
Expanded AwarenessTactical FacilitationSystems Thinking
Deferred JudgementDiligent DocumentationSituational Insight
Thoughtful AdaptationLayered ListeningEmpathic Storytelling

Now, did most of these traits gain professional value within the discipline of anthropology as it developed ethnographic practice? Yes. Do anthropologists need to “own” them to ensure their professional relevance? No. Indeed, I argue that everyone can benefit from this growing interest in ethnographic practice, and that anthropologists are uniquely positioned to lead and structure the use of the practice that originated in our discipline. And, if anthropologists are unhappy with poor adaptations or misuses of ethnography, the question should be: What should an ethnography of X look like? What broader strategic thinking should be brought to bear to demonstrate how ethnographic thinking provides more than a list of customer needs?

Paying Homage to Our Ancestors

There is actually a clear precedent for the kind of leadership I’m calling for here. One need only look as far as Franz Boas (largely recognized as the “Father of American Anthropology”) for his work at the American Museum of Natural History. While there, he was instrumental in shifting the conception of race from one of evolutionary hierarchies of different cultures, to a definition of culture as a “community of emotional life that arises from our everyday habits.” He did this in a number of ways, perhaps most notably by changing the way artifacts were displayed at the museum: from objects ordered by type along a master evolutionary narrative to objects organized and displayed within their cultural contexts.

Margaret Mead (a student of Boas) was also a critical figure in efforts to shape both professional and popular understandings of how we approach the study of human cultures, including the broader value it provides. While she was particularly prolific in her accomplishments in this regard (see Margaret Mead, The Making of An American Icon, below), one of her most commonly recognized achievements was to drastically shift childrearing practices in the United States based on insights on the topic from field work in American Samoa and Bali. Her influence extended as far as changing the recommendations of childrearing expert, Dr. Spock, whose appreciation for Mead’s ethnographic insight led him to recommend abandoning Western traditions of more ‘rigid’ practices in favor of on-demand breastfeeding and affection.

Whether they would recognize it or not, both Mead and Boas were key figures in efforts to help those outside the discipline understand and utilize the benefits of ethnographic thinking. Mead didn’t expect Dr. Spock to become an anthropologist (or even an ethnographer), but she did help shape important constructs for his thinking about different cultures, provided unique cross-cultural insights, and brought ethnographic insight to bear for him and many other practitioners, policymakers, and influencers.

But what about today?

Ethnographers compelled to convey the value of the practice beyond identifying user needs can begin my making some key shifts of our own. First, we can change the vernacular surrounding contemporary applied uses of ethnography from one that begins by asking comfortable questions to one that challenges safe assumptions in ways that re-frame the value of the practice. So, for example, instead of simply asking “do you really know your customer?” we might also ask:

  • “Do you know which norms, customs, and dynamics work for or against innovation within your organization’s internal culture?”
  • “Do you have a deep understanding of the stakeholder cultures you need to navigate and the pathways you need to create within them to drive customer-centered innovations into the marketplace?”
  • “Are you thinking beyond the obvious and benefitting from cultural understandings of analogous domains to inspire new ways of thinking?”

These prompts are just a few examples of the kinds of questions ethnographers can ask that are designed to encourage organizations to take a more holistic view of innovation and how it can benefit from ethnographic thinking. The ultimate goal is to serve the customer better, of course. However, without understanding and appreciating the full range of other cultural considerations that have direct bearing on how innovations find their way to customers, great ideas can (and do) get lost. This full range approach is something I call full spectrum insight, a process by which the ethnographic lens is aimed at all significant influences and influencers that are part of the innovation process:

Facilitating Mindset Shifts

Ethnographers can also ask other strategic questions that change the way organizations approach challenges and leverage more holistic understandings of culture to do so. For example, below we see two instances of how ethnographers might alter dialog to help teams re-think how queries are constructed: from being merely inquisitive to being fully curious:

Similarly, we can shift a team’s approach to solving challenges by opening up mindsets and transforming the process from a constrained (and constraining) one, to an adaptive one:

And, finally, we can shift the disposition with which teams convey their insights, so that they prioritize their listener’s cultural contexts to connect ethnographic insights to those listeners’ motivations, values, interests, and plights:

These are the kinds of techniques that demonstrate how ethnographic thinking can transform how everyone advances innovation, constructs queries, approaches challenges, and conveys their insights. If we’re going to continue to see increased appropriation of ethnography, let’s lead the charge in this direction, at these levels of strategic input, to stimulate these kinds of mindset shifts. I’d wager Boas and Mead would approve.

[This post is summary of a presentation given at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings on March 20, 2019 in a session titled Increasing the Impact of Anthropologists Beyond the Academy, chaired by Inga Grub]. You can listen to an audio recording of the session here.