Every once in a while I get an unexpected glimpse into how others see ethnographic thinking and what makes it so valuable. This is a story about one of those moments.

I was conducting fieldwork in Los Angeles with a team of two other anthropologists, and we were on a break between field visits. The three of us decided to have lunch with a mutual friend at a local restaurant. As we settled in with our drinks, the waiter came back to socialize before taking our order and asked us how our day was going. One of our team members mentioned “fieldwork” in the course of conversation to which the waiter responded, “What do you mean?” My colleague added, “We’re anthropologists.” The waiter, confused, said, “Like digging up bones?” To which our friend responded, “No, not that kind of anthropologists. They’re cultural anthropologists. These people ask questions for a living.”

Years later, the way our friend described what we do continues to resonate with me. Much of the value ethnographic thinking offers boils down to asking skillfully crafted questions in one form or another. Of course, the aim and purpose of those inquiries can vary widely, but overall it is this ongoing curiosity—often about matters that are seemingly commonplace to others—that generates the data needed to develop insights that connect individual behaviors to broader cultural phenomena.

In applied settings, these questions help bring the voice of the customer to an organization, of courseMuch of this value is rooted in the ways ethnographers continually navigate between insider and outsider status in their work. This allows them to empathize with many different people while their analytical detachment provides broader perspective. And, because they’re always focused on both cultural context and deep understanding, they’re able to identify the meaning and importance that interactions embedded within social systems have on people’s lives.

Just as importantly, ethnographic thinking also raises questions that frame an organization’s challenges in cultural terms by offering alternative lenses, and cross-pollinating perspectives between differing views. For example, at a macro level, the questions ethnographers ask can help organizations understand how flows between cultures (customer cultures, company/organizational cultures, stakeholder cultures, and influencer cultures, etc.) interact to inform how their offerings are perceived. Answers to these questions allow organizations to step outside their internal assumptions and see themselves in cultural contexts so that they can craft strategies adapted to the ‘real-world’ cultural dynamics that influence their market.

These modes of inquiry that ethnographers bring to their work are so deeply embedded in their thinking you could argue that they might exist on some subconscious level—it simply becomes part of how they think about the world. They’re always asking why, always probing to understand dynamics and interactions, and the value they produce nearly always expands the scope of the original brief. Returning to the story of our friend who so eloquently described the ethnographic mindset, I think I would only edit one part of her description, by re-phrasing it to: “These people also ask questions as a way of living.”