[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George. It is the second in a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel’s previous post here.]
Anthropology as a discipline and ethnography as a set of practices enjoyed a period of heightened popularity in the world of market research in the U.S. from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. During that time, anthropology was seen as the “next big thing,” a new, improved way of understanding the behaviors and motivations of consumers. Stories about the special insights that ethnography could bring offer abounded in the popular press, trade journals, and even on NPR’s Motley Fool radio show. Advertising firms and makers of consumer goods touted ethnography’s ability to offer a more authentic and deeper view of consumer attitudes and practices. These enhanced understandings, it was promised, would enable ad agencies and product manufacturers to target new markets, develop new products, transform their brand image, and, ultimately, sell more snacks and widgets. My entry into this landscape was a function of chance; I earned my PhD in cultural anthropology in 2002, during anthropology’s hottest corporate moment. Newly credentialed, on the academic job market, and broke, I was more than a little interested when an anthropologist friend in similar (actually, identical) circumstances told me about a small consumer research firm that was hiring anthropologists to “do ethnographies” on consumer habits. For the next three years on and off, I worked for this small outfit and, with teams of other anthropologists and videographers, helped produce ethnographic videos and reports on products ranging from snack and convenience foods to appliances to phamaceuticals. This snapshot of that work is not meant as expose, but rather an account of what ethnography signified and looked like in that context. It not an entirely negative story. To be sure, much substance can be lost when knowledge is produced under such instrumentalizing constraints and conditions. But to my surprise, this interlude furnished gains beyond the adjunct-salary-shaming paycheck. I’m still not sure that what my colleagues and I produced were ethnographies per se, but the experience, as I’ll explain, has expanded how I imagine the possibilities of ethnographic research and intellectual collaboration.
Before proceeding, though, I should clarify two points: 1) while the period I speak of was a particularly fertile one for consumer ethnography, the relationship between anthropology and advertising has a long history; and 2) I’m no expert on the field of consumer research. Indeed, the fact that neither my anthropologist colleagues nor I at the consumer research firm had extensive training or experience in that area is a function of the “boom” moment during which firms expanded their staffs beyond consumer research experts to hire graduates students and newly-minted PhDs. For an account of the character of this moment in the context of the relationship between ethnography and consumer research, Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny’s 2007 volume Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research is an essential resource that expertly spans theory and practice. In chronicling the history of anthropology in marketing and the corporate sector in general, the authors point out that the relationship between advertising and social science is nothing new. It is, they assert, at least as old as Madison Avenue’s love affair with Freudian depth psychology. Sunderland and Denny also indicate what ethnographic consumer research can aspire to in the long haul, pointing out that while the ethnography boom in advertising and marketing may have passed, blue chip Madison Avenue firms have retained in-house anthropologists, and, in some cases, entire ethnographic research departments, well-versed in cultural analysis.
That said, what did ethnography look like in the corner of consumer research I inhabited in the boomlet years of the early 2000s? The outfit I worked for (which, incidentally, no longer exists) was small but led by an experienced and well-connected marketing professional who was able to secure contracts with major corporate clients. The clients would hire the firm to design and carry out research (“ethnographies”) meant to give information (“insights”) into consumer’s thoughts, feelings and practices related to a particular type of product. Once hired by the corporate client, the firm paired anthropologists with videographers to go into the homes of pre-screened consumers and interview, observe, and film them going about aspects of their daily lives relevant to the product or topic the client wished to investigate. Sometimes the themes came from our own observation; more often, they were determined by the client (or at least were the result of negotiation with the client). On average, the duration of our stay in the home was about 4-5 hours and was divided between interviews and activities, e.g., washing dishes; throwing together a quick meal; or exercising through the pain that the client’s newly-patented pharmaceutical could alleviate. After each encounter in the field, the anthropologist would write up fieldnotes, review the raw footage of interviews and activities, and code both according to theme. These themes then acted as templates for the short quasi-documentaries and Powerpoint presentations (the deliverables) we produced for the client. The term “ethnography” was somewhat slippery and ill-defined in this context, but the use of the term “video ethnography” was consistently used to denote the mini-documentaries we produced along with the videographers (also contract workers) and the in-house video editor. The time span for each project was often as short a couple of weeks and rarely longer than a month from start to finish, meaning there were many 10-hour days either in the field or in front of a video monitor selecting and organizing snippets of footage.
This intense foray into market anthropology was fairly short-lived for me (less than a few years), and problematic on several fronts. First, while my anthropology PhD got me the job, this work was not at all what I had envisioned for myself. The fact that I could earn as much in four days of market ethnography as I could in four months of adjuncting (which I was also doing at this time) only problematized things further. Second, I wasn’t so sure I felt great about some of the products we were helping to sell (mostly the pills, but also some of the snacks). Perhaps the biggest conflict of all, as I somewhat guiltily admitted when asked about my “corporate gigs,” was that I actually really liked the work itself. The satisfaction I derived from it came largely from the fact that it was everything that writing up a dissertation was not: quick, collaborative, and relatively lucrative. Working with the videographer and film editors to make the video ethnographies was fun and creative in a completely different way than conducting my own research. In comparison to the inherently isolating process of writing a dissertation, working with the other anthropologists to compile and analyze our findings offered an experience of collaborative knowledge production that was incredibly refreshing. As I said, it’s arguable whether or not what we produced were ethnographies. I think by many definitions they weren’t, although they did employ a version of ethnographic methods and benefitted from anthropological ways of thinking about patterns of behavior and how groups of people make and see meaning in their daily lives. Nonetheless, these experiences generated new skills and modes of working, not to mention an insider’s look into a range of corporate modes of thinking and operating. For example, approaching the field with an eye to creating video documentation has made me more attuned of the visual and aural aspects of fieldwork. And the process of working as part of a team with a clearly-defined, shared goal is a situation I’d like to recreate in future work. Ultimately, though, I think of this interlude in terms of how I might bring the knoweldge and skills gained there into my “own” work, which for me still means original research and teaching. In keeping with the theme of precarity and ethnographic production, then, I wonder how skills and ways of thinking gained or honed in a less-than-ideal setting may get translated and used in others in ways that ultimately enrich our practice and production of ethnography.
Laurel George is an adjunct assistant professor in New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Gallatin Division, as well as a humanities scholar with The Paul Taylor Dance Company. She received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Rice University in 2002.