Separating Consumer Anthropology From Traditional Qualitative

So what’s the difference between a focus group, an-in home, a shop-along and an Ethnography?  Well, nothing if you are using the same approaches and techniques in all of them.  I have found that much of these consumer research practices, whether done in a focus group room or in someone’s “natural habitat” are much the same in that researchers tend to still rely on response-based data collection to get at meaningful insights…a fatal flaw.

In Consumer Anthropology, an umbrella term I use to describe a robust and custom set of insight gathering tools based on culture, behavior, attitudes and values…the world is your data set, not just what comes out of consumers mouths.

I have spent years revisiting and tweaking and customizing approaches to try and get deeper, bigger implications out of consumer research and found that the more diverse the data set is, the better.  When i speak of diversity in this sense i am specifically referring to the types of data collected, and from whom.

To give some examples of what i feel separates consumer anthropology (as I and many other trained social scientists practice it) from traditional qualitative and to spur further discussion, here are some thoughts:

The Sample: (can include any or all of the following, depending on project scope):

  • Passionate / Leading Edge consumers:  those who exist in the “influencer” realm
  • Mainstream consumers:  to understand how culture gets communicated and adopted from the “influencer” realm as well as from media
  • Tangential Experts:  thinkers and doers with a right to a point of view on the client-focused objectives:  from the clients category or those that operate in spaces that may influence that category
  • Professional marketers: YES…marketing and advertising professionals are humans and consumers too!  And they can offer a unique consumer-culture based perspective when seeking innovative solutions.  Oftentimes market research dismisses these types flat out, assuming their bias will hinder the research.  this isn’t always the case.

Data Collection methods:

  • Response-based group discussions (among complete strangers, groups of friendship pairs, or peer groups).  This type of data collection should be used to gain consensus on pre-explored topics / hypotheses and FOCUS on specific topics at a surface level
  • Response-based one on one discussions:  to get at deeper look at attitudes, values,  motivations and behaviors.  Should be reserved for discussion with influencer or those most passionate, articulate and iconic of a consumer target group
  • Ethnographic immersion:  one on one or among a family / subculture group.  Data collected here includes observational data of behavior and context as well as discussion probes.  Spend at least half a day.  An hour in someone’s kitchen will only get you bits and pieces of information (unless this tool is combined with other types of data collection)
  • Metaphor elicitation:  asking participants to create collages of words and imagery around a specific topic gives you a whole new data set and allows the research participant to be able to think more critically and abstractly about a topic.  usually assigned as homework
  • Ethnographic Photo Essays:  directed, consumer generated photography of their lives.  Often related to the client objective (i.e. a week in the life of their car, beverage consumption in context)
  • Semiotic analysis:  of packaging, media, retail environments.  Pattern recognition in visual stimulus can add an entirely new layer of information and help innovation teams understand residual, dominant and emerging codes of communication in a cultural space.

I would love to hear some other perspectives from the insight community on where they see as the distinctions between qualitative and consumer anthropology….and where they see value in each.


5 responses to “Separating Consumer Anthropology From Traditional Qualitative

  1. Very useful nuances, all of them. However, the most useful seem to be these two statements –
    1. Response based data collection is a fatal flaw.
    2. The world is your data set, not just what comes out of your consumer’s mouths.
    If you ( researcher ) sets a narrow question and poses it to to a targeted group, the die is already cast from a mindset, for a mindset.
    Once you get your approach from as open a look as is possible, a validation or fleshing out of same is advisable from a specific group.
    Alok Asthana
    +91 9821677859

  2. Fully agree with many of your observations. Multi sourcing is needed but still needs to be structured in a way that makes sense in a way people can relate to it. Reality is that we need to look at people on different levels of sense making and also accept that people are both guided by their sense making strategies and influenced by their emotional, affective and cognitive though structures which are not always easily accessible.

    We are super signifiers as people in many roles and our existential, affective and practical reality shapes how we give and take meaning out of things and relationships.

    Our world views, our points of views and our viewing lenses are inter connected but are not the same. Our world views as shaped by the beliefs we have about our abilities to perform in live, or certain dimensions of life. Our points of view only make sense within these worldviews and position you, and finally our viewing lenses (also called deep metaphors by Zaltman and co) or original category ideas by Plato, offer priming contexts to propositions.

    In essence all qualitative and quantitative methods are sense making techniques which on their own mean little if the sense maker cannot connect worldviews, points of view and viewing categories together in a meaningful manner. We need a human frame of reference with the capacities of empathy, sincerity and imagination to get to meaningful value creation.

    But obviously this is only my point of view

  3. Hi-

    This is a really great post. I’m working on my Master’s Thesis which is engaging a lot of these techniques.

    However, taking a look at our society today don’t you think there needs to be an element of web presence analysis? Perhaps taking a look at how the consumer uses twitter and Facebook and how integrated it is in their lives. Where do you think this fits into the world of Consumer Anthropology?

    So happy to have found your blog!


    • I think you are absolutely correct. A web presence is essential, specifically looking at virtual spaces and how humans interact with one another as well as brands in those spaces…the same way you would in the physical world.

      A couple of different ways to think about this: First: asessing data (dialogues, tweets, facebook pages, etc.) and secondly using the the internet and mobile communication technology to “crowd source” custom data.

      It’s something i have been playing close attention to of late. will probably blog on it shortly. 🙂

      Thanks for opening up that conversation!

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