Because “traditional” qualitative research (e.g. focus groups, IDIs) has seen a renaissance toward more academically oriented and human-focused techniques, Consumer Anthropology and ethnography have risen to the foreground of market research. Most top qualitative suppliers now also have ethnography specialties or some sort of anthropological offering.
I think at first I and other academically trained social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists, et. al.) were taken aback by what seemed to be the beginnings of an era of commodification of social research. It seemed like anyone who had a career as a focus group moderator was now a practiced ethnographer and the industry was flipping jargon and semantics around to qualify the unqualified to capitalize on industry buzzwords.
I find bitterness to be distasteful, so i decided to seek first to understand. 😉
First I thought, “what sets me apart as someone who IS an academically trained anthropologist and sociologist from someone who is not, but has a qualitative background? The answer: knowledge of theory and research methods translated into an applied space. The fact: theory and research methods can be learned and understood by committing some time to reading, understanding, having dialogues with peers and testing the waters in a real-world circumstance through everyday existence. Therefore…academic training does not uniquely qualify me beyond any others to call myself a Consumer Anthropologist. It puts anyone practicing in this field ahead of the game, but does not make entry into the club inaccessible by any means.
Second, a good Consumer Anthropologist or Ethnographer ( I distinguish the two, as an Ethnographer is a practitioner of ethnography and a consumer anthropologist practices a more holistic approach to research….see previous blogs for explanation) must be motivated by a desire to seek empathy. Social science is not rocket science, but it is distinctly human, which can be even more tricky…since there are not necessarily any formulas that can give us the answer. Empathy takes work. It means that one has to become a truly objective research instrument, remove ethnocentrism from their operating perspective and be willing and able to absorb and analyze human data. This calls for participant observation. It calls for a level of “cool” that allows you to slip into research participant’s world in a way that makes them profoundly comfortable and causes as little disruption as possible. It calls for keen listening skills, powers of observation and ability to see the patterns in the details that go unspoken.
The most important qualification for a good consumer anthropologist, however, is energy, passion and thirst for human understanding. Those who are best at this line of work are like routing dogs in their unstoppable desire to find the right answers. They will dig anywhere and get creative about crafting solutions in order to get to true understanding. They are not bound by what exists. They understand the value of existing methodologies and can identify gaps where necessary to propose hybrid methodologies that will best get at the objective at hand.
I have seen a few different “types” of folks that fit the bill with regard to the above qualifications. First, the young college grads (yes, even those with bachelors degrees) who are hungry to seek meaning and willing to try anything. They bring an intelligence and energy to the practice we all could use a little of every day. Younger generations are also profoundly more empathetic by nature, i find. They were trained that way. 😉 I have also seen a great deal of seasoned qualitative researchers or even academics who have a passion for a deeper level of understanding. The combined years of experience in research practice along with a passion for learning a new way are an ideal combination. I also find that the wisdom and lack of “cockiness” that comes with age makes empathy easier and ability to sift through the noise a lot more fine tuned.
This is all my opinion, of course. I would really like to hear more from the research public on their thoughts. I sincerely seek first to understand and would like to hear what my peers think