Criteria for Practicing Consumer Anthropology?

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

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3 responses to “Criteria for Practicing Consumer Anthropology?

  1. This is a debate that a friend and ex-colleague of mine have had several times. One of us has a background in anthropology but asserts, as you do, that that training isn’t essential for what we do (and certainly no gaurantee of being good at it) whilst the other has a background in engineering and has grown into the field of user centered design and “consumer anthropology”, constantly yearning for the missing academic foundation. We both appreciate each other’s background more than our own!

  2. I posted this on your LinkedIn post but I thought I’d copy it here as well for your readers.

    Here’s my story -and I’d love to know others. I started with a basis of cultural studies as my undergraduate degree and made my life about putting myself (sometimes unconsciously) in situations and around people where I’d learn something and experience something I wouldn’t if I just sort of did what was in front of me – met people along the way who emerged from school and jobs I had. I was a writer and an entrepreneur as well as a consultant – so I was out of the office structure for a long time. I think that is paramount. To sort of be a rogue reporter, a wanderer who steps in and out of environments. I also had a keen interest in business, entrepreneurship and solving problems. So I connected the two. I had ’empathy’ for both. I kept learning and reading without going to graduate school. (I went to an undergrad that WAS mostly a graduate school so my background might not work if this was not the case – I went to the New School). If you stay in academia too long, you get caught up in dogma and rhetoric and lose the plot. Though I do love academia, I think it can be really a diversion. You can be too much of an academic and on the other hand, be too much of a showman with no real basis or humility. I think you have to constantly be open, be learning, be curious, take risks, and read read read, watch watch watch, and then connect. I think you either have it or you don’t. A way with people. It can’t be forced or ego-driven. It can’t be overly self-conscious.

    Next, discover with your client. Third, never adhere to a rule book, keep your processes loose and check your preconceptions at the door.

    I went in backwards. I could never imagine intending to have the job role of curious person who can decipher and translate and it work out. That’s just my personal experience with ‘consumer insights’ (a term that leaves me cold as I try to just understand people and make nuances, discovery, and change usable for making things and providing services).

  3. It is wonderful to see that Applied or Practical anthropology is gaining currency in the discipline. Having spend a lifetime as a practicing anthropologist wearing different titles and in different context, I’ve learned that the “cockiness” of branding anthropology can often stand in the way of doing anthropology. Having taught consumer behavior, I found that business students, undergraduates and graduate students, could careless about the labels. They want to know what it takes to sell a product, get a job and what tools work. As an anthropologist who practices as a teacher, consultant and coach, I try to infuse my students and clients with a perspective that leaves room for the qualitative dimension of understanding the role of the consumer as it is played out in different social and cultural context. The critical point is for the client to take and appreciate the “others” point of view. It is here where the ethnographic method becomes meaningful and where the student and client can see where the academic and practical meet.

    For Patrick: One of the most insightful applied anthropologists I ever had the privilege to work with was an Atomic Engineer who learned his anthropology from an understand graduate library assistant.

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