When looking at professional practice in any field, it is often the case that as at the junior levels you spend all of your time practicing…”paying your dues” working long hours and learning your trade / craft / profession. Upon development of significant expertise, you begin to manage others and take a little bit of the “grunt work” off of your plate, so that eventually you can sit pretty at an executive level and spend most of your time “supervising”, “directing” and otherwise dispatching sage wisdom to those who are up and coming.
In research organizations and especially in client organizations, it seems that the more senior you are, the less time you spend in field…actual practice and interaction with consumers becomes secondary to your day-to-day executive management of business strategy. You develop processes, publish, attend industry events and,for the most part, rely on others with more youthful energy to go out and do the work of data collection, analysis and insight generation.
In Consumer Anthropology, which is only recently (in the past couple of decades) starting to truly mainstream in research practice for consumer products / brands and other commercial / social enterprise, I wonder if this same pattern will apply to those pioneers who have been shaping the discipline.
Fieldwork is exhausting. Long hours / days / weeks / months away from home. Living out of suitcases and spending your days exuding energy and enthusiasm with research participants, strategically working through research objectives laid out in field guides, as well as listening and observing to collect data from several sources simultaneously (language, behavior, environment).
It is also extremely energizing and rewarding. It connects us with the human energy and sociocultural realities that create the patterns we are identifying and applying to our client’s business. It helps us truly understand and be able to predict patterns of cultural change in a way that can’t be fully understood through quantitative methodologies alone. It helps us develop new ways to customize our approaches data generation and collection based on observed practices in human communication.
It is why practice is necessarily an essential part of any thought leader’s day-to-day in this space. I know it is why it will always be a part of mine.
As I have been simultaneously treading and charting my path as The Brand Sherpa, this has been a dilemma I have wrestled with. For about a decade now I have spend the majority of time in field. When I was working full time I would often get frustrated by the rigorious pace of work that kept me from furthering my pursuit of knowledge (from the academic sphere, from peers, from the industry) as well as being able to document process and educate / inspire other researchers who were just beginning to learn the practice.
After spending over a year on my own, I have learned to truly appreciate the freedom I have had to learn, read, write, share, interact, network and truly inspire others while taking on a less exhausting schedule of fieldwork.
I have also had the opportunity to spend time analyzing years of data generated from client-side experience on how to most efficiently customize work depending onthe culture of a client organization. In addition to that, I have been learning a great deal from my peers (thanks to active dialogs on social networking sites liked LinkedIn) about the path to understanding we all take in brand strategy / innovation / consumer research spaces.
It has been nothing short of invigorating. I look forward to next steps where I can actually make the time to spend at Industry conferences learning from others and sharing my point of view. I also look forward to the opportunity to help this practice grow, whether on my own or at a respected research organization with the talent, resources and desire to innovate.
That being said, there is one thing I know for certain. I will NEVER give up fieldwork. Given the empathetic nature of this profession, it would be a grave misstep to think that evolution can come from spending all my time learning, writing, speaking and managing. In order to INSPIRE, which is a core priority for my journey, It is critical to stay grounded in practice.
I am hoping that the pioneers who have preceded and inspired my journey and those who will follow chose the same path. I am interested to hear from others who have a point of view on our continually emerging field of consumer research via Consumer Anthropology.