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Guide to consumer immersion

Hy Mariampolski has written a book on ethnography that is both practical and timely, but is its focus too narrow?

Clifford Geertz, the eminent American anthropologist, once gave the following piece of advice: “If you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do.”

Readers of Hy Mariampolski’s Ethnography for Marketers will be taking Geertz’s suggestions to heart, for this is a book that is rich in practical insight and guidance on how to conduct ethnographic research, but is generally sparing in its theoretical detail.

This focus on the practical, as opposed to the theoretical, commends the book to a wide readership. Despite the apparent certainty of the title, however, the book’s intended audience is not entirely clear. Is it for absolute beginners, your average qualitative researcher, or for the marketers (our presumed clients) themselves? The answer is that all three will find something useful.

The bulk of the book is a ‘How to’, which outlines, often in relentless detail, how an ethnography project is set up, managed and conducted. For seasoned researchers who want to include ethnographic research within their portfolio, a significant proportion of the central sections of the book will be very useful (e.g. the observation guides and respondent orientation) and others fairly self-evident (e.g. recruitment).

Some material states the obvious: “Project planning should consider the extra time required to organise and implement field visits as well as the time required for data review and thoughtful analysis. Good thinking cannot be rushed”, (p.52). Indeed.

Yet there is useful information buried here that will be welcomed by field managers and researchers alike, even if finding it requires some patience. The eight appendices, covering different aspects of an ethnographic project, are a useful resource too, as is the section on ‘How to ask a question’, with hints for verbal and non-verbal techniques for digging deeper.

This focus on the practical and logistical is understandable but it betrays a common confusion as to what ethnography is, its roots and how this informs what we do as researchers and what we give our clients. Mariampolski seems to be writing about one aspect of ethnography, the act of doing fieldwork, focusing almost exclusively on being in the field.

Ethnography, however, is as much about interpretation, the post-fieldwork-fieldwork, as it is conducting participant observation. Ethnographers can draw on a wide body of literature, concepts and intellectual tools that allow them to make sense of their experiences. It is the ‘making sense’ that is the productive, valuable activity and what clients pay researchers to do.

To focus so strongly on the fieldwork seems to me to reveal the dynamics of the market research industry itself: namely ‘fetishise’ the method, commodify it and then sell it by the unit. Ethnography offers the opportunity to sell thinking not research, but this book offers little in the way of insight into how to think ethnographically. Indeed, the ‘Observation/ Debriefing notes’ (p.233-4) reveal little that I wouldn’t expect to glean from doing groups, underlining the fact that there is a critical difference between doing ethnographic research and writing or thinking ethnographically.

Most qualitative researchers can probably appreciate the difficulty in writing about the methods, styles and skills used by ethnographers to interpret their data and the author does make some effort to present a series of tools and concepts for thinking about the fieldwork encounter. He notes (p.129) that “ethnographers should be conversant with perspectives drawn from psychology, sociology, anthropology…” To my mind, though, he fails to provide those perspectives to readers.

The emergence of disagreements about what ethnography is and who can do it is a sure sign that it has reached the status of orthodoxy within market research. My own reading of this book is, itself, a reflection of my own academic and professional biases and presuppositions (I’m an anthropologist).

This book will undoubtedly find a niche, appealing to those wanting to know more about ethnography and how to do it (the fieldwork, that is). I would, however, end by making one polemical point. Mariampolski refers throughout to ‘consumers’: that breed of people who seemingly do nothing but clean their stoves, prepare meals and make brand-driven decisions.

One promise of ethnography is that it can restore some of the intricacies, contradictions and subjectivity that most market research narratives seem intent on obscuring. If ethnography is about one thing it’s about recognising that people are more than just consumers; their lives are more multi-faceted. If we’re going to understand people on their terms then let’s ditch our language and start adopting theirs.

Ethnography for Marketers by Hy Mariampolski is published by Sage (ISBN 0-7619-6942-2 hardback, 0-7619-6947 paperback, £55 and £16.99)


Simon Roberts
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005