‘Who are you?’ is a complex question. If we were to ask ethnographers and doctors, the answers might, on one level, display a number of similarities. Both try to understand a detailed case history of the person to find patterns of behaviour that diagnose a higher order need.

Doctors see that need as trying to figure out how the symptoms relate to the diagnosis. Ethnographers, meanwhile, view it as trying to understand how individuals’ choices and beliefs sit within the wider cultural discourse. Both are implicit, where hints need to be deciphered to work out what’s really going on. There is, of course, a big practical difference between the two: doctors normally have about 10 minutes to deal with this question, ethnographers (thankfully) rather longer.

It’s a question that almost deserves a trite answer, because it belittles the complexity of the issue. No qualitative researcher would ask the question because it’s not one that can be answered. Instead, qualitative researchers tap into people’s deep motivations, beliefs, attitudes and values, to uncover behaviour that lies below the conscious.

The premise

Getting people to discuss their identity is hard, and the answer is often overrationalised and mildly indulgent. It can also be an intruding topic of conversation in many cultures. So, if we want to understand identity, we need to find ways to bypass the rational and self-conscious self. And, in my work as an ethnographer, I’ve discovered one of the best ways to get people to talk about themselves is through the way in which they construct their home.

Whether it’s the travel magnets on the fridge which indicate how broad and enlightened someone is, or how they decorate their bedroom pointing to the importance a couple place on a relationship — these details are a reflection of personality and how people really view themselves. The home is cluttered with meaning that describes the construction of self. Essentially, it is a time capsule of a life; past, present and even a hint at the future.

Last year, the Ipsos Ethnography Centre of Excellence conducted a seven-market study focusing on How People Live, which was as broad as the title sounds (although the ultimate insight related back to the home furnishing category). This ethnographic study, going into the homes of over 90 different families to hear how they had furnished them, showed clear parallels between the cultural values that were intricately part of their national culture, and the way they lived in their homes.

At first sight, the homes we visited in Indonesia looked chaotic. There was ‘stuff’ everywhere. In cabinets, on display, and no free surface in sight. Indonesian values are traditionally collective, benevolent, and kind, meaning that giving and receiving gifts, large or small, are important moments to be treasured. And because each gift has meaning attached to it, Indonesians quickly build a large collection of ‘stuff’ at home.

We also noticed that people in Indonesian homes would sleep in whichever bed they came across — there might be three beds for three kids, but they didn’t really ‘own’ one bed each, they just slept in whichever one they fancied. So if you picture the Indonesian home where people don’t personally own anything, and where gifts and stuff are constantly exchanged, you find a personality that is caring, humble, and constantly looking for a good party!

By contrast, the Saudi Arabian home is much more ordered, and structured. The house is always divided into male and female sides, with strict rules about when women can enter the male side, and vice versa. Saudis will often have the same scriptures on the wall as each other, and when guests come around they will take down the family photos for fear of other people knowing too much about them. These cultural trappings have a huge influence on how people see themselves, leading to a much more serious personality, and a sense of self that is much more black and white about societal issues.

Another finding from the study was about the way in which a household learns to live together. If we recognise that people’s identities are formed and re-formed on an everyday basis, people also identify themselves in opposition (or similar) to other people. The way that people learn to live together in their home — whether as a growing family, a multi-generational home, or in a flat share — has an influence on how they see themselves.

China has seen some fascinating developments in the last 15 or so years. If new parents want to remain competitive in the job market, the grandparents will often move in with them. This is a double-edged sword: it offers freedom to new parents to go out and work (and party) hard, but living with your parents again also represents a lack of freedom.

This creates a fundamentally different sense of self for ‘new moms’, something that brands are taking advantage of. When Buick advertised its seven-seater SUV, it made it feel relevant through (cheekily) suggesting that when you go on holiday, you can also take the grandparents with you, so that you get some free babysitting while you’re away. A perfect example, if any was needed, of making a Western product relevant in China.

The ‘construction of self’ is hard to talk about as a point of general conversation because it is so broad that it is meaningless without context. People’s identities are expressed at every moment in life, so to describe your identity as a generality is either meaningless (I’m an open person), or too specific (I hate having a dirty kitchen).

It is people’s interaction with the world that helps them construct their own narratives about who they really are. And given that what they see, what they do and how they interact with others are entirely culturally dependent, the construction of self is a cultural construct. It’s impossible to simply sit down and explain it verbally.

The theory

Erving Goffman is the man everyone looks to in the social sciences world when talking about the construction of self. His Presentation of Self in Everyday Life suggests that life is a theatre, whereby all interactions are merely a performance that we think the audience will enjoy. Life is about conformity and pleasing others, not about shocking or offending your guests. Your performance is merely a projection of your real self.

While this performance is in full swing, somewhere in the wings lies the real self, the Director if you like, a consistent enigma that no one else can truly understand. There are a variety of performances that the real self can put on for different audiences, but they must ultimately be true to the real self who has a set of styles, principles and methods. The Director, in turn, gets feedback from the audience about whether the performance is going well or not, and can then tweak the performance to seek the desired applause.

This model may be more of a psychosocial explanation of interpersonal interaction, but the structure is directly applicable to the idea that the Director inside our heads operates within a cultural framework that they were brought up in, and stretches those cultural boundaries to personal taste during the performance. This means that the Universalist values in Indonesia allow people to drop in on each other at all times of day, whereas the values of Conformity and Tradition mean that house visits in Saudi Arabia are well planned and ritualised.

The watch-out: cultural marginalisation

People construct their sense of self in relation to other people’s reactions, and the latter are all set within a wider cultural framework. Our manners are great examples of this. In India, people eat with their fingers, whereas when children eat with their fingers in the UK they are told off. Whether you consider yourself to be dignified depends on how people react to you.

But what happens when the front of house performance that the Director so badly wants to perform isn’t accepted? What happens when the performance — which is true to the Director’s ideals — is booed off stage? This is the process of cultural marginalisation, and can take place before an audience which may not even realise it.

Let’s start with the LGBT+ community. Our research for Pride London showed that the dominant cultural stereotypes of Lesbians, Bisexuals, Gay, and Trans people — a set of stereotypes that are broadly set by mainstream media outlets — challenge members of the LGBT+ community because they are largely inaccurate. Our ethnographic research found that something as personal as sexuality is completely open to cultural bias, which even affects how the LGBT+ community sees themselves.

Our ethnography showed that people’s ‘coming out’ stories were a constant battle about trying to figure out whether they were part of that cultural stereotype or not. During this uncertain period of life, we found gay men battling with the oversexualised, gym bunny image often portrayed, and lesbian women contesting the short-haired butch image. The bisexual and trans community were struggling with imagery so bewildering, it was almost genderless (almost equating to a lack of identity entirely).

Their ‘coming out’ stories were a series of performances to the smallest, most understanding audiences they could find — their best friend(s), another LGBT person, followed by their friends, parents, and colleagues, depending on the strength of those relationships. Each performance was gauging the audience for how to get the applause — their sense of self-confidence hanging in the fickleness of the audience
But this is the scary part. It doesn’t really matter how ‘liberal’, ‘open-minded’, or ‘progressive’ the audience is, because they are only as good as their cultural bias allows. The world that we live in is busy, fast, and we are overloaded by information. Even the more liberal characters in society today are influenced by the dominant cultural discourse of oversexualised men, butch lesbians, and identity-less bisexuals, simply because that’s how cultural bias works. Our brains give the subject matter about seven seconds a month of airtime, so these images are all our brains have room for, with very few ‘real self’ depictions making it into our memory. The comedian Ellen Jones described herself as coming out every day, in every interaction, because of the underlying bias.

There is another example from some of our recent working into ageing. Broadly speaking, the elderly are a forgotten and marginalised group in British society, culturally outcast because their ‘value’ cannot be assessed in everyday life, cast aside to sit in armchairs doing crosswords. It is assumed that sitting on the couch watching TV is an acceptable choice that they’ve made, rather than a choice that has been imposed on them.

In our work for Public Health England we showed that they are afraid of revealing their cognitive and physical frailties, for fear of being pitied or laughed at, and therefore create a series of mantras that in turn support this stereotype. These mantras, such as — “I’m just keeping busy”, “Mustn’t grumble”, and “I’ve had a good innings” — allow the audience to accept the situation they are in. These mantras are a double-edged sword, in that they give people the self-confidence to get through moments of loneliness, but also reinforce their position to others that they do not need help (when in fact, they do). And this is how many of the elderly create their own identities today, through a set of personal mantras that keep the pity of society at bay.

Culture: The inescapable

Typically, in the West, we believe we are free agents to become who we want to be. In fact, we are so free that we must set our own path, otherwise it is a waste. We must maximise every opportunity, because #YOLO. However, in Eastern cultures, this idea is turned on its head, where the concept of another life after this means that you don’t need to complete everything today / this month / this year / this life, because there’s always time in the next one #TheAfterLifeYo.

What I’ve realised is that you can’t separate the culture from the individual. There’s a more than a grain of truth in national stereotypes for this very reason — we create our own identity based on our upbringing and our opportunities, all of which are culturally specific. Yet there is a potential challenge for the research industry here. If we present national stereotypes back to our clients through ‘consumer portraits’ without recognising the cultural discourse that shapes them, we are being disingenuous to our participants, and risk coming across as shallow to our clients. We need to push more in-depth techniques with our clients — like ethnography — so that they can really start to engage with the depth of character real consumers have. This linking of culture discourse to consumer behaviour is the way that brands stay relevant, and effectively make impact in the world.