Ethnography is the study of people. But it is not as simple as just asking people what they think or do. It’s about trying to explain why they think a certain way and how they came to think or behave that way. So ethnography is about explaining the experience of being people. Unfortunately, this means that much of the business ethnography out there is not really ethnographic because it lacks a fundamental feature of this research approach: an understanding of, and appreciation for, phenomenological inquiry.
Phenomenology is the study of experience. Formally developed around the same time as linguistics, psychology, anthropology and sociology by Franz von Brentano and Edmund Husserl in the mid-19th century, it developed in response to Immanuel Kant’s point that there is a gap between the world as we perceive it and the world as it exists independently of our minds. To understand Kant’s distinction between noumena (things as they are) and phenomena (things as we perceive them), consider a simple example: does someone with red/green color blindness understand grass in the same way as someone without color blindness?
Further complicating this already complex issue is the existentialist component of phenomenological inquiry developed by French philosophers Maurice Merleau- Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. They stated that basic sciences like physics, biology and psychology are not sufficient to explain what a human being is and what we are able to do and know. Those who believe this say the methods and expectations of any scientific study of people must keep this in mind and make sure subjective experience is part of an insight or conclusion. This implies that to break human experience down and examine the pieces will always end in failure. You have to examine the whole.
So what does this have to do with a world beyond philosophy? Well, first of all, nothing is beyond philosophy. Secondly, it is a way to focus any study of consumer life through the lenses of touch, sight, smell, sound, taste and movement. A phenomenological approach to conducting ethnographic research helps us understand how experience shapes culture, identities, politics, perception, preferences, economies, meanings, attitudes and ideas.
Anthropologists are concerned with lived experience, and we study all of these things through a phenomenological lens. We seek to explain what affects experience, how it is constructed and what role individual experiences play in creating social experiences. To get this done we use participant-observation, the cornerstone of anthropological fieldwork. The idea behind this method is you cannot know something until you have talked to people directly and actually learned to do it properly yourself. Ultimately, we learn to ‘be’ through experience, something similar to what is expressed in the ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ idiom. We cultivate understanding and empathy by aiming for a balance between an outsider’s perspective and insider’s subjective knowledge. This helps us understand the motivations and unconscious assumptions of the people we study in order to begin to explain why and what they do.
This phenomenological approach to research is what makes anthropologists very good at explaining complex social structures and belief systems. It also means that we avoid the failures of more ‘scientific’ approaches where experience is pushed out in favor of numerical certainty.
Fundamentally, good research has a strong handle on the questions and conclusions that are part of phenomenological inquiry. And in a world where only someone who understands what it means to ‘be there’ can explain why something happened, it is best to make sure you have someone around who has actually been there.
So ethnography is about explaining the experience of being people.
Good phenomenological ethnography gives you many things. It does not just tell you why consumers prefer a black case with rounded corners on a phone; it will help you understand why they believe a phone needs to be black, square, and rounded-off. It can also tell you things that numbers-based data never will: how a brand impacts people’s understanding of their available product options; how people construct unconscious strategies to make sense of the dizzying array of technologically enhanced products like computers, TVs, or mp3 players; why peoples’ conceptual models of how the web works, together with what their goals are, causes them to make errors on what seems like a simple and clearly constructed website. With knowledge like this, it becomes easier to craft future experiences where success resonates through an understanding of how, why and what.