Fresh perspectives uncover new opportunities - Illuminating the tacit and double distancing

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about how ethnography is much more than the application of a few techniques and models but is, at best, a whole different perspective and approach.

The article struck something of a chord amongst trained ethnographers, many of whom seemed to share my dismay at the dumbing down of ethnography and the appropriation of its good name by barely skilled practitioners.

One comment on the article from Stephen Wood encouraged me to share a case study which exemplified how ethnography is more than just in-home interviews and ‘hanging out’ with customers and what material insights were gained by taking a less superficial approach.

Illuminating the tacit

One of the central issues with relying on interviews and reported behavior is that much of what we do is habitual. We do stuff, well, because that’s what we do, or that’s what our friends do, or that’s what everyone does. These ingrained patterns and cultural norms are so baked in and embodied that we don’t even notice them. ‘It goes without saying’ that’s how it’s done or that’s what we do. So to understand these habits that have been embodied and what they mean requires observing as well as talking: a focus on behaviour not just relying on people to report what they do or point out why this might be significant. We worked with MasterFoods on their 2020 ambition project to help all Australians enjoy the reward that good food can bring. Our project involved understanding the barriers that many people experience preventing them from enjoying or getting the most out of good food. We spent time watching, eating, shopping and getting a feel for daily life with a range of participants who for various reasons were impeded from enjoying what good food can bring. We could have just interviewed them, but then we wouldn’t have seen the pumpkin in the fridge that had sat there too long and gone mouldy – showing how the best intentions can get sabotaged by the stresses of daily life and the omnipresent temptation of the LCM bar. We wouldn’t have seen how family members all sharing fish and chips retreated to their own private space and engaged with their personal screens to consume. We wouldn’t have felt the loneliness of cooking and eating for one in shared nurse’s accommodation.

Double Distancing

Simon Roberts (Stripe Partners) talks about the ‘double distancing’ that relying on interviews entails. “First, we rely on people to use words to describe things that ‘go without saying’. Second, we deny ourselves the opportunity to experience the phenomena that we seek to understand.”

Food and eating are complex practices in which cultural, psychological and practical influences are interwoven. These interwoven strands all affect our behaviour towards food and our enjoyment of it. To help showcase these influences and how they interplay in people’s lives, we made short ethnographic films that showed relevant behaviour as well as featuring participants talking, interacting, eating, living. In this way we were able to create a far deeper empathy and understanding amongst project stakeholders for participants’ situations (often very different from their own) and the complexities of the barriers to enjoying good food that they faced.

Masterfoods and their communications agency Clemenger BBDO went on to make a powerful digital campaign #makedinnertimematter The campaign touched a nerve for Australians as well as achieving millions of views both here and overseas. As Kit Lansdell, then planning director at Clemenger put it… “the ethnographic work was a real tipping point in helping us both frame the challenge and also ensure we were both inclusive and sensitive to the complexities and issues”.

This MasterFoods case-study shows how ethnography is more than just interviews in that when that ethnographers focus on observing behaviour and uncovering tacit practices and habits, this can generate new insights and we can develop a more empathetic, felt understanding. But there are further ways in which ethnography, when applied properly’ can create leaps of understanding.

We worked on road safety and the thorny problem of young people’s risky driving both in NSW and in Victoria. The backdrop is that young people are consistently over-represented in fatalities and accident statistics. One of the reasons for this is young people’s propensity to take more risks when driving. Graphic advertising campaigns showing the gory physical and traumatic emotional consequences of risky driving seemed to have limited effects on young people and were often ignored by those who were most likely to engage in risky driving. So how could we work to influence this difficult target? We conducted ethnographic research to help uncover the behaviours, rituals, language and attitudes around driving and risky driving.

Ethnography encourages an anthropological perspective. Ethnographers don’t only look at individual behavior and motivation, instead they recognize that behaviour exists within a social frame and is affected by social norms and practices. So we were keen in our study to look not only at risky drivers themselves, but explore how their driving behaviour was seen by their peers, by passengers in their cars and their friends.

This approach was highly revealing showing a striking disparity between the attitudes and feelings of risky drivers themselves and many of their peers. Whereas drivers felt taking risks was fun and adrenalising, friends and passengers, though they were often uncomfortable to speak out overtly in front of the driver, often felt vulnerable and were quite critical of risky driving seeing it as stupid or foolhardy. In the moment there was something of a conspiracy of silence which drivers mistook as tacit approval.

By focusing on this broader social context with Transport for NSW, we revealed a new approach which focused less on the consequences of crashing, and more on the judgements and attitudes of peers. And as we know, young people are very much aware of how they are seen by peers.

Clemenger BBDO produced the ‘Pinky’ campaign that leveraged this insight. The campaign won an advertising effectiveness award in Australia and was admired and copied as an approach around the world.

Ethnography is about understanding culture not just consumers

Dr. John Sherry, Director of Business Innovation Research at Intel argues that ethnography is often misunderstood. “People too often talk about ethnography as a tool for understanding ‘the consumer’ or ‘the customer.’ [As ethnographers].. we don’t just talk to people in their homes, we think systematically. People don’t talk about it that way as much. The interdependence among lived experience, human practices, information, political organizations – that’s how we think.”

And this, I believe, is at the nub of it. If we reduce ethnography to in-home interviews, or a set of fieldwork and analysis tools we miss out on the insights ethnography offers to understand our cultural systems and practices more deeply. And it's these fresh perspectives that engender the richest opportunities.