OPINION21 July 2014

How the other half lives

Economic anthropologist Jovan Scott Lewis recently spent some time as an intern at Northstar Research Partners. He shares his thoughts on what academia could learn from the commercial sector.

For anthropologists, this is especially the case, given our tradition of long-term, intensive ethnographic fieldwork. Ethnography is the understanding of behaviour in context. It can be applied to nearly any question regarding human activity and is the most social of social science methods, as it is the only one that involves being incorporated into a group.

I recently participated in an Advanced Internship Programme (AIP) at Northstar Research Partners, designed to bring together researchers in academia and those who work commercially in order to create open dialogue and mutual learning and exchange. One of the most significant observations I made when moving from an academic to a commercial environment was the striking difference in the pace that market research is conducted at. This led me to pose the question: Is there a trade-off in meeting the time restraints of the commercial world vs. the academic need for time and rigour?

Ethnography is a tricky, even opaque method. What ethnography is exactly and how it should be done is almost always under debate, but the one certainty is that it often takes a long time. In market research, however, time is seldom afforded, so ethnography in this context is somewhat remixed from the academic form. Rather than months, or even weeks, qualitative market researchers are often required to get at a deeper sense of a consumer’s life and lifestyle in a matter of days. At first glance this may seem problematic, but there is something of great value in this method.

Methodological Innovation

The invention of ‘multi-sited’ ethnography in the 1980s was a methodological innovation that established the now commonplace practice of doing fieldwork in multiple locations. Multi-sited ethnography was revolutionary in that it helped researchers to better understand transnational processes such as migration and globalisation, as well as the interconnectedness of ideas and practices across cultures.

Market research, with its experience of doing short-term ethnography, could provide a similar methodological innovation. As quickly as both commercial and cultural trends develop and disappear, contemporary ethnography demands an increased nimbleness and a reduced timeline to completion. This is especially critical for academic research, which often takes years to complete and even longer to be published.

Doing ethnography over shorter periods, as I observed at Northstar, provides an ability to collect and analyse ‘snapshots’ of data that can be returned to for comparison and verification more regularly and readily than with long-term ethnography.

Lessons from the field

My exposure to the world of commercial research has led me to realise that the problems addressed by anthropologists and market researchers alike are social and cultural ones, and are, therefore, equally valid and of interest. I have also come to understand that consumer preference is an effective means of understanding contemporary culture as articulated through those preferences.

While contrasts between market and academic research will remain, I suspect that we will see greater exchange between the two in years to come. Funding bodies that enable academic research face increasing austerity measures as universities continue to contract the length of their research programs. Methodologies, especially qualitative ones, will have to evolve to meet these demands – and it’s here that academic research could learn from its commercial counterpart.

Market and academic research environments each demand different approaches from their researchers and these are brought to bear on the focus of the research and the type of methodologies they choose to employ. It’s clear, though, that they share one key attribute: both environments demand the same levels of passion and commitment from their researchers.

Jovan Scott Lewis is an economic anthropologist of Jamaica.