Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"What does the applied ethnographer need to know about business?"

In an interesting discussion about the problems of working in a corporate and interdisciplinary / multidisciplinary environment, Gavin Johnson questions the meaning and value of disciplinary boundaries. While certainly the environment has a strong influence on how and which disciplines may be recruited and assigned to a project, there is another issue. I have addressed part of this question in an essay entitled, “What business needs to know from applied ethnography”

There is a complementary question. "What does the applied ethnographer need to know about business?" I feel that it is more important, or at least equally important, to address this problem from the anthropologist/ethnographer perspective. In particular, the status/role that the applied ethnographer is required to occupy and play in the business context.  This is as

a "Team Player"

 Rather than as

the “lone wolf.”
Traditionally, the ethnographer is a lone wolf, going off into the wilds of real life, encountering a herd of another species, and in chameleon-like fashion inserting oneself into the herd as a participant/observer. In this role, the ethnographer acts as both the instrument and the intelligence operating the instrument recording the data. The product of these efforts are written for an audience of other lone wolves who share their stories and observations grounded in the similarity of the status/role of the “field” experience. This is like a group of pro-golfers or tennis players getting together after the U S Opens to discuss the techniques and experience of the various matches..

As part of an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary team, however, the ethnographer is constrained by both his/her status as “anthropologist” on the team and by her/his role as “ethnographer” in the specific research assignment. Playing a team sport is very different from an individual sport. In a team sport, there is an overall game plan. In the game plan, each player has a specific assignment, the effectiveness of the team and the plan is dependent upon each player sticking to their assignment. This means subordinating one’s ego to the team’s mission. The applied anthropologist, playing the position of “ethnographer” must understand what his/her role is, in general, and also specifically, on his/her team.

He/she must also recognize that for any specific play, i.e. research assignment, that role may change. The ethnographer may be asked to be a “surveyor,” or “historian” instead of participant/observer. She/he must be prepared to adjust to the new assignment when the play is called without any second thoughts or reservations. The success of the team depends on the player’s ability to adjust on a moment's notice.

So yes, the disciplinary lines that are so pronounced in the academic world, become blurred in the “fog of corporate research” where the goal is to contribute to the corporate bottom line, and not to some disciplinary Hall of Fame.

1 comment:

Ashkuff said...

Pretty tight article, Barry. I like it. Especially the bit about ethnographers discussing ethnography being like golfers discussing golf.

However, beyond the importance of teamwork, I think businesspeople can also teach anthropologists the importance of "value generation." I'd like to see an article about that, one day!

--- Ashkuff | http://www.ashkuff.com | Bored with reading about others' adventures? Burning to venture out yourself? Let this applied anthropologist remind you how.