Graeme Wood’s “Anthropology Inc.” for The Atlantic was a stimulating introduction to the practice of corporations like Coca Cola and Pernod Ricard USA to hire ReD, a research firm that specializes in field studies, to get qualitative data so they can understand consumers better. My former ad agency, DDB was doing this in the 1980s and I imagine its competitors were too. I’m not sure of the academic qualifications of all our researchers, but I found their presentations on topics like children’s opinions of their closets’ contents and conditions to be fascinating.
When Wood described the home party in the beginning of the article, I immediately wondered about the ethics. How would I feel about being studied at a party so that I might buy more Absolut vodka? How would the guests feel after reading this article? Not only were they studied, the party was then reported so there’s a double lens through which the party and drinking behavior was recorded. It’s both interesting and creepy.
I felt conflicted about the process. On the one hand, I love discovering new insights and would find this work fascinating. On the other, I value privacy and feel our world is getting more and more like the setting of the novel WE, a futuristic world where all rooms and buildings have windows for walls. I agree with the academics who point out that without a code of ethics research can be harmful. It can also be flawed as Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle tells us that when behavior is observed, it’s different.
ReD’s six hour long interviews sound like an endurance test, as well as a major imposition. Most participants will opt out of such a long interview so I wonder if the subjects who agree are representative. I would hope that those commissioning the research would take the results with a grain of salt.
The parts of the article that described Chinese group-orientation was half-right. Yes, Chinese person’s and other Asians’ circle of concern is wider than the stereotypical Westerner’s, but it isn’t all-encompassing. There’s a bright, sharp boundary. Most observers would note that Chinese people tend to think in terms of their in-group rather than their individual self. An “outsider” is not someone whose welfare is important, whereas though Western consumers may emphasize self, communal generosity or justice is a value. So the anthropologists who note this communal/individual dichotomy aren’t engaged in good scientific observation. Wood’s article would have been stronger had he mentioned this shortcoming. Since The Atlantic frequently features perceptive reporting on China, I’d expect its writers not to write from inside a silo.
I wish Wood had included some information answering the question of “To what extent do today’s cultural anthropologists exoticize their subjects?” There seems to be an inherent trap of dramatizing their findings or emphasizing the behaviors that seem different. A mixture of P.T. Barnham’s “Give the people, (e.g. client) what they want” and the practice of “orientalizing” behavior so the client feels they’ve paid for treasure rather than the expected. Wood was a bit guilty of hyping his article in this way as his examples of the Orthodox Jewish subject and the lesbian drinking party are more exotic than a mundane middle class family of four. While all groups should be studied, the way the findings are delivered should not be fashioned to dazzle or entertain the client. We all should be leery of how and what Madison Avenue presents to us. I think Wood should have been a bit more skeptical than he was.
An interesting read, “Anthropology, Inc.” calls attention to the business world’s growing use of social science to understand and market to consumers.
Getting to Know Your Patrons
“Getting to Know Your Patrons” provides methods and rationale for conducting field research or contextual research even in libraries with small staffs and limited resources. After reading about PhDs who conduct qualitative behavioral research, it was freeing to understand that doesn’t need the academic expertise ReD’s researchers have, to conduct a study that yields important insights.
Smaller libraries may think they must forego such significant work since they don’t have a dedicated staff that specializes in UX. That’s not the case. By organizing staff to do short observations and showing the sort of descriptions that are useful, this article prepared me to do my first contextual inquiry.
Schmidt, A. (2011, June 1). Getting to Know Your Patrons. Library Journal, Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2011/06/opinion/aaron-schmidt/getting-to-know-your-patrons-the-user-experience/
Wood, G. (2013, March). Anthropology Inc. The Atlantic, Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/anthropology-inc/309218/