Understanding Communities through Ethnography

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Guest Post by: Dhiren (Market Sentinel) 

Ethnography promises new insights for companies seeking to understand communities. A few weeks ago I caught up with ethnographer and technology researcher Tricia Wang to learn how.

DS: As a sociologist and ethnographer, what are the core outputs of your studies at the moment?

TW: My primary output is analysis of how new technology users are living at the intersection of macro processes. Examples of questions that I ask are: What does the future of the internet look like? What happens when the next 300 million migrants with digital tools are able to get online? How will the state, the world, and technological infrastructures accommodate such a massive change in scale? How do we design and market to this group?

I hang out with people and spend a lot of time trying to see the world through their eyes. I make long and deep observations of how everyday life is achieved and negotiated. I then interpret my observations and contextualize my analysis in relation to past, current and future socioeconomic, technological and cultural developments.

By answering these questions I am able to provide context and explanations for why people engage or don’t engage with certain technologies, to explain how this all interfaces with historical and present day life, and how designers, engineers, and organizers can meet the daily needs of both low-income/marginalized users and the burgeoning middle class.

DS: What are the types of questions that you are asked the most?

TW: People want to know how new users engage with their devices, how they access information, and why their tech behaviors are so different from Western consumers and contexts. Companies and entrepreneurs really want to understand what’s going on. They want to know why the Chinese don’t use Google Apps or why paid music services haven’t taken off there. They enter these communities with lots of market data about their interests but without a deep understanding of their context.

There was ( and still is) the expectation that every region’s historical arch would just all of a sudden parallel the history of the internet as used in the West. But it doesn’t work like that. The internet was (and still is) introduced in different ways in each country.

DS: Corporations, advertising agencies and communications consultancies are all moving to deliver cultural relevance or a degree of value to real-world communities. What are your thoughts on this?

TW: Well I’m happy to see that delivering culturally relevant messages has evolved beyond merely trying to avoid mistranslations or offending one’s mother. All jokes aside, I have noticed greater efforts to deliver “cultural relevance.”

Though, I thik corporate concerns of being culturally relevant still come out of Geert Hofstede’s Model of Cultural Dimensions where cultures are broken down into five categories and neatly mapped onto nation-states. While this has led to brands producing campaings that seem to hit the right “cultural” hot buttons, they also often come across as patronizing.

I have been a long proponent of delivering community relevance over delivering cultural relevance. “Community” is easier to operationalize and measure than “culture.”  This shifts the focus of a company towards developing a specific relationship with a specific community or specific partners within a community over time, not over instances such as a media campaign.

Once companies become invested in the welfare of communities, their relationship becomes more symbiotic. Your driving question becomes “Does this make sense for the community?” This question wasn’t asked a few years ago, but now we have all these new positions in tech companies called “community managers” who are the community representative inside a company. I think we’re going to see the budgets grow for community departments, reflecting the increasing importance of developing meaningful relationships with people as people, not just consumers.

DS: From your perspective, are these actions translating into a greater a demand for research and ethnographic skills?

TW: I do think that companies are hungry to reach their customers in more meaningful ways. People want authenticity and they want value. Companies want to deliver this. Though I’m not sure if this is translating into a greater demand for ethnographically driven research insights… just yet.

One of the hurdles to overcome is that people still mistake ethnography for marketing or the other way around. But much in the same way that we now recognize the value of design in the production process, I’m hoping to see companies embrace ethnographic methods in the strategic development. Five years ago no one valued user experience and now it’s central to many tech companies.

DS: Your work requires you to observe people and investigate what motivates their actions and behaviour. Is the “power of the peer” as strong outside of west as it is in?

TW: I haven’t noticed a difference in the strength of peer groups as if one place has stronger peer group influence than another. This is because the universal power of the peer group speaks to the deeply social quality of human beings. We all care deeply about how people around us perceive and receive us. We are all dealing with insecurity, growth, and identity in different ways.

However, the notion of the “peer” is relative and is cultural. The declaration of one’s peers in online peer groups unfolds in different ways depending on the social context. An interesting case study is the Chinese equivalent of Linkedin that failed in China. Why? Was it because Chinese people didn’t care about peer groups ? No, the answer is that Chinese people didn’t want to be explicit about their social connections with their peers.

DS: And finally…your work takes you across the globe, from one place to place another, and this allows you to become familiar with societies from all walks of life. Outside of the US, which country or region has some of the most interesting digital practices? Do any activities surprise you?

TW: I think that some of the most interesting digital practices are emerging in China. Urban China is fascinating because it’s an ideal playground for ubiquitous computing technologies. Unlike South Korea, the class background and user experience of Chinese netizens is incredibly diverse. And it’s a really great contrast to the West because almost everything about China challenges Western beliefs.

For instance, Americans often think that they have invented everything and that the Chinese always copies. But this isn’t always the case. And actually it can be the other around. For example, prior to Farmville was the Happy Farm craze in China and prior to Groupon were handfuls of team buying/tuangou (??) as early as 2006! Now Chinese team buying sites are referred to as “Groupon clones” when the behavior actually originated in China!

Another example that comes to my mind is that in the US, Google is queen. For most Americans and even for me, it’s hard to imagine any other company than Google that has done more to democratize the availability of information over the last few years. But in China, Baidu is also doing some amazing things to democratize the internet. Their latest search feature is hand-writing support for Chinese character and Pinyin recognition. It’s so cool. No flash or plug-ins are required! You can try it right now on their website. This means that any Chinese person who is not familiar with pinyin can now search for information online by writing out the characters!

DS: What can we learn from this country?

TW: What we learn from these stories is that we, in the West, are not always the center of digital innovation. That’s going to be hard for many to accept. But I don’t think that this has to be something we fear because it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

Specific to the example of Baidu, we see what kind of innovations evolve organically when a company really focuses on the user’s needs. In a recent interview, Wang Meng Qiu, the senior director of technology and products at Baidu told the FT that, “Our logic is different – we think about what users need most.” She goes to explain that they can’t afford to focus on “dazzling” products because they want to consider the needs of their less-educated users. There’s a lot to be learned in a strategy that meets users where they are at, even the least-educated.

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I found Tricia’s work to be thoroughly insightful as her approach to understanding people and communities is very different, but complimentary to our work at Market Sentinel. Our research is quantitative, scientific and algorithmic, and our insights are extracted from the analysis of data; however, Tricia’s work delivers rich insights which come from hands on qualitative research.

For 360 cultural or community insights I think businesses need to invest both types of research. Together, they will provide the most valuable insights for any business that’s trying to understand a market, community or generally trying to answer unfamiliar question.

More information about Tricia’s work can be found on her website and she’s also an avid tweeter that’s definitely worth following. 

Original Post: http://www.marketsentinel.com/blog/2010/11/understanding-communities-through-ethnography/