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AD418 Research Methods Podcase Week 03

Arbitrary meanings: Ethnographic vs. marketing research

Yesterday, Mohammed, Humanur (a visiting design scholar from Turkey) and I were having a conversation about doing research for product design. Mohammed had made the comment about how research is using to manipulate people into buying things.

I argued that ethnographic research (which seeks to understand and represent life from the view of the people studied) does not do that. This is because when you seek to understand and represent people’s lives from their own perspective, the arbitrariness of meaning becomes apparent. People assign so many different meanings to things you cannot actually form a "market".

Humanur provided an example of a Turkish woman who loved her Plasma TV. Because her husband is very strict and she was socially isolated, the “human size” screen of the people on a large plasma make her feel immersed in a life with “friends.”

You’d might want to put the label of “Plasma TV as escapism” on the meaning of the TV, but it’s more and less than that. More because it is the size of the humans on the screen that resonate with her loneliness, not just the escaping into someone’s life story.

This kind of ethnographic approach to research is distinct from marketing research which will (1) count how many times a person saw an advertisement on TV, or  (2) ask if they were a car what brand of car would they be. Marketing research imposes a pattern of awareness, acquisition, conversion, retention on those experiences. Although it tries to get to mindset, motivations, behaviors, etc; it imposes much greater constraints on meaning of objects and relationships to meet this business framework, than ethnography does. 

The core assumption of ethnography is that by understanding the patterns of others we are less likely to, as Deng Ming-Dao in 365 Tao Daily Meditations says, “ruin the universe with our own patterns.” This is where perhaps they should teach ethnography and anthropology in K-12, beyond the social science courses that are taught.

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