In another thread within this group, John McCreery has labeled "alternative ethnographies" as a potential topic for discussion:
But so is another that I have tentatively labeled "Alternative Ethnographies," thinking of work like Sutherland and Denny's Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, Tom Boelstroff's Coming of Age in Second Life , Chris Kelty's Two Bits about the free and open software movement, my own Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers and my current project: "Winners' Circles: SNA-Driven ethnography of award-winning creative teams in Japan." Here the common thread is the authors' grappling with how to adapt ethnography to the opportunities and challenges of a world very different from that in which Malinowski or Boas defined our primordial model.
There's room for a lot of discussion about current approaches to ethnography, the potential for ethnographic research in the future, and the embedding of ethnographers in movements for social change.

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First, a warm thank-you to Alexandre for setting this up. This weekend my anthropology time will be largely consumed as Ruth and I scramble to put together our presentation on city planning in Yokohama for the SEAA conference in Taiwan the first week in July. The paper is due on June 22. Procrastination is no longer an option.

That said, I would like to add a few more words about what I mean by "alternative ethnographies." My hope here is to move beyond discussions of ethnography in the abstract to examination of what particular ethnographers have produced in response to a moment in history in which the Malinowski model, total immersion for a year or two, followed by writing up everything you have learned about people whose lives are unfamiliar to your readers is difficult or impossible and, as Marcus and Fischer have warned us, ethnographers, "step into a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves.”

Sutherland and Denny address issues raised by muti-sited ethnography, produced in short time frames, with the aid of video professionals, and reported in forms that communicate value to their corporate clients without succumbing to their inevitable tendency to look for short-cuts framed in terms of understanding into individuals' motives.

Tom Boelstroff discusses in great detail what is, in many respects, a Malinowskian project but one carried out in a virtual world [nicely isolated I observe from such wetware issues as aching joints and plumbing].

Chris Kelty's Two Bits is also a multi-sited ethnography but one of particular interest to me because (1) his collaborators are, like mine, highly educated, professional people with strong ideas of their own and (2) they are, as members of what Kelty calls a "recursive public" constantly tinkering with the software and legal infrastructure on which their community's existence depends. The issues raised by my current research, on members of teams that create winning ads overlap in several respects those that Kelty confronts.

My book on Japanese consumers is an example of what I call "piggy-back" ethnography. It examines social change in Japan through the eyes of Japanese market researchers liberated to pursue whatever interests they have in search of novel angles on what is happening in Japan.

Overnight it occurred to me that I would certainly add to my list Ted Bestor's Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World, which employs classic ethnographic observation and interviews but situates their results in relation to a highly globalized market for seafood, much of which winds up in Japan, affecting livelihoods and marine ecology in places scattered all over the world.

What interests me in all these cases is how anthropologists have adapted and enhanced ethnography to address the kinds of issues these sorts of projects raise.
I would add Kathleen Stewart' s Ordinary Affects to your list. (This is a side comment to McCreey: to Japan related books I would add Joy Hendry's work). Alexandre thanks for starting this. Not much time to write down substantial stuff though, sorry.

John McCreery said:
First, a warm thank-you to Alexandre for setting this up. This weekend my anthropology time will be largely consumed as Ruth and I scramble to put together our presentation on city planning in Yokohama for the SEAA conference in Taiwan the first week in July. The paper is due on June 22. Procrastination is no longer an option.

That said, I would like to add a few more words about what I mean by "alternative ethnographies." My hope here is to move beyond discussions of ethnography in the abstract to examination of what particular ethnographers have produced in response to a moment in history in which the Malinowski model, total immersion for a year or two, followed by writing up everything you have learned about people whose lives are unfamiliar to your readers is difficult or impossible and, as Marcus and Fischer have warned us, ethnographers, "step into a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves.”

Sutherland and Denny address issues raised by muti-sited ethnography, produced in short time frames, with the aid of video professionals, and reported in forms that communicate value to their corporate clients without succumbing to their inevitable tendency to look for short-cuts framed in terms of understanding into individuals' motives.

Tom Boelstroff discusses in great detail what is, in many respects, a Malinowskian project but one carried out in a virtual world [nicely isolated I observe from such wetware issues as aching joints and plumbing].

Chris Kelty's Two Bits is also a multi-sited ethnography but one of particular interest to me because (1) his collaborators are, like mine, highly educated, professional people with strong ideas of their own and (2) they are, as members of what Kelty calls a "recursive public" constantly tinkering with the software and legal infrastructure on which their community's existence depends. The issues raised by my current research, on members of teams that create winning ads overlap in several respects those that Kelty confronts.

My book on Japanese consumers is an example of what I call "piggy-back" ethnography. It examines social change in Japan through the eyes of Japanese market researchers liberated to pursue whatever interests they have in search of novel angles on what is happening in Japan.

Overnight it occurred to me that I would certainly add to my list Ted Bestor's Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World, which employs classic ethnographic observation and interviews but situates their results in relation to a highly globalized market for seafood, much of which winds up in Japan, affecting livelihoods and marine ecology in places scattered all over the world.

What interests me in all these cases is how anthropologists have adapted and enhanced ethnography to address the kinds of issues these sorts of projects raise.
Hülya Demirdirek said:
I would add Kathleen Stewart' s Ordinary Affects to your list.

Could I implore you to say a bit more about this recommendation? The blurb on the Duke U. press to which you provide the link conveys to me the impression that it is a beautifully written piece of anthropological literature. It may be right up there with some of my favorites, like Ruth Behar's The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart or Robert Dejarlais' Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless. Other good examples can be found among the winners of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's annual Victor Turner prize.

Are they, however, alternative ethnographies? Only, I suggest, in so far as we regard any and all exquisitely written non-fiction literature that concerns human subjects as ethnography. That's a possible stretch of the definition but not one I acquiesce in. Personally, I confine statements about ethnography to talking about work in which careful description description is intended to provide evidence for some theory or observation of substance that transcends the case in hand.

Does Stewart's book offer any suggestions along the lines of, "If I want to learn more about X I might want to consider doing Y," where Y is a new approach to doing ethnographic research?
Don't we all use context-appropriate methods? Don't we always run into field situations which require us to think creatively? What do we need to be considered "alternative?"

John McCreery said:
Hülya Demirdirek said:
I would add Kathleen Stewart' s Ordinary Affects to your list.

Could I implore you to say a bit more about this recommendation? The blurb on the Duke U. press to which you provide the link conveys to me the impression that it is a beautifully written piece of anthropological literature. It may be right up there with some of my favorites, like Ruth Behar's The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart or Robert Dejarlais' Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless. Other good examples can be found among the winners of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's annual Victor Turner prize.

Are they, however, alternative ethnographies? Only, I suggest, in so far as we regard any and all exquisitely written non-fiction literature that concerns human subjects as ethnography. That's a possible stretch of the definition but not one I acquiesce in. Personally, I confine statements about ethnography to talking about work in which careful description description is intended to provide evidence for some theory or observation of substance that transcends the case in hand.

Does Stewart's book offer any suggestions along the lines of, "If I want to learn more about X I might want to consider doing Y," where Y is a new approach to doing ethnographic research?
Don't we all use context-appropriate methods? Don't we always run into field situations which require us to think creatively? What do we need to be considered "alternative?"

These are good questions. For me, however, "context-appropriate methods" is too big a portmanteau. My thinking has been along the following lines.

We begin with the anthropologist who, in the classic manner modeled for us by Malinowski, spends a year or more living with and studying the lives of the members of a small community; could be an isolated village or an urban neighborhood. The task is to provide a thick description of life in the community. Readers of the ethnography can confidently expect to learn about the community's social structure, patterns of kinship and marriage, local politics, the daily and annual round, how people make a living, how food, clothing and shelter are provided, patterns of exchange, how quarrels, illnesses and deaths are handled, plus any other details that attract the ethnographer's interest.

Now, let us imagine an anthropologist who has read a good deal of this sort of ethnography but finds him or herself in a situation where the year or more in the field, unencumbered by other tasks or commitments, living immersed in a small community is, for whatever reason, unavailable. It is, thus, impossible to proceed along the lines the classic model suggests. They may be, like Denny and Sutherland, doing applied work for corporate or other sponsors and confronted with tight deadlines, specific goals to be achieved, and the need to collaborate with specialists in other fields. They may be like Tom Boelstroff, exploring a world in which all of the wetware business of actual eating, sleeping, shitting, dealing with toddlers or senile elders, broken bones, cancers or ulcers, having sex or coming to physical blows is happening somewhere else; but, on the other hand, things once only fantasy, e.g., teleportation or wielding magical wands, are possible. They may be like Ted Bestor, who to write his book on Tsukiji had to combine classic fieldwork in and around the market itself with multi-sited, historical and other research to situate the market in relation to the global economy and global fisheries ecologies. They may be, like the programmers and software engineers that Chris Kelty describes scattered all over the world but accessible via the Net as well as by drop-in visits or extended stays in their workplaces. They may be like me, aware of the absurdity of writing about a country as big as California with a population of 127 million, but presented with the opportunity to explore social and cultural change through the eyes of market researchers freed to study whatever they liked for what was already more than a decade when I began to work with them -- while remaining a responsible parent and an active partner in what was, during the 1990s a thriving small business.

Reviewing these examples, the common thread I find is not that of people who pursue some special interest and choose their methods accordingly but, instead, people trained as anthropologists who find themselves in situations that compel them to rethink how ethnography should be done and what an anthropologist, as opposed to a journalist or a specialist in some other academic discipline can bring to the table.

Does this make sense?
It does seem to make sense. And we may be talking about the same thing.

It's already been more than a month since we started this thread and the way I approach these issues has changed slightly. In fact, I may be influenced by the reading of a Newsweek article reassessing sociobiology and evolutionary psychology through the concept of a generalized flexibility. Seems to relate to the topic at hand: as ethnographers, we're trained to be flexible.
Before my previous reply, I hadn't read that article. But flexibility was emphasized in my anthropological training and I was getting ready to discuss it on my podcast.

There are ethnographers who do find more unique ways to do fieldwork and the distance to the ethnographic canon does vary, from fieldworker to fieldworker. The point I was trying to make, though, is that this may be a continuum. Any ethnography is "alternative" in both that it runs in parallel to other models and that it reworks ethnographic principles in context. Our approach is deeply contextual: we make do.

Recently, I've been noticing a common qualm among anthros talking about ethnography outside of anthropology. The reaction to which Aviva Rosenstein was responding, in her User Research talk: "Ethnography? UR Doin' It Wrong."
Alternative ethnography is great, if you're trained as an anthropologist. It adds some pizazz to your work. But those people who use the term "ethnography" without having the proper background are doing a great disservice to our discipline.
Not that I really disagree. There's a significant degree of confusion about "ethnography" as a concept, and there are several people who apply the term in a way that most "real ethnographers" would considered misleading and inaccurate. As I track "ethnography" through Google Alerts and TweetLater, I notice a fair bit of this confusion. There's something frustrating when a concept that is so dear to us is applied so carelessly.
But...
Ethnography is in. And we might as well ride the wave. Windmills, not shelters.
For insight, we could ask psychologists how they feel about the use of the term "psychology" in the broad public. Is pop psych doing a disservice to the discipline of psychology? Most probably. Can psychologists solve this issue by isolating themselves? Most probably not. As Language Log has it, scholars should engage in the conversation, not prevent it from happening.
This is partly an aside from your core point, John, but it does come back to the broader issue: what is alternative about ethnography?
Bronislaw Malinowski is still a core figure of ethnographic fieldwork, in most anthro departments (especially English-speaking ones). I personally wish we were also looking at work by his father, Lucjan, and other philologists/folklorists to put the Bronislawian model in perspective. But the point is that there is such a thing as an anthro canon, as Anthro-L members have made abundantly clear. What does this canon mean for the practise of ethnographic fieldwork? What remains of Bronislaw-style ethnography, close to a hundred years after the dude's first trip to the Trobriand Islands?
My personal answer is: flexibility. That may sound like too convenient a way to put it, but I still think it fits.
And I hope we can pursue this conversation despite the summer lull.
Happy to continue. But seriously, I do suggest that several of our different groups and discussion threads could benefit from a serious joint reading of Andrew Abbott (2004) Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. In this book Abbott eschews essentializing debates and moralizing critique aimed at establishing the superiority of one method over another. Instead, he argues for seeing both classic methods and classic debates as opportunities to pivot in search of fresh ideas. Thus, for example, people working on topics currently dominated by hardcore statistical analysis (survey research, cluster analysis, that sort of thing) or formal modeling (economics, for example) might pivot toward ethnography to see their problems in a new light. Ethnographers mired in thick description might pivot in the opposite direction, looking for things to count as a basis for statistical analysis or computer simulation. Moving in either direction will lead to fresh insights.

After laying out three different senses in which social scientists "explain" things: syntatically--by embedding them in stories that describe series of events; semantically -- by translating the unfamiliar into the common sense of their discipline; or pragmatically -- by identifying key bottlenecks at which intervention will be effective, Abbot goes on to look in detail at five methods: ethnography, history, standard causal (a.k.a., statistical) analysis, small-n comparison, and formal modeling (including computer simulation), noting the strengths of each and pointing to paths along which shifting from one to another has been intellectually productive. To me his approach seems both eminently sensible and highly provocative.
Sounds like an interesting book. Wish I had the time to read it.
For one thing, it puts stats-based analysis in context. It's not just a binary opposition between quals and quants. It's a variety of methods which can be (and are) integrated within the same approach. Historical and ethnographic methods are not too uncommon partners. And there's a lot of room for integrating simulation and ethnography.

There seems to be a relatively widespread notion that ethnography as an alternative approach. I'm mostly thinking about market research where people are adding ethnographic methods or even an ethnographic approach to the mix. In other words, some market researchers use ethnography to go beyond the focus group, sometimes by doing ethnographically-aware focus groups and sometimes by complementing the focus group with participant-observation and open-ended interviews.
Through this, ethnography is part of a shift. Some may see it as "fake" ethnography, but it does provide an alternative to classic ethnographies.

John, in your experience with the private sector, do you notice a shift in the ways people perceive ethnographic approaches?
Alexandre writes,

John, in your experience with the private sector, do you notice a shift in the ways people perceive ethnographic approaches?

Two words: legitimate and part of the tool kit. First, there is no question but what ethnography is now recognized as a valuable contribution to market research and management consulting. One need look no further than the list of sponsors on the web page of the now annual Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) to realize that. Second, even a quick scan of marketing research offerings on the Net reveals that ethnography is, except for small shops that specialize in ethnographic research, part of a standard list of research offerings: "large and small-sample surveys, test marketing, theater tests, focus groups, ethnography," that sort of list.

To understand how ethnography in industry has gone from a wacky, fringe idea to corporate acceptance and routine legitimation as part of the marketer's toolkit, it is useful to know a bit about the basics of marketing and how these have been affected by changes in the research environment.

Jack Trout, writing in Forbes, says,

Long ago Peter Drucker, the father of business consulting, made a very profound observation that has been lost in the sands of time: "Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two--and only two--basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business."

Fundamentally, the marketer asks three questions: Who? What? and How Much? Or, in other words, Who is my customer? What is my angle? Do the numbers add up?

What has changed over the course of the second half of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first is that answering these questions in a way that yields innovation that in turn creates customers has become increasingly difficult. In the early days, consumers were predictable. In the post-WWII world there were millions of couples starting new families. As economies took off they moved to the suburbs, bought cars and houses, and stocked the houses with consumer durables; demand was strong, markets still unsaturated, and with young and growing populations an idea that captured a new generation could create a cash cow that would last for decades. Marketers had a pretty good idea of who their target was and, with only a limited number of competitors, finding a new angle wasn't that hard either. So the big research question was always the last one, "Do the numbers add up?" Market research focused on identifying particular market segments, testing ideas, and predicting how many customers would be likely to buy product X. Or more precisely,attempting to determine if Customers x Units x Price=Income >Costs.

Flash forward a few decades. Consumers are unpredictable. Markets for basic stuff are already saturated, overflowing with products. A category like women aged 35-50, living in an Illinois suburb might include women just starting families, women with children in college, women who had never married, women working on their third divorce, black, white, Latino, or Asian women. Their tastes in food, drink, clothing, furniture, music, entertainment are all over the map. The quantitative surveys are still important; the numbers have to add up. But finding the answers to the who and what questions; that's not so easy any more. Surveys based on preconceived ideas don't help a lot. Focus groups are useful but still dependent on participants faithfully reporting their feelings in an unnatural setting. Ethnography? Right, have people who go to where consumers live, shop, work, play. Have them note even minor inconveniences that suggest improvements in product design. Have them watch for what's hot and what's not and other signs of changing tastes and preferences. Have them watch how people move; track shoppers through stores and see where people stop to orient themselves. See what catches their attention; what do they focus on?..... May be that they'll see something not included in the survey researchers questionnaires or the focus group protocols...It just takes one breakthrough innovation that creates a new market to justify a lot of poking around... and look, there are already folks like the super cool designers at IDEO who have made this standard practice and been hugely successful in the process.... Could we do that, too?

That, in my view, is why big businesses like those who sponsor EPIC are so interested in ethnography.
Update to previous message: See Timothy de Waal Malefyt, "Understanding the Rise of Consumer Ethnography: Branding Technologies in the New Economy," American Anthropologist Vol 11 No 2 June 2009, pp. 201-210.
Though the AA reference you give in the update will be useful (as was your recommendation on Sunderland and Denny), this message brings home several important points about consumer research in a very efficient way. In other words: exactly what I needed.

Not to belabour the point but it does seem, in this context also, that ethnography is an alternative to something else. Even among the pioneers of academic ethnography, there was a fair deal of that. They came from some other field and discovered an ethnographic discipline. Or they became ethnographers by being stuck somewhere. The master narrative of ethnographic disciplines includes a lot of that. Ethnography is "alternative" in about the same sense as "alternative lifestyles."

So, to go back to ethnographies which are distinct from the ethnographic canon... Seems to me that much of those have to do with integration with other approaches. "Ethnography plus..." Ethnography and computer modelling, ethnography and bible translation, ethnography and microhistory, ethnography and macroeconomics....
IMHO, quite a few ethnographers have been reluctant to integrate other approaches or to collaborate with people outside of ethnographic disciplines (apart from "informants," who aren't always considered as collaborators). Now that ethnography has been legitimized, now that those outside of ethnographic disciplines are integrating ethnographic concepts and tools in their own approaches, it's our job as ethnographers to reach out to others.
And if what they do isn't "real ethnography," it's our job to make "real" ethnography as relevant as possible.
Alexandre writes,

And if what they do isn't "real ethnography," it's our job to make "real" ethnography as relevant as possible.

Isn't a big part of the problem that we know longer have a consensus on what "real" ethnography is? Or, alternatively, waste too much time on essentializing arguments about what it "should be"? We know that, on the one hand, we have the Malinowskian prototype: a year or more living in a single place where the ethnographer starts out not knowing the language and having a professional commitment to non-judgmental observation of what he observes. On the other we have research that is now often short-term, multi-sited, and conducted by native anthropologists who start out with language competence and -- we must add -- unavoidable --often deliberately cultivated if they are political -- biases about what they are observing. We could argue forever over what should or shouldn't be. In practice, we must situate ourselves in relation to the actual situations in which we find ourselves. What we might be able to do better than competitors with different kinds of training in a particular context is a useful discussion.

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