One New Thing

6 Jan

Learning is a constant process, but it’s one of those mundane activities that kind of flies under the radar. We all do it, every day. However, the mundane processes of how we learn rarely make it to the level of conscious thought. I know that I learn at least one new thing a day, and I’ve decided that this year I’m going to pay attention to what I’m learning, and where I’m learning it. I’m going to write it all down and bring it to the forefront of my conscious mind.

So far, it’s the how that’s been the most interesting. My sources of learning are far more varied than I imagined and not necessarily the sources I would have expected. Sometimes I learn about arrowheads from a Hadzabe man in a remote area of Tanzania. But most of the time, learning happens much closer to home. This week, truly new information and experience has come from social networks, cookbooks, leisure reading, friends – not the academic journals and news sources that I automatically associate with this thing we call “learning.” Granted, sometimes what I think I’ve learned will need to be verified through other sources before I can confirm it as fact. But to me, that doesn’t matter. Whether or not what I’ve learned in a day is “true” is less interesting than the fact that I’ve been intrigued by something, enticed to explore it further. That’s my criteria.

So what have I learned so far this year? How did I learn it? Let’s see…

January 1, 2012

In Spain, it’s tradition to eat 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve – one with each chime.  – My friend Ana, from her Facebook post

January 2, 2012

The prophet Mohammed inhaled eternal life through the fragrance of an angel-sent apple just before he died. – Kelly Hayes Raitt, Tower of Babel, in Rita Golden Gelman’s Female Nomad and Friends

January 3, 2012

The deadline to pay estimated 2011 taxes is not December 31, but January 15. This year, it is January 17. – Email from California Franchise Tax Board

January 4, 2012

Calves are born back-end first, so their head doesn’t smack into the ground. – My friend Ron, personal experience

January 5, 2012

I learned how to make an awesome vegan cauliflower mash using vanilla soy milk. – Recipe in Jillian Michaels’ Making the Cut

What will I learn next week? What have you learned today? Share it!

Breaking New Ground(s)

6 Jan

Welcome to 2012!

Guess what I found? It looks like Starbucks has fixed What’s Wrong With this Picture!

Someone in the organization learned how to make their Grounds for your Garden giveaway more attractive to customers who might think a trash can with old coffee grounds in it is, well, for trash. While the photo I took back in March might just create confusion, this approach helps customers learn that they are, in fact, expected to take the grounds home. For free. For their garden. Really.

Pink Elephants and Dead Horses

3 Aug

There’s no denying that visual images are powerful tools for a design ethnographer to have at her disposal. Seeing the childlike joy on a grown man’s face as he opens a box containing his new toy, hearing fear in the quivering voice of a woman who just received a diagnosis of a chronic illness, watching an artist focus on each brushstroke – these moments bring our clients on the journey with us. They see what we saw, feel the emotions that we felt, hear what we heard. It’s easy to be drawn into the world of the visual, and over the course of my career I’ve had to become somewhat of a videographer and a photographer as well as an ethnographer. I’ve learned to shoot and edit and create a story that remains true to the voices of the people who allowed me to share their world for a few hours, a day, or a week.

But there’s a flip side to the camera. Clients and ethnographers alike can fall into the trap of conflating experience with the representation of that experience. The camera can create an emotional connection, but it is also selective. It’s a particular gaze, one that is narrow, limited, and defining. We can get caught up in capturing the perfect shot and find ourselves thinking far too early about how we’re going to convey the experience rather than simply…experiencing.

Ultimately, the ethnographer is still the research instrument. Technology has advanced and perhaps the thought of writing field notes “old school” makes us smile a little, shake our heads, and wonder how we ever got through those years. But the truth is that we would all benefit from putting the camera down once in a while. I recently had a project in which a highly unusual number of participants declined to be videotaped or photographed. Although that was important data in itself, it also opened up a new world to me – or more accurately, it reminded me of the world from which I had come.  After years of relying on visual documentation as a way of both capturing “what really happened” and sharing that experience with others, the intellectual knowledge that the camera only captures the data I choose became embodied reality again. I remembered that all representations of “reality” are partial.

The camera’s gaze is my gaze, yes, but the viewfinder is a narrow perspective indeed.

Putting down the camera opened up my field of vision. I suddenly saw those details that I realized I’d started to miss. There was no awkward fumbling, getting that great action shot, or making sure the camera wasn’t moving during a really good quote. The fieldwork felt more natural. I realized I was feeling their emotions in a way that had started to fade over time. I had been feeling in inverse proportion to the increased resolution of my HD cameras. Now, I could just BE with the participant and experience their day with them, and in the end my analysis didn’t miss the big picture in favor of the perfect shot. I’ve missed that.

Near the end of the project, a friend – who will be traveling to Tanzania with me soon – expressed his concern about getting stuck behind the camera. This was my response:

Photos are great to trigger memories, but the memories are what will last. The vibe, smells, feelings, emotions from seeing the world – and NOT through a camera lens. That’s what you’ll treasure.

My most powerful memories are moments that are NOT captured on film – rounding a corner in the Andes in the pouring rain after hiking for four days and seeing two dogs look up at me with blood all over their faces. It took me a second to register that they were eating a dead horse that had slid off the trail just a few hours earlier. The exhaustion and hypothermia and emotion of that scene could NEVER be caught on film, and stopping to pull my camera out of my backpack would have ruined the moment. I just froze – and rather than run, the dogs returned to their meal. I watched for a few seconds, then put one foot in front of the other, continuing my journey up the mountain.

Or watching the pregnant elephant that we saw one day in Hwange return the next to introduce her brand new pink baby to the herd for the first time. The photos I took don’t do the scene justice – the baby doesn’t even look pink. But the memory hasn’t faded. To see the pink elephant you had to be there, in the moment, paying attention. By the time I got the settings on my camera adjusted properly, the baby was gone.

Or the 16 ft crocodile in Guatemala that was sunning itself as we paddled by two feet away, the feel of class V rapids tumbling over you when you’re sucked into a hole and can’t breathe, the random band that was playing at a roadside guesthouse in Zimbabwe in the middle of nowhere, or just the absolute peace of cracking open a Bollinger’s on an African sundowner as a herd of cape buffalo rumble past.

Just be sure you put the camera down and EXPERIENCE it all. I’ve found it helpful to leave the camera in the tent or room for a game drive or outing or two. It’s a totally different experience without it, and extremely valuable. It will also help you take better shots. You’ll become more selective and purposeful and you’ll really see the scene in context before you hit that button. I have zero technical skill, but the camera becomes an extension of my gaze – not a replacement for it – and that makes all the difference.

 Remember, the camera is just one of many possible tools to tell a story. But the storyteller is always YOU.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

6 Mar

Your first reaction might be to answer, “What’s wrong? So obvious. Julie was in a Starbucks!” Okay, so I usually avoid Starbucks. But I’ll admit that there’s ONE that has the best view in the world and the added bonus of being the only coffeehouse near one of my favorite hiking spots. They draw me in with the promise of a bathroom, hot water, and the possibility of seeing a few whales if I’m really, really lucky. (Yesterday, the Girl Scouts dangling Thin Mints in front of the door sealed the deal.)

The sun was shining, guaranteeing that the line would loop around the entire store. At one point in that line, I looked down and saw this…sign? Display? Trash can? Repository of coffee grounds to be used again in an environmentally friendly way? There’s not even a word for it, is there? But that didn’t occur to me in the moment.

My initial reaction was that people are rude. Illiteracy is low here, so I’m guessing they can read. Then the sociologist in me kicked in.

What happens when something new comes on the scene? Something we don’t quite understand, that we don’t have words to describe?

We can look at this particular cultural artifact through different lenses – shift our gaze – and start to answer and ask all kinds of interesting questions.

We can look at the artifact itself, and our shared understandings of how it should be used. In the culture where this artifact is found, we expect something round, sitting on the floor, and lined with plastic to be a trash can. We know what a “trash can” is. We’ve learned what it means, and what to do with it. (But do you know what a “bin” is?) All of that knowledge forms the foundation of an underlying assumption that when we see such things, we can throw our trash into it. In a similar fashion, we’ve learned what “trash” is, and sometimes we’ve learned to distinguish “trash” from “recycling.” It gets complex, doesn’t it?

In this instance, we’re not supposed to throw our trash away here. What??? We’re expected to violate norms. Instead of throwing trash into the trash can, we are supposed to take something out of it. It’s hard for humans to process this shift in gaze, this seemingly simple change in perspective that calls into question our underlying knowledge about the world around us. It calls on us to violate norms, and that usually comes with penalties. This is something we’ve learned to avoid!

Here, they’ve marked this shift with a sign, both telling people what to do and explicitly stating, “NOT A TRASH CAN.” Obviously, that isn’t enough to create a change in behavior. Our subconscious rules about how the world operates are too strong. The sign is irrelevant, and trash goes into the thing that looks like what we’ve always been taught is a trash can, just like it always has.

We can also go deeper and take other perspectives – symbolic, economic. We can start to ask what it means that we’re in a place where the expectation is that we will buy something, not be given something. What does it mean that we consider coffee grounds to be trash? How does that affect our interpretation of them being in a trash can that is not a trash can?

We can follow this path to answer the question of why this isn’t working. Better yet, we can design a better way – a way that it CAN work, within our current cultural understanding of the world. We start with the simple insight that a display with the goal of re-using and giving away coffee grounds shouldn’t look like what we define as a trash can.

Ultimately, this is what consumer ethnographers do. People often ask me why theory matters, how what I do is different from what anyone could do. My answer is always that anyone CAN do this – if they are trained to see the world through a sociological lens. This is the theory part. This is ethnomethodology in action, my way of understanding how people make sense of their world. You might see it through a different lens, a different theoretical perspective. If you’ve developed your sociological imagination, learned to shift your gaze to see the world from different perspectives, and practiced applying that insight to business problems, you can figure out why things don’t work and how to make them better. (And hey, Starbucks? There’s a freebie. For the good of all humankind.)

Anyone can design a better Coffee Ground Giver Awayer Thing through a sociological approach. It just takes a body of knowledge to draw on, an open mind, and some practice. Now can someone come up with a good name for it? 😉

Eating Brains

26 Feb

It’s hard to work as an ethnographer in a business environment. Then again, it’s hard to work as an ethnographer anywhere. That’s part of the territory, isn’t it? It’s the very point of the process.

Social scientists and MBAs live in two very different cultures. There’s no point in pretending that we don’t. We speak different languages and adhere to a different set of norms. Much of our work life is spent trying to understand one another – translating between cultures and interpreting nuances of meaning. It’s natural in these situations to inadvertently insult people, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, break norms that you didn’t even know existed. As an ethnographer, I’m probably more comfortable with that than others. When you enter an unknown culture, you often illuminate the norms by breaking them. That’s traditionally how you learn about the group that you’re studying. I spent two years in the field with parole agents who held very different views of the world than I do. I’m familiar with navigating that territory.

What if a vegetarian ethnographer was living with the hunter-gatherer Hadza? Everyone has to come together and collaborate to reach a common goal, which is getting food. That requires bridging the gaps somehow and becoming comfortable with hunting and eating meat – or starving! I mean, maybe eating a baboon’s brains would be going too far, but eating the flesh isn’t. You figure it out. Or you starve. And if you accidentally eat a taboo part of the baboon, you apologize and make it right and learn that the camp elder gets that part. You don’t make that mistake again.

When you’re in the field in a more traditional non-business way, there will be times that you’ll be so frustrated, embarrassed or exhausted that you’ll want to scream. You’ll want to cry. You’ll just want to pack your stuff and head for home.  The best thing to do is to go right ahead! Scream and you could learn about how a culture handles anger, frustration, noise, or norms around expression of emotion. Cry and you might learn about sadness, comfort, whose role it is to give you support as an outsider, and about your level of acceptance into the group. See what you’d miss if you packed and left for home? Suddenly, you want to stay. You want to see what new knowledge and experience tomorrow brings. Even if it’s hard.

Office culture isn’t really that different when you get down to the basics! The same principles apply as we’re trying to understand various languages and ways of being. We’re gonna screw up. Each side is going to insult, confuse, and frustrate the other. Then we’ll figure it out, find some common ground, and be excited to see what new experience tomorrow will bring. If you approach it as an ethnographic field setting, the office can actually be the most exciting territory to navigate of all!

Just don’t eat the baboon head.

Bathrooms: Wine Tasting

8 Feb

Breathe it in…swirl…sip…do you like it? Enough to buy it?

One of the benefits of living in California is that we’re surrounded by wine trails. Driving up the coast with the top down on the car, you can smell the vines and the soil beckoning you into the tasting rooms. Wine tasting isn’t just for snobs anymore – although if you want snobby you won’t have to look very far to find it. The fun of wine tasting is that it’s always an adventure. You never know what’s around the next bend in the road, or what you’ll taste in the next glass. Experimentation and an open mind are the name of the game.

That applies to bathrooms too. Because after all that wine and those winding roads…well, eventually you’re gonna need one!

If you’re lucky, you’ll be near a tasting room that offers this:

Dusty from wandering through the vines? No worries! Clean up here.


And a nice, private stall. Ooh! Shiny wood!

Then again, if you’re not so lucky you might find that the nearest tasting room is under construction, or totally old-school and run out of a barn, or is REALLY going for the anti-wine snob vibe.

Well, it's better than nothing for the next 15 miles.

Whatever the reason, porta-potties are a risk every wine taster takes. Winery porta-potties are in a class of their own though. They’re almost always on the clean end of the scale, making me wonder if Porta-Potty gnomes live under the shelter of the grape vines and come out between visitors to sanitize and stock.

Random bathrooms are a key element of the wine tasting experience, a part of the sense of exploration and adventure. Just like that funky sounding blend they’re pouring, you just never know what you’re gonna get!

Africa and the Nacirema

7 Feb

This is Zimbabwe:

So is this:

And where do you think this gorgeous tea house with the BEST desserts on the planet is found?

Of course, this is Zimbabwe too! Culture is diverse, and complex.

My last (and first!) visit to Africa was in 2004, so this year I’m due for a return visit to the continent. But where to go, on a continent so vast and beautiful and challenging? Better yet, why go?

Ethnographers travel. We just do. We find the time, money and energy to escape our comfort zone on a regular basis. We beg for time off work or write it into our contracts. Those of us who have colleagues who aren’t ethnographers sometimes find ourselves having to justify our lengthy annual “vacations” that really aren’t vacations at all. Our travels are a critical part of our job, a piece of the puzzle you might not get from some consumer insights researchers. Leaving our own culture makes us better ethnographers, without a doubt. We can’t prove it, but we’ve experienced it. We live it.

For me, it’s especially important to get “off the grid” since I spend the majority of my time studying people right here in my own country. There are unique patterns and practices that emerge among the consumers, patients, and professions that I spend time with, but being able to identify them requires taking a step back. I have to remove myself from the everyday reality that a member of this culture takes for granted in order to really see the unique rituals in action.

Are you familiar with Body Ritual Among the Nacirema?  Take a quick glance. Are the rituals strange to you? Or are they comfortable and familiar?

When an ethnographer travels, we aren’t just having fun. Sure, there’s an element of rest and relaxation but we’re far more likely to need a vacation from our vacation when we get back to our own culture. We’ve learned to see the world through the lens of our profession. We’re always observing, inquiring, experiencing in a very hands-on way. Spending time with the nomadic waDatoga, it’s easy to see their “exotic” rituals and routines. But the critical piece for us is to figure out what this tells us about our own culture – the Nacirema.

How are those rituals and routines different from our own? What is the true meaning behind them? What do they tell us about the underlying values, assumptions, and approach to life on this small piece of the planet? Then there’s the flip side of the question – how is what we see the same all over? What does our experience tell us about common human values? Emotions? Needs?

We learn not about them, but about ourselves. And that makes us better researchers, able to see uniqueness, similarities, and differences across groups of people. We can help our clients innovate based on insights that are informed by the work we don’t get paid to do just as much as the activities that do count as work in our own society.

So…this year it’s Tanzania for me. How are you shifting your gaze?


Bathroom: Antigua, Guatemala

1 Feb

The Worst Bathroom in the World

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t the *worst* bathroom in the world, but it seemed like it at the time. For the record, I have seen worse since then…MUCH worse.

I think the disconnect – what social scientists call “cognitive dissonance” – between the beauty of the room itself and the horrors of the bathroom made it seem even worse than it was. Yeah, there was mold and slime and one of those scary electric showers that I’m always sure is going to kill me but somehow never does. But the real turnoff was that it was attached to the most beautiful, character-filled room I’ve ever been offered at 4:30am in the middle of Guatemala. It was just…wrong.

The room itself was in a former home and it still had original details from who-knows-when. The tile and woodwork were amazing, and the portraits on the wall of some of the rich people who used to live there made me feel like their guest. The courtyard was a sanctuary, at least until the kitchen set up a station outdoors and started serving breakfast by the fountain at the crack of dawn. Still, the smells enticed me to join them outside for coffee and the memory of that half hour will always stay with me.

We didn’t stay here though. Not even for one night. We’d arrived from the Peten jungle sweaty, dirty, and exhausted after a red-eye bus that constantly looped The Da Vinci Code in Spanish on a black and white monitor. My boyfriend at the time stumbled into the shower then collapsed into a deep sleep for a few hours, but the prospect of waking to the grungy bathroom the next day horrified him. He wanted a nice, safe, clean room with towels that weren’t stained in every color of the rainbow. The prospect of Stranger Germs freaked him out and sent him running to a very nice, very touristy, very CLEAN hotel with a very clean bathroom a few streets over. I went along for the ride, to prevent a total meltdown. It turns out he’s not the Guatemala type – we broke up two weeks after the trip. Apparently, you can tell a lot about someone by their attitude toward bathrooms.

Since then, I find myself mourning the loss of more memories from a unique hotel that just had ONE little issue…the worst bathroom in the world.

But the room was gorgeous!

Am I creepy? Or cool? Let me explain…

1 Feb

Ethnography and Wine

I watch people for a living.

Sometimes I talk to them, other times I don’t. I’d like to think that what I learn makes the world a better place, but you never really know. The ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski ended his classic work Argonauts of the Western Pacific by reminding us that:

“The Science of Man, in its most refined and deepest version should lead us to such knowledge and to tolerance and generosity, based on the understanding of other men’s point of view.”

I am a Scientist of Man. Wait. No, that’s not right. Let me try that again. I’m a sociologist. Hmm. That’s not quite it either. What do I do? What am I? For that matter, is what I do ultimately who I am?

When you learn from people for a living, the lines between your work life and personal life aren’t just blurred, they disappear. I’m not sure what/who I am anymore – I’ve been hired, first and foremost, as an ethnographer, but the fact that I don’t study exotic cultures (well, not usually anyway) just confuses people.

I’ve been paid to be a sociologist, an anthropologist, a brand strategist, an adjunct professor, a behavioral analyst, a videographer, a photographer, a social science strategist, a consumer insights researcher, an ideation facilitator, and a writer. Whatever the job title has been, the goal has been to innovate. To glean insights from everyday life and share them with other people who use my work to change the world, based on an understanding of other men’s (and women’s) point of view. I am a storyteller, with a vision.

Maybe I am a Scientist of (Hu)Man after all. Maybe it really is that simple.

Creepy? Or cool? Let’s explore and see what we find…