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?


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