Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ex BBDO Insights Chief: “Researchers Have Diluted Ethnography”

Cultural Anthropologist Says “Just Being There” Isn’t Enough
By Marc Dresner, IIR USA

A lot of what passes for ethnography today probably shouldn’t.

That’s according to Dr. Timothy Malefyt, former director of cultural discoveries at BBDO Worldwide, author of “Advertising and Anthropology” and visiting professor at Fordham University’s Center for Positive Marketing.

“Ethnography today is really flooded with researchers,” says Malefyt, a bona fide anthropologist. “This only acts to dilute the quality of research out there, and it also introduces some bad practices.”

The problem, he says, is that most ethnography today doesn’t go much beyond “just being there”—basically watching, peppered with a few questions.
Timothy Malefyt

This isn’t ivory tower snobbery. Malefyt says it boils down to more than just a semantic distinction between genuine anthropology and perhaps a more accessible version of observational consumer research.

“We’re missing a tremendous opportunity,” he told The Research Insighter, “because there is insufficient rigor and really no use of models of consumer behavior to analyze what’s going on and actually lead to creative insights.”

Setting the question of whether or not Margaret Mead is rolling in her grave aside, it’s probably worth considering that a PhD in anthropology is a credential many commercial practitioners of ethnography honestly can’t lay claim to.

And if Malefyt is right, what do we need to do differently?

In this episode of The Research Insighter podcast series, Malefyt discusses:

• The importance of balancing emic and etic perspectives

• Getting at the complete “internal behavioral experience”

• Using ethnography to drive creativity, and more…

Editor’s note: Timothy Malefyt will be speaking at The Market Research Event 2013 taking place October 21-23 in Nashville, TN.

For information or to register, please visit

Marc Dresner is IIR USA’s sr. editor and special communication project lead. He is the former executive editor of Research Business Report, a confidential newsletter for the marketing research and consumer insights industry. He may be reached at Follow him @mdrezz.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this blog post. I wasn't aware of Tim's new book, as the commoditization of ethnographic practice has indeed watered down the potential value of applied anthropology in business.

Tony D'Andrea

Barry R. Bainton, PhD, MBA said...

Many anthropology graduates are seeking employment in the business world especially in marketing. I agree that while the ethnographic approach can make a real contribution to a company's bottomline, it is not a given that some anthropological training is adequate training to interpret consumer behavior.

A PhD in anthropology is not necessary to be an effective ethnographic researcher in consumer behavior. With a proper curriculum, an MA degree should be effective technical training. Such training would include a core in ethnographic research methods and processes with a strong dose of marketing based on the current model of consumer decision making behavior. It would be an interdisciplinary program combining the anthropology department and the business school.