Ethnography in Higher Ed: How RHB’s Ethnographic Approach Leads to Institutional Empowerment

Late last fall, we published an Insight in which I discussed some connections between marketing and anthropology that would be the subject of a paper I co-authored with RHB’s Rob Zinkan to be delivered at the American Anthropological Association conference. The point of our paper was that anthropology and marketing share the goal of understanding how humans understand themselves. We also argued that anthropologists have fallen into a cynicism that sometimes blunts their ability to take joy and aesthetic expression seriously. Marketers provide great inspiration for discovering how people relate to brands and institutions as a way to make sense of themselves and to genuinely create positivity for themselves.

While I was at this conference, it was interesting to see how academic anthropologists responded to someone doing ethnography in ways that are non-traditional. I also got to catch up with some colleagues who are working in the tech sector and other industries, hearing about how they are pushing the boundaries of what “ethnography” means.

Academic methodological conversations have implications for our clients because the appropriateness of our methodology and how we talk about it establishes our credentials as trustworthy experts. At the same time, we also have an opportunity to be part of the conversation that changes how academic anthropologists might understand the possibilities of the field.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I was talking to an anthropologist, L, who was a major influence on my academic work. She heard the paper I presented and wanted to know what RHB means by ethnography because she feels so strongly that what it means to anthropologists is the correct meaning. She is not alone in this regard. Anthropologists in the United States can be intently focused on how the way they practice ethnography distinguishes anthropology from sociology, ethnic studies or international relations, to name a few other fields that can concern themselves with understanding human cultures.

What ethnography means to anthropologists 

To many American anthropologists, ethnography is a qualitative research method with highly specific features. The primary feature of anthropological ethnography is that it is both a process and a product of long-term engagement with a community through what is called participant-observation, or the process of learning about culture and language by hanging out and being part of daily life. 

The standard idea of doing anthropological fieldwork involves spending about a year out in the “field,” which can be really anywhere, even in one’s own home community. While doing ethnography, anthropologists contribute to the work of households, perform expressive art forms like music or cooking, or otherwise just become part of life while also conducting interviews and making observations. 

Then, after fieldwork ends, anthropologists are often in contact with people they met in the field across their entire life courses and even become godparents to children or otherwise help provide for the care of family members. There can be other visits and other projects. This is the ethical deal, to continue to be interested and active in the lives of people who were generous enough to give time and space to someone asking questions. 

The distinction here is that many other fields may use the word “ethnography” to refer to interviewing or short-term visits to a place, but they tend to not emphasize the immersive nature of anthropological ethnography. Rather, the goal seems to be to capture a “slice of life” or to see what others are looking at or experiencing, but without the context of everything else that happens that might give the ethnographic slice more depth.

Another key component of anthropological ethnography is conducting research in the local language. While there may be periods of requiring a translator to help, in the most classic ethnographies, fieldworkers showed up somewhere and by dint of immersion learned the language of the communities where they worked. The goal here is to avoid filtering one’s understanding of what’s happening and what’s being said through someone else’s interpretations to the extent possible. The process of working through being misunderstood can be one of the most productive. When a fluent speaker of a language has to explain why a word choice was wrong or why something was said incorrectly for the context of the conversation, some deep cultural material can be excavated.

Ethnography is also the reportage of the research, through writing and sometimes through film- or music-making or constructing museum exhibits. Ethnographic writing can be rich with detail about things that happen and quote people met in the field. This reportage is also a chance for the anthropologist to be clear about how their background affects the research topics that interest them and how they interact with people they meet in the field. 

Anthropology as a field is by no means uncontroversial. Some major figures in anthropological theoretical history were pseudoscientistic racists (e.g., Carleton Coon), actual or assumed spies (e.g., Edmund Leach), or otherwise cogs in the bureaucratic machinery of colonial governments. Anthropologists have spoken for others who can speak for themselves and even been complicit in the mistreatment of human remains and burial goods.

Anthropological ethnography is itself controversial in certain ways. It is an exclusive methodology in the sense that doing it in the traditional fashion presupposes having a budget sufficient for that. It also typically required being single or having a family who was willing to move or function without one adult member for a while. How many people can reasonably meet these criteria, especially if they come from minoritized groups, need a grant or have caretaking responsibilities? Sometimes, a couple are both anthropologists; if they don’t share the same field site, then what? 

Since we have access to an increasing number of digital channels that allow us to visit each other from home, some feel there is even less reason to go away for extended periods of time. This is an opportunity to consider how anthropology can live up to the promise it makes to make the world safe for human diversity by allowing more people to become anthropologists. This is also an opportunity to dig more deeply into the applied, empowering capabilities of social science research, the ones that create useful tools for problem-solving and giving constituents access to all the benefits of their relationships with you.

Exploring empowering ethnographic capabilities at RHB

At RHB, scuttling off to do long-term, embedded research with any individual institution is a non-starter. However, to go back to L’s question about what we mean when we talk about “ethnography,” one of the things I told her is that while we don’t engage in long-term, single-episode immersive research with any campus, what we do have are long-lasting relationships that, in some cases, have lasted a decade or more. The insights we are able to draw as we see the many changes that happen at an institution are also made in the “local” language of that institution. That’s one reason why clients see such an emphasis on the discovery element of our service offerings and why we talk so much about both language and behaviors as part of our commitment to Coherence. We have to understand how you speak in order to help you align your speech with the practices that truthfully communicate your market position.

We also emphasize the elements of our work that lead to client empowerment. All of our services are designed around guiding institutions toward creating and maintaining increased relevance that leads to the relationships and revenue they need. Consider our guidance on bringing search in house, setting up clear data governance policies to go along with a shiny new Slate implementation, or designing the right marketing and communications organizational structure that adapts to future conditions.

Ultimately, RHB’s goal is to collaborate with you on creating a shared understanding of how you speak and behave and how you and others talk about you right now so we can make actionable recommendations about the kinds of practices that will align your realities and your aspirations. The best work in anthropology is community centered, open hearted and collaborative. That’s very much the approach we take at RHB and that RHB has taken since 1991. 

We want to help you create relevance for the people who matter most to you so that you can enact higher ed’s promise to transform the universe. It is a privilege to be able to carry your stories back to my home discipline so I can remind them of the power of engaged research and discovery that is responsive to the people it serves.

  • Spread the word
Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.