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Ethnography in a Post-Truth World

As the world around us changes, as such does ethnography. An understanding of ethnography is crucial for MRX professionals to navigate the data-centric world of consumer insights.

Editor’s Note: Ethnographic research has a long history in Anthropology, but a much briefer one in market research. The rich insights that can be obtained by an “outsider looking in” can be very valuable. Not enough market researchers know enough about ethnography, but it can be an important qualitative method. Here, Anoushka Gupta provides a valuable perspective and gives us a lot to think about.

The Imposter Syndrome in Ethnography

The imposter syndrome is the feeling of being an outsider among a group of people. In some cases, people try to fit into a group by imitating the codes and patterns of behavior deemed appropriate, known, accepted and approved by the desired social group, to belong or simply to live up to the expectations of immediate society. This is different in some ways to the cognitive bias identified as the Dunning Kruger effect which states that people overestimate their own abilities within a given context. This relates to the psychology of the human mind, whereas the imposter syndrome is rooted in a social and cultural experience.

I was first introduced to the idea of the imposter while reading L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child. In the story, the Wizard of Oz arrived in the land of Oz descending from the sky in a hot air balloon. The people of Oz, in awe of this unfamiliar spectacle, bestowed upon him greatness and power making him their ruler. Although an ordinary man with no special powers, he used his skills to keep this myth alive but also spending much of his true self in hiding. I was fascinated by this idea of the “humbug”, thinking perhaps I was a humbug myself. Growing up,  I felt as though I wasn’t given the rulebook on social interaction and behaviors. I was always the listener in the group because I was curious where these behaviors (what I now see as codes and patterns) came from. This possibly is the “why” behind my journey into journalism, cultural and media studies.

As to whether people should experience imposter syndrome, I think everyone does. Much of this relates to the very personal experience of the dominant culture that surrounds you. Think of how many people experience anxiety and pressure today – this is very much the feeling of not being completely comfortable in your own skin. Some struggle with it more than others, and when there is conflict (internal or external), half the battle is to acknowledge it.

The Role of the Outsider

Being a student of journalism, media, and cultural studies, I came to believe there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. We all leave our mark on the work that we produce (auteur theory in film studies). We bring our own personal biases and beliefs to the work that we produce. Not to say that the work is then not reliable – but because there is no true objectivity – it makes our work harder and our responsibility is then to ask the right questions, listen to diverse views and never let something that may seem obvious go without a question. In ethnographies, I often use the trope of cluelessness so it enables my respondents to over-compensate and over-explain why they do what they do – as they willingly bring me into their world.

The value of being an outsider is really that of empathy. There is no one worldview. Neither is there one way of being. There are multiple ways of being and no one way is the right way. It’s like understanding accents – it is speaking one language with the rules of its own.

As a researcher, one must experience from the perspective of the social group in order to understand their experience. This is always harder to do, because in some cases (culturally), I may have vastly different experiences from the people I talk to. In order to understand what respondents experience it is not sufficient to ask them questions, but also to observe their context to understand why.

As an outsider in ethnography, you are constantly asking questions, observing the ways and means of the object of research. People notice culture when something different from what you are used to happens and catches your attention. “Culture” is acknowledged as a way of being when viewed from the outside (critical distance), but empathy is needed to understand that culture, and to do justice to the stories of those whose lives are different from your own.

Dominant Cultures and the Leadership Challenge

Whether it is old school corporate culture or new age modern company cultures that companies are embracing, the truth is when promoting any type of culture that is dominant within a social group or corporate structure, we must find a way to be open to the “outsiders” – because as discussed before, they are the ones that see things differently and perhaps can offer an alternative perspective that can signal a change, an opportunity for growth, diversity, and inclusion.

Youth culture has always been about being comfortable with being uncomfortable, challenging the status quo. Look at the birth of rock and roll, the 60s, goth/emo culture, comics, avant-garde cinema, tattoos, etc. etc. – all ways and means to challenge / question socio-cultural norms, find expression and ultimately a sense of belonging with those who share similar experiences. All these subcultures exist as a response to the dominant culture.

I think today we are in a state of transition. “Imposters” are embracing their imposter-hood and speaking out, how culture and social structures evolve as a result of this will be interesting to see. I do see youth culture slowly becoming a milieu of subcultures. There is greater acceptance of difference and diversity (of thought, expression, orientations, and personalities) and in fact, being embraced. A mild example of this is the movie Love, Simon – where the protagonist struggles with his identity and the challenges of being a teenager, much of which causes disruption in his friendships, only to come out to much more acceptance and understanding than we could ever have imagined a decade ago.

Post-truth and Data-Centricity: Humanity versus AI?

This might sound a bit pedantic, but one could argue there is no one “truth” – given that people experience things so differently – so their interpretation of the facts could be viewed as being their truth. However, the facts are the facts. And, perhaps, in this case, the principles of ethnography – that is to listen, question and understand without bias (or rather by acknowledging bias) can be leveraged to understand and appreciate the truth of diverse experiences without compromising the integrity of facts and perhaps prevent a “post-fact” world?

My understanding of AI and ML has been influenced by Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil – in which she talks about implicit bias seeding into algorithms being developed by human beings. Even though we are using big data and ML to develop and design sophisticated decision-making tools – we forget it is a human being that developed and designed these algorithms and therefore the room for error exists as with anything man-made. The problem is the loss of accountability.

Growing the Mental Toolkit for Richer Insights

Listen, observe and be curious. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. Talk to people you find interesting. Read more, engage in more diverse content. Do something that isn’t recommended to you by an algorithm or an influencer.

I see ethnography in market research today as a way of staying connected to social and cultural evolution, ways and means through which people/groups of people find expression, engage and interact with the world around them. Keeping a pulse on this is how brands and products can define strategic business objectives and find meaningful ways to become part of the culture.


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Anoushka Gupta

Anoushka Gupta

Senior Director, Ethnographic Insights at Research Strategy Group Inc.