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New book on anthropology in consumer research

21 November, 2007

Left Coast Press has just published Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research by Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita M. Denny. For more information:
http://www.lcoastpr php?id=116

A blurb by George Marcus reads:

“This work succeeds brilliantly in blurring the increasingly unhelpful perception of a divide between ‘applied’ and ‘academic’ anthropology. Along several dimensions, it demonstrates how ‘cutting edge’ and indeed ‘theoretical’ post-1980s ethnographic research on consumers and marketing has been. Among the current literature in this field, this book has the comprehensiveness to serve as an ideal teaching tool.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Michaela permalink
    23 November, 2007 11:00 am

    I don’t doubt that this book would serve as an ideal teaching tool. The authors have truly found their niche in the marketing world and are able to market themselves in both the academic and corporate worlds. I would be interested to read what they have to say about the ethics of applying anthropology and ethnography to marketing as a selling tool. And here I would have to note that I do not romanticise anthropology, but feel strongly that when academic anthropological and ethnographic work is placed under the scrutiny of ethics approval – to the extent that an ethics board will push an anthropologist to give out contacts for counselling services to participants that are discussing general issues in child rearing (!) – so too should any anthropologists’ work contributing to marketing and/or corporate research projects. For an anthropologist to sit in a bar, for example, and observe how people use a particular product with the aim of writing up an ethnographic report commissioned by a particular company that creates such products, with the aim of helping to ‘get into the consumers head’ – with out ever informing the ‘participants’ being observed that they are being targeted for a study is highly unethical. Personally, I would be extremely unhappy if I learnt that I had been part of a consumer group targeted in this way. I would be interested to know what an ethics board might recommend to such studies, how an ethics board would justify the lack of consent or even awareness on the part of “participants” or more accurately ‘non-participating-participants’, or even more accurately ‘entirely-unaware-non-participating-participants’. If anthropologists that are paid by corporations to help sell products, create products and push products, are able to work with out the same scrutiny of an ethics board as those pursuing academic fields, why worry about ethics at all ?

  2. Third Tone Devil permalink
    23 November, 2007 12:43 pm

    It is interesting indeed what ethics board would say. But then, corporate anthropologists don’t have to work with ethics boards. On the other hand, worrying about ethics boards is in most cases quite different from worrying about ethics. I am not sure if you have followed the debate on anthropologists in the military; opinions vary greatly as to whether it is ethical or not for anthropologists to provide services that will be used by a power that is, according to them, engaged in an unjust war. By analogy, it is debatable whether providing services to a capitalist company, which you might see as serving an inherently unjust regime, is also unethical. But the situation is different, because anthropologists in capitalist countries do participate in capitalist relations of production and thus “play along”, even if they work at universities and not companies.

    If you want to make a more differentiated argument, i.e. developing certain products and marketing them to certain populations is unethical, then you’d have to say which ones.

  3. slinker71 permalink
    27 November, 2007 5:28 pm

    I’d also pose the question, is consumption and the encouragement of consumptive behaviour ethically corrupt? and as a follow up, why or why not?

    Is designing a new easy grip potato peeler for people with arthritis, which might have come out of observational studies a bad thing?

    Is using semi structured interviews to create medical devices that allow people in a specialist role in Sydney treat people in the Blue mountains wrong?

    As TTD notes, when does the use the of ethnographic techniques (maybe as opposed to enthnography proper), verge into this ethical grey area? Is it the results of research? The purposes it’s put to (or not put to – is this worse)?

    Of course my perspective as one of those dodgy corporate anthropologists (“design researcher” actually), we try not to actively pursue observational research without informed consent and adequate remuneration to the individual. There are ethical guidelines we use for research (the ones we currently use are a mixture of the AAA and the AMRS <- surprisingly enough are more specific than the Anthro ones).

    Any pure observational research (as opposed to participant observation) is undertaken in public places, where observation is legally allowed (eg. pubs, cafes), or with permission of the locations owners (shopping centres).
    No individuals are ever identified (under the privacy act), and such work is usually used only as an adjunct to more in depth research using semi structured interviews, surveys and other information elicitation techniques. Hardly any clients would be happy if I told them I got all my research from sitting in a pub without talking to anyone in depth.

    One interesting author that not too many anthropologists have heard of is Grant McCracken, whos books on Culture and Consumption (Culture and Consumption 1 and 2) look at the very question of understanding consumption as an active part of creating culture.

    He examines how process of investing objects (through advertising and marketing) with cultural meaning allows people to help define themselves. I see his perspective when he states:

    “Consumer society is not an artifical and catastrophic social invention. It is a culture with its own sytematic properties. And we are not devouring beasts who treat with the devil. We are creatures who depend on the meanings contained in the material world.”

    From this point of view is understanding and investing products with cultural meaning and additional utility through the use of ethnographic techniques a good thing or a bad thing?

  4. 28 March, 2008 3:56 am


    I added your blog to my favourites @ “Insights Qualitativos 2.0” – an English-Spanish collective blog related with “out-of-the-box” research.

    Best wishes!

    Pablo Sánchez Kohn

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