Ethnography as it should be
10/17/08 / Kevin Raines
This is the fifth in a series of posts on our recent trip to Africa. To see our other posts, click here. While in South Africa, we stayed at a classic game lodge. We ate impala at night and we slept in a tent (albeit the most luxurious tent I’ve ever seen), and in the day we drove around with a Zulu ranger in a land rover, looking for animals. Photo: Elephant on safari.
The land rovers could hold up to nine people if they enjoyed crowding, and it was obviously in the lodge’s best interest to keep them full. So whenever small groups arrived, they were assigned to a land rover and a ranger en masse. Three or four couples might ride together during the day, and as a bonding exercise, they also ate their meals together at night, back at the lodge. When we arrived, we saw some of the groups that had been together for a few days, and they all seemed to get along famously. It was a good marketing idea for the most part, as it let guests meet each other and added a social element to the bumpy rides.
For the first couple of days, Karla and I rode alone, because there were no other groups checking in during an unexpected lull in business. We knew that we would eventually become part of a bigger group, though, and hoped that it would include some interesting people. We were a Fred and Wilma looking forward to meeting a Barney and Betty. On day three, an extended family of six joined our land rover, another group of Americans that included three adult siblings, a spouse, and two parents of the siblings. Photo: Our land rover (in which we were ignored).
It seemed like we would get along well, but … hey, we tried. The family wasn’t mean or smelly or uncouth, but rather they completely and unilaterally ignored us. All conversations were between themselves, and any attempts by us to converse were generally met with cursory answers and no back-and-forth. I don’t know how you can ignore other people in the same vehicle, but they somehow accomplished it. Overall, it was more than a little disappointing, and made for some rather awkward dinners and other forced interactions. (Admittedly, however, it made for some rather humorous moments from a humbling perspective, such as our last night as a group, when the patriarch called for a group picture. We had driven as a group from the lodge into town, for a beach outing and a nice dinner: Karla and me, their family group, our everpresent ranger, and a temporary driver who had been assigned to us that day. “We should get everyone together for a group shot,” the patriarch said at dinner, and the youngest daughter (in her 20s) gestured to us. “Maybe we can get those people to take the photo.” After nearly a week of spending hours together every day, they still hadn’t bothered to learn our names. But it got worse: as I patiently took their camera to take their photo, and the patriarch said, “Y’know, this isn’t a complete group shot, now that I think of it. Go get that temporary driver!”) Photo: Our retaliatory group photo, minus the other family.
So anyway, the nice thing about this situation is that, while we didn’t exactly make new friends, it was a great opportunity to do ethnographic research. In ethnographic research, the idea is to “live amongst the natives” and observe their behavior. One challenge with that is that you can’t “live amongst the natives” without impacting their behavior. If they know you’re doing research, they may change their behaviors as a result of your presence, which can taint the findings.
In this case, though, it’s safe to say that our presence did not change one thing about their behavior. They knew nothing about us when we met them, and they knew nothing about us when we parted ways, and if pressed, I’m not sure that they would have acknowledged that there were other people in the land rover. Since there were occasional bouts of boredom when the animals weren’t leaping from the bush, Karla and I conducted an extensive ethnographic analysis of the family, plotting and discussing how each family member interacted with each other, examining the social structure of their little tribe, and generally developing what could be a fascinating magazine article some day about family dynamics.
And you know the most interesting thing we found? Remember that Safaris and Girls, Girls and Safaris blog post last week? Well, we proved that it held true for this family. The youngest daughter, even though she was legally an adult, was the one who had singlehandedly caused the trip to happen. Hopelessly spoiled and relentlessly doted on by every other family member, she was the one whose initial idea was immediately adopted and turned into a $50,000 family vacation at the patriarch’s expense. So yes, marketers, point your safari ads to girls and young women, because they appear to be the decisionmaking heart of your market.
We won’t extend this blog article to include the full results of our ethnographic study of this family, in part because they were dysfunctional enough that it would be more entertaining than educational. Suffice to say, though, that we know exactly how any marketing should be aimed at that family, and any others that are unfortunate enough to have similar family dynamics. I’d be willing to bet that we know them better than they know themselves.
I guess if you ever find yourself on vacation with people who own a market research company, you should see if they’re taking notes at dinner.