Moving Forward

Following the success of our first ethnocharrette, the Center for Ethnography plans on developing this format in the coming months and implementing it in a number of new contexts. We will continue to experiment with almost every aspect — setting, length, participants, materials, objectives, end products — with the intention of devising a set of new, generative techniques for reshaping and transforming modern ethnographic theory, method, and pedagogy.

We invite comments on the ethnocharrette project, and look forward to engaging in a fruitful conversation about possible directions and transformations.


§ 18 Responses to Moving Forward

  • Sarah Meacham says:

    Hi Keith and George,
    This is really cool. I recently read the book by Rabinow and Marcus and am glad to see that you’re putting the ideas into practice. It’s a much needed rethinking of the ethnographic object and process. Looking forward to your moving forward. I suppose the next step would be to take one or more of these outcomes out into the world, see how it works, and do some iterative re-design? I look forward to hearing more.
    Thanks for an interesting read (and hi Keith!)

    -Sarah Meacham

  • Keith, George,

    The process you describe is in some ways very similar to the brainstorming and planning sessions in which I participated while working for Hakuhodo, Japan’s 2nd largest advertising agency (1983-1996). The post-it notes taped to the wall were extremely evocative in this regard. Then, on reflection, I began to note differences.

    Your students read a book. A creative team receives a brief, typically including the target profile, the desired effect on the target, the proposition, a brief rationale, explaining why communicating this proposition to that target should achieve the desired effect, and a list of imperatives and warnings. The list includes the medium for which the ad is made, the client’s preferences in tone and manner, and client taboos that should be respected.

    Your students jotted down bits from the book that they found evocative. In the creative meetings in which I participated, the medium was A4-size sheets of paper instead of post-it notes and the content creative ideas, copy, sketches, rough story-boards, etc. In every case, the creator’s mission was to transcend the brief, to come up with something that while “on strategy” would add something fresh.

    Your student’s were encouraged to explore a variety of new approaches. The same is true of advertising creatives; but the latter are constrained by client wishes, budgets—and deadlines. Everyone involved knows that the goal is to come up with two, three or four ideas for presentation to the client at a pre-set date and time. The result is a process that begins with “let a thousand flowers bloom” but, then, as the deadline approaches becomes sharply focused on selection and refinement.

    When I taught advertising and marketing at Sophia University in Tokyo, it was, I found, the focusing and refinement that my students found most challenging. So I find myself wondering how ethnocharrette will feed into the research plan/grant proposal writing that will be the inevitable next step for those who pursue careers as anthropologists.

    • Hi John

      Elements of the charrette process are pretty common in a lot of design-oriented disciplines, though the details tend to look different depending on project specifics. The match with anthropology/ethnography is not a precise one, and we knew this going in. I think you pull out what I see as the biggest difference: we’ve got no obvious “client” and the “deliverable” has no obvious life outside the event itself. But that’s kind of a fun challenge — identifying who the interested participants in a process like this might be, and what kinds of useful stuff we can creatively produce. There’s definitely friction in importing design methods to this territory, part of which stems from a sort of “structural” asymmetry between different traditional pedagogical forms (e.g., design is much more hands-on, anthropology is much more text-centered), but also from our own personal comforts and proclivities — most anthropology students are not explicitly encouraged to be “creative,” however that’s defined, as part of the learning process (despite the fact that much of what fieldwork and writing entails is very creative). Additionally, we usually aren’t comfortable with intentionally generating defeat. I guess defeat is a strong word, but charrettes aren’t generally successful at producing fully formed end products. There’s a lot of half-cooked ideas that come out, but then these ideas end up as kernels of projects that develop over time through lots of different iterations.

      In terms of how the ethnocharrette will feed into grant and proposal writing, that’s an open question. During the next academic year and beyond we plan on experimenting with this form at different intervention points, to see what works where and for whom. Input is always welcome.


  • susan says:

    The process you are engaged in and charting is very exciting—I’m wondering when and how it will lead to the the production of new work – not just jumping off from what has been done in the past.

    Why not a “charette” starting with some object other than an ethnography- and of course, a charettte involves meals and lots of cigartettes ( well maybe not this last in California) in any case, the charette would itself be a fascinating object of study, perhaps a new version of the ethnographic film? One must appreciate the way this excercise performs not just the closure of the seminar and the academy, but the old-fashoned setting of the closed culture…the roots of ethnographic practice transformed into a meeting set for certain times. (I imagine that the students were not told they must remain in this setting indefinitely…or perhaps their dreams of professionalisation indicate a wishinto stay in this space forever?)

    In response to John’s remarks- how might one imagine the client? the end result? This too could be part of the excercise.

    Selection and refinement? These are indeed crucial, but I see these as separate from career objectives- the things that might win one a job or a grant are secondary products of the more genral discernment one gains from working on projects such as this one.


    • Hi Susan

      Absolutely we could organize a charrette around an object or objects. This leans more toward the kinds of charrettes I’ve been involved with in design contexts, and I hope to integrate this in a future event. I also video recorded our first ethnocharrette, though I’m not sure what to do with it yet. My research is with designers (furniture designers in Sweden and architects in the US) so I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at design process-type things ethnographically, and turning the analytical eye toward the ethnocharrette is a logical next step.


  • johnmccreery says:

    Susan, your “How might one imagine the client?” points to a perennial debate in developing advertising. One begins by imagining that the ad must speak effectively to its intended target, whether teenagers being seduced to purchase a soft drink or corporate purchasing agents in charge of multi-million dollar budgets for IT equipment….Even at this level, anomalies and ambiguities abound. Allow me two anecdotes.

    While working on the relaunch of low-calorie soft drink, we were instructed to target women with urban lifestyles in the 25-34 age category. We went round and round with the client because, in Tokyo in the year in question, over 50% of women aged 25-29 were still single, a percentage that fell to just over 12% for the 30-34 segment—and, in Japan in that decade, the habits and attitudes of the Sex-in-the-City singles were very different from those of health-conscious young mothers (kids coming soon after marriage still being a prevalent pattern).

    Later, while working on the launch of a new European luxury sports sedan, I experienced a different issue. The young Japanese creatives and the automaker’s cool-dude marketing manager both loved the off-beat proposals that the creatives came up with. Just to be safe, however, we decided to test them on the 50+ professionals and successful entrepreneurs who are the primary target for this type of car. To make a long story short, they hated these ideas.

    At the end of the day, however, the conflict that almost always comes up is that between the creatives’ ideas of what will work with the target and the account executives’ ideas of what the clients’ want. Prima donna attitudes justified by appeals to professionalism confront the reality that unless the clients sign off and pay for the work, nothing will be produced.

    How might this be relevant to anthropology? It is easy for me to imagine someone who (1) is applying for grants from agencies that insist on a “scientific” approach, (2) trying to write for colleagues who share similar “interpretive” tastes, and (3) would, the Holy Grail, like to produce work with broad public appeal and/or political impact. Who, indeed, is the client here?

  • Joe says:

    Great process and wonderful to get it into type! One thing you report (i think) is how long each of the stages took, including presentation making.

    • johnmccreery says:

      A technique I offer for your consideration is one I developed for my seminars on advertising. Instead of dividing the class into four small groups and letting them do their own thing, I assigned each group a particular perspective. The object in question was a TV commercial. One group was given what always turned out to be the most difficult task, to provide a behaviorist description of what they saw in the commercial, with no attribution of meaning whatsoever. A second group was given what seemed at first the easiest perspective, that of ordinary consumers. Its task was to agree on what, if anything, they found interesting in it and how it affected their attitude toward the product in question. The third group were the marketing strategists. Their job was to provide a strategic rationale for why this commercial should achieve its intended effect on a particular target audience. The fourth group were told to look at the commercial in creative terms and report on how the use of language, music, setting, color, tempo, rhythm, etc., enhanced the commercial’s message.

      I can imagine a similar exercise for a class reading an ethnography, with small groups instructed to critique the ethnography in terms of a particular, classic or current, theoretical framework.

      • Thanks for the suggestion! We’re definitely interested in playing with different formats, especially as we integrate the ideas into different situations — so a classroom setting will have constraints and affordances that a standalone event won’t (and vice versa). I particularly like the idea of thinking/arguing/creating from a particular point of view, especially if it’s one that you may not be so familiar with or invested in.


  • […] explored as a new approach to teaching ethnography. See what it’s all about at a site called Ethnocharette. Let me know what you […]

  • Pat Galloway says:

    But what about the ethnography of the ethnocharrette? This seems a lot like some brands of agile programming, about which there is a little ethnography but not nearly enough. Having defected from anthropology to information science, I am interested in information flows (economies, ecologies, etc.) through all these processes, particularly where paper and digital intersect in a hybrid process–which you certainly have here.

  • Nothing new. Just a way to sign up for notifications of comments and new posts.

  • Jaime Snyder says:

    Great to see this documentation and analysis of the charrette process. Looking forward to seeing what comes next.

  • Hi. Curious if there were further generations of this project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s