Posted by: graceroxasmorrissey | May 7, 2014

Ethnography and the “decisive moment”

The mundane has never been so important. In our search for authenticity and resonance in strategic communications, ethnographic research is one of the best (if not the best) approaches out there to reel in those telling vignettes of human experience that build up to the bigger story of our product, service or brand.

In their seminal paper on market-oriented ethnography, Eric Arnould and Melanie Wallendorf talked about using ethnography “to provide managers with vivid exemplars of the layers of meaning that organize behavioral constellations.” It reminds me of the term “decisive moment” coined by the legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe a transcendent or poignant (or both) slice of reality captured in a still photo.


Ethnography and street photography even share the same work ethics, entailing long hours of mindful observation and balancing a subjective perspective with detachment. The process that led Cartier-Bresson to the monumental “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” has similarities to the method of exploration that might lead a creative director thinking about a washer and dryer ad campaign to discover a quirky ritual that elevates the human laundry day experience.

Ethnographic research has truly expanded from its exotic anthropological roots when the likes of Bronislaw Malinowsky probed the frontiers of civilization, inspiring fictional prototypes ranging from Colonel Kurtz to Indiana Jones. In our class presentation, we will also touch on how the Malinowskys of our time are going to the “tribes” of the workplace and cyberspace to understand the human impulse.

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