Why Ethnography is Important

EthnographyMissionaries know it. Businesses know it. Documentarians film it. Marketers make money from it. But what is it? It is ethnography.

Ethnography ????? ethnos = people and ??????? graphein = writing) is the genre of writing that presents varying degrees of qualitative and quantitativefieldwork. Ethnography presents the results of a holistic
research method founded on the idea that a system’s properties cannot
necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other.

It doesn’t matter if you are a youth pastor in a community. An insurance salesman. A high school math teacher. Or a physician. If you want to succeed in a community,  you need to take the time to understand how the community works. Understanding ethnography helps you understand how the people think, how the politics of both elected and unelected people control things, and understand how cultural phenomenon dictate community behavior. (Holidays, local business practices, etc)

Here’s the thing. Most doctors, pastors, insurance salesmen, and high school math teachers that fail, do so for cultural reasons and not because they are bad doctors, pastors, salesmen, or teachers. They fail because they failed to grasp the culture they are working in. Yet they blame themselves, their training, or even the people they want to sell to, provide services for, or teach for their failure!

Success at Romeo depends not just on us teaching doctrine and working hard.
It depends heavily on us adapting and developing methods to reach our community by first understanding how the community works. Stick with me.

Some examples:

Saddleback and Willow Creek Community Church:

It doesn’t matter what you think about their church, they are extremely successful in their respective communities. Why? In both cases, before these churches were created, the creators spent time understanding the culture. They spent weeks and months talking to both churched and unchurched people in their communities before they drew a single conclusion about the design of their churches. As a result, these two successful churches developed strategies for reaching their communities. Rick Warren and Bill Hybels were both reasonably successful before creating Saddleback and Willow Creek. But if they had skipped the hard work of developing a new church based ethnography and simply tried to replicate what worked at their previous churches, they likely wouldn’t have been as successful. The reason why people trying to copy these churches fail is because you can’t replicate the culture of suburban Chicago and Los Angeles in Albuquerque, downtown Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, or Podunk, Iowa. Too many people think that success is a matter of copying the winning formula and not understanding their own cultures. (Despite the fact that both of those churches constantly tell people, "Don’t copy us, understand your own context!")

What I think is working well in Romeo is that we’re not merely replicating what is successful somewhere else. Instead, we’ve taken the time to understand our culture and adapted a model that works for us in our community. Have we reinvented the wheel? Of course not. It’s no secret that we’re looking to a model. But instead of wholesale copying, we’re adapting everything to our context.

Dirt roads:

I wrote about this a few days ago
, and I’m sure I offended some of my neighbors with my soap box. Here’s the thing about ethnography. In a culture, it doesn’t matter if something is actually true, it only matters that people believe it. I was talking to someone about his travels to Africa. He showed me a wooden idol that women wear because they believe it helps them get pregnant. Now, we know this isn’t true. A woman doesn’t get pregnant because of an idol any more than she conceives a boy because she wears blue. (Um, not sure what I mean… ask your mom) But that culture believes it is true, so to them… it’s true. The same thing with dirt roads. In Romeo, people believe that paving a road increases traffic. They believe that if they pave the road more people will drive by their houses. It doesn’t matter that these roads already have traffic because there are hundreds and thousands of people living there. In their minds, it’s true that paving a road increases traffic. I can talk about public safety and commerce until I’m blue in the face, but they believe it is true… so it is. As a result, they fight to maintain a rural feel in a clearly suburban community. This is related to a larger thing in the ethnography of Romeo: Romeo is rural. That’s for another day!

More often than not, MTV manages to develop shows that people want to watch. How do they do that? Are they just brilliant? Well, they are brilliant in their simplicity. MTV takes the time and spends the money to understand their target audience. They do that in the field and not in focus groups. Frontline did a great job of documenting this in "Merchants of Cool." They identify their target audience and then send people to go do ethnography. A staffer will go and live with someone in their target audience for a couple weeks to learn everything that they do. It’s just simple observation… write down everything that a 17 year old guy does over a 2 week period. But it’s led to hitting the nail on the head with shows like Jackass, Wild and Out, and their role in developing reality TV.

Bottled water:
Safe water to drink is nearly free in most places in this country. And yet people buy bottled water because they believe it is better for them than the water out of the tap. It’s not true, but people believe it. Bottlers make 3-4000% profit by bottling tap water in plastic bottles. Is the marketer evil for filling a need they created? I don’t think so. I think they are being rewarded for understanding culture.

Why ethnography matters:
The bottom line is that a firm understanding of your culture helps you succeed in whatever industry you work in. As a pastor, understanding our culture guides the discernment process in developing methods for reaching people with the unchangeable truth of Jesus Christ. I think really good ministers in America are looking at their communities missiologically. Pastors who struggle in their community aren’t bad ministers, they just aren’t missionaries to their communities yet. It’s not that they don’t know the Bible well enough. Often times it’s that they are trying to do things in their community methodologically that just don’t fit and won’t work. It’s like starting a Starbucks next to a feed store, it just doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t matter if you are starting a business, a church, or a club. Ethnography helps you determine if your great idea will work or not. Just because something worked in another culture doesn’t mean it will work in your culture. Just ask Wal*Mart in Germany.






2 responses to “Why Ethnography is Important”

  1. Patti Avatar

    Bravo! So many don’t understand the difference between cultural reletivism and ethnography, so they lump them together as B.A.D.

    In fact, you can’t relate to a culture (much less become philisophically reletive to it, which isn’t a good thing but the biggest fear of those who resist change) unless you first become a student of that culture. Knowing the ethos of a locale (AND the cultures within it) makes so much sense, and making adjustments to your approach to relating to/evangelizing within it as it (inevitably) changes around the static nature of the church are REQUIRED to avoid stagnation and death.

  2. […] with ethnography. I’ve got no problem with a felt needs assessment. But don’t forget that spending a […]

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