Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Accounting for Value Salon


What’s our worth? What are the rhetorics of value?

This question is never far from the minds of individual practitioners and this diverse community. Value takes many forms and is denominated in many currencies. The worth of these currencies changes in time and space as business environments change, and in response to changes our own practices in and with organizations. So how do and should we talk about ourselves now into the future?

In putting together this Salon, Rita and I were conscious that we were taking on tensions that sit at the heart of the EPIC world. These are tensions and questions that have arisen at every EPIC over the last 10 years. And likely for the next ten years too.

Thirty diverse and brave folks attended the Salon at Fordham. They helped us think about accounting for our value. [With Chatham House rules in effect, people spoke freely!]

1. “Accounting” is retrospective justification!
Attendees contested our muse from the outset: “Why are we talking about accounting which is retrospective? We’re trying to sell ourselves and our work before, not after-the-fact.” Many agreed. We need to prove the value of ‘yet-to-be-done-work’.

2. Tangible vs. Intangible value: We have to articulate the ephemeral!
Much of the discussion hinged on a distinction between tangible and intangible value of our work. Tangible is the easy part – it’s the instrumental doing – and takes different forms in different contexts. These forms are crucial in establishing the currency of how we and others value our work.

The intangible, the more ephemeral, is the challenge to tackle.

Some attendees saw that value could be best demonstrated by our ability to cut through to the heart of an issue , “fostering communications of what can be” or providing penetrating and simple analyses of complex situations.

An attendee from a large technology company reported that his manager was comfortable with the “diffuse value” that he and his team offered the organization. Another attendee from different big tech company said a colleague elsewhere in the organization had told her: “You people are just good to have around”. Is this a backhanded compliment? It’s nice to be needed but is there a sense that such presence is a ‘nice to have’ not a necessity? Does that mean we are a luxury?

Moreover, while it’s often the case that our analysis and advice is the result of research, we can’t assume that this is the norm. This led to reflection on two challenges we face.

1. When we emphasize research we obscure the work and skills required to turn that research into something else of value. The advisory element, often the less tangible aspect of our work, gets hidden.

2. When research is a mere fraction of day-to-day work it cannot be central to the case made about value. So while many can (and profit from) dialing up the methodological side of their work, this route is not open to others.

And, so we posed, is it ever in our interest as a community and field to constrain value to methodological considerations? (We suggested, no!).

It is becoming clear – and Christian Madsjberg’s keynote made this case too – that we are not a luxury. We are not an ephemeral good. We are becoming part of the plumbing of modern organizations who recognize our value.

But our positionality matters. Salons attendees came from a wide variety of locations: large technology companies, professional services, market research firms, business schools, user research and design agencies, government and media planning to name just a few. Some have training as anthropologists, some have other professional qualifications (economics, MBAs, design).

This diversity led to one inescapable conclusion of the salon. There are as many plausible and sensible ways of expressing value as there are places to do this sort of work and people to do it. But we’d suggest there needs to be a commitment to articulating the intangible, not just the tangible.

A firm of accountants doesn’t sell itself on the strengths of its book keeping prowess, but rather its strategic financial advice and guidance. Putting our research methods front and centre of our claims to value emphasizes a important, but not the most valued aspect of our practice.

3. Asserting value
It was nice to hear attendees talk of the ringing endorsements their work was getting. It was notable though that attendees argued for more confidence in asserting our value.

But our confidence doesn’t always match those we work with and for: we don’t always want to beat our chests and take credit for success. Our reflexivity lies at the heart of this. We understand that our work is one of many inputs into a complex system of resources, actors, decisions and activities; participating in overly simplified rhetorics of success makes us squirm. Nonetheless, we must find ways to be comfortable in asserting value and contribution.

The respect others have for our work – and caution on our part – has led to the emergence of champions. These champions are immediate managers, clients or others are not just willing but keen to make the case for our work. When they do so they change the language of value into registers which have rhetorical power.

In the end

Value is relative and contingent. We can find inspiration in the different options that colleagues across different industries, settings and organizations can offer us.

Let’s articulate the intangible.

Much of our work is about or needs to demonstrate quite instrumental value. But our work is also about changing the way people think about the world. We should revel in the wonderful opportunities that this gives us. Maybe we should learn to better express the wonder that a shifted perspective and the value this brings?

Let’s assert our value.

Christian Madsjberg’s keynote reminded us that our work is important — as worthy an input into a whole range of business and policy discussions as any other professionals’. We should stop being shy about that.

In articulating value, the choices we make, the terms we embrace, or rhetorics we engage, matter. They constrain or open up possibilities for the future.

When we talk about our value let’s be confidant not timid. Let’s find new rhetorics which put our work in its rightful place in our own, and others’, accounts of success and value.



Simon Roberts, Stripe Partners

Simon Roberts is a former co-organizer of EPIC and partner at Stripe Partners, a global strategy and innovation studio based in London

Headshot of Rita Denny

Rita Denny, Practica Group

Rita Denny is an anthropologist and a founding partner of Practica Group, a consumer research and strategic consultancy based in NYC and Chicago.