Advancing the Value of Ethnography

And now a word from the EPIC2014 co-organizers . . .


empire01The practice of ethnography can be described, among other ways, has having the emergent qualities of relationality, fluidity and creating a sense of place. These qualities also inform who we are at EPIC, our growing community and our location in NYC for 2014. Moreover, ethnographic practice necessitates these qualities to foster and develop ‘value and values,’ the theme of this year’s EPIC conference.

Relationally, ethnographers are ‘outside others’ who relate to and with other local subjects, learning from them and often informing third parties of acquired knowledge. This knowledge is constructed of pre-existing agendas, the ethnographer’s experience, and multiple other known and unknown agents. Our relationality to others brings enlightenment and adds value to the various projects we work on. Simmel noted one hundred years ago, that ‘value’ motivates and sustains exchanges between two or more distinct parties, of which all business professions today, including EPIC, can account for in their raison d’etre. If one party gains or looses value, it must relationally adjust to the other to keep the equation going. Similarly, at EPIC we are constantly seeking value from our practice, our clients, and our community of professionals, academics and students. We continually try new things, invite new speakers, and expand our program to create value and new values for ourselves and others.

Ethnography is also fluid. We can trace its fluidity in the changes over the years. What evolved from its early business notions of discovery and novelty, later fostered qualities of empathy for designing better products and solutions to enhance consumer lifestyles, and more recently to identifying local solutions to global problems in the form of enhanced products and services. The qualities of ‘value and values’ are also fluid and characterize EPIC. Value is a concept and practice that creates movement, requiring continual adjustments and change, as perhaps best represented by Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity that sustains relationships through movement. EPIC moves and adjusts continually to take in new concepts, practices and new members to its community, with various ideas, both accepted and controversial. We strive to push the envelope by inviting speakers, panelists, workshops and salons that complement our community but also challenge us. Movement keeps us from being stagnant.

Ethnography also forms a sense of place where ever it goes. Any place contains certain dynamics that affect the way people think, feel and experience life. Places are not known in advance or from afar, either representationally or digitally. They are only known deeply by being in them. They contain a reciprocal and dialectic experience, of what the late Keith Basso called interanimation. EPIC’s sense of place also creates interanimated value – both as a mobile and relational concept that adjusts to new sites, but also as a form of stability in our community. The reciprocity of sensing place – the giving and receiving qualities that have an effect on people – is both continuous in our support of each other’s work, and also in new and fresh ideas as we take in what each EPIC locale has to offer. New York presents an exciting venue joined by multitudes of designers, business professionals, artists, wayfarers, rebels and so forth that call it their home. EPIC people gain from and give back to this dynamic sense of place in NYC.

These qualities of ethnography – relationality, fluidity and the sense of place –lie at the heart of the EPIC community. EPIC adapts and changes in whom we relate to, what it offers, and where it generates and receives such dynamic. We look forward to growing our ethnographic praxis in the form of new relations in people we meet, fresh movements and ideas from interacting with others, and learning from the exciting places of inspiration, in this place and other places to come. Thanks for making EPIC 2014 an exciting place, movement and exchange for all.

About the authors:

Timothy de Waal Malefyt [Co-chair] is Clinical Associate Professor of Marketing at Fordham University. Previously, he was VP, Director of Cultural Discoveries, a consumer insight group at BBDO in NYC, and VP, Senior Account Planner at D’Arcy in Detroit where he worked on Cadillac. He has co-authored two books, Advertising Cultures and Advertising & Anthropology.

Rogerio de Paula [Co-chair] is a research manager at IBM Research – Brazil, leading the Social Enterprise Technologies Group. He is also member of the Center for Social Business at IBM Research. He has 10+ years experience conducting empirical qualitative research in the design, use, and adoption of collaborative technologies.



Timothy De Waal Malefyt, Fordham University