Where business and anthropology meet

International conference on ethnographic research coming to Minneapolis

By Kevyn Burger
Monday, August 22, 2016

Imagine if Nielsen, the market research firm, was run by famed chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall.

The result might be ethnography, which takes researchers into the field to study their customers up close and long term, in the way that anthropologists patiently observe their subjects.

Later this month, the premier international gathering on ethnography in industry, EPIC 2016, will be staged at the University of Minnesota. The Pathmaking conference will be co-sponsored by the Carlson School of Management the the U’s Anthropology Department.

“Ethnography gave me new and deep insights into my area, which is pricing, a field I’d thought I knew very well,” says Prof. Mark Bergen, who holds the James D. Watkins Chair in Marketing at Carlson. In addition to teaching pricing strategy and marketing management, Bergen consults with numerous Fortune 500 companies in several sectors and has used the ethnographic approach in his own research.

“These ethnographic methods are used by companies that want to understand the nuances of their customers and their marketplace,” he adds. “When this is combined with analytics and big data, the research is incredibly rich. We need insight from both.”

Some 300 ethnographic scholars, practitioners and business representatives from a variety of industries will attend the global conference. They will listen to case studies, developments in the field, and attend panels and keynote speeches from global experts on the latest techniques and best practices. Ethnographic research is time consuming and therefore expensive.

“With this approach, researchers can make sense of how a product fits into the life of a consumer. The power of this comes when you go and listen, and from listening you can pull out themes you wouldn’t have known about,” Bergen explains.

The ethnographers who visit the Twin Cities for the conference will get the opportunity to make first-hand observations of a significant part of Minnesota’s culture that includes butter sculptures and prize winning pigs — attendees will visit the Minnesota State Fair as part of the showcasing of the region.

“We want to show them what’s fascinating about our culture, not just from the civic and business side,” Bergen says.

The Pathmaking conference will be held from August 29-September 1.