Buzzing interest and high energy at the first local EPIC meeting of ethnographic practitioners in business contexts in Berlin.

by Christoph Welter and Fabian Klenk

The evening of June 8th proved to be a surprise for many and a success for everyone involved – it was the evening of the first informal meetup inspired by the recent EURO EPIC event in Barcelona, and taking place in Berlin. The story had started with a tweet from Catriona Macaulay, one of the Barcelona co-chairs: “In Berlin June 8, how about an informal #euroepic meetup, reach out to people that weren’t there?”

So we thought, great idea, let’s run with it! And lo and behold: A mixed crowd of roughly 30 participants showed up on the night – from various backgrounds such as research, design thinking and consultancy, representing agencies, clients and academia, and ranging from student to experienced seniors. By the way: It was the night of another Euro kick off – that of the UEFA Eurocup… so not a bad turnout in terms of numbers.

Images of EPIC Europe Berlin Meetup

In fact: our call for participation (using Twitter, various LinkedIn and Xing groups and contacts to businesses and academia) reached far beyond current ethnographic practitioners and drew a lot of people new to, but very eager to find out more about ethnography in business contexts. Most of them had never heard of EPIC, but nevertheless had decided to join in.

We decided to collect some topics and inquire into what had brought everyone here (apart from snacks, drinks and football on mute in the other room). And it soon became apparent that our initial theme “Exploring the status quo, opportunities and barriers of ethnography in the business context” would turn into something along the lines of “How to define Ethnography?” and “How can it be helpful in a business context?”

 Or, to put it a little more bluntly, and quoting a planner and brand consultant present at the meeting: “I want to know if the buzz around ethnography is real or just a buzz”

Aha! The BUZZ! There it is again, that word – or, that feeling? The EUROEPIC event in Barcelona had certainly left us all with the feeling that there might yet be little consolidated practice, but great potential for the emergence of a fresh, eager and buzzing European scene around the topic of ethnography in business.

So, what’s happening there? Qualitative marketing researchers are increasingly questioning traditional approaches, design thinking postulates extensive immersion and – to hit the ball a bit further – one might argue that the fragmentation of reality into bite-sized info chunks thanks to the way we communicate these days, leads to a longing for a counterweight in the form of deep understanding of complex issues.

At some point during the discussion, the suggestion was made to break up into smaller work groups in order to explore some of the topics that people had suggested in more detail. Following a spontaneous whim, we assembled the groups randomly and left it open to each to choose their own topic… and interestingly, each team individually chose a variation of the same topic – namely an exploration of the essence of ethnography and its practical applicability in business.

And this is intriguing – experienced practitioners and newcomers getting together to say ok, let us not take ethnography for granted, but instead explore what it can mean for us here and now, from the perspective of academics, agencies and business practitioners. It was not just a debate club for ethnography beginners but rather a fervent discussion in the work groups that resulted in challenging and inspirational thoughts on the purpose of ethnography (e.g. ‘defragmentation of reality’) to the role of the ethnographer as ‘professional stranger’.

So – this is the beginning of something: The group spontaneously decided that they wanted to meet up again soon to carry on the discussion. A mailing list was created and a survey will help to determine which of the topics raised will be discussed in more depth the next time.

And as one of the participants said: ‘Why not also do meetups of this kind in other cities as well?’ Indeed, why not?

For more information about future meetups, send an email either to Christoph.Welter@pointblankinternational.de or Fabian.Klenk@useeds.de. See you soon!

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