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Chapter 5 'Ethnography' in Japanese Corporate Activities: A Meta-anthropological Observation on the Relationship Between Anthropology and the Outside

Yasunobu Ito

Abstract The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the consumption and usage of ethnography, the chief methodology of social/cultural anthropology, in Japanese industry. Nowadays, ethnography is not exclusive to anthropology. As an investigative method, it has been gaining popularity in industry such as engineering, design, marketing and so forth. I argue that depending on the phase and context, ethnography can be a commercialised research tool or an authoritative source for advertising. My focus will be on the ways in which ethnography, the mainstay of anthropology, is redefined and valued in the business context. Ethnography as a 'new' technique – not new, per se, but relatively new for business people – is regarded as a most promising technique which approaches/uncovers hidden needs and leads to new products and services which excite customers/users. At the same time, some idiosyncrasies of Japanese firm will be shed light on and will be examined with the relation to the usage of ethnography. Moreover, the implicit theme of this chapter is the anthropological inquiry of a changing discipline (i.e. anthropology) from a historical perspective, with attention to the way in which Japanese anthropology could cope with these trends in industry.

5.1 Introduction

I would like to begin by referring to the well-known introduction of Latour's book Science in Action (1987). It begins with three anecdotal snapshots: 1985 in Paris; 1951 in Cambridge, UK; and 1980 in Westborough, Massachusetts. In 1985, the Pasteur Institute already owned an Eagle minicomputer. Researchers could use the machine to view a three-dimensional picture of the DNA double helix on the screen.

In 1951, the two young scientists Watson and Crick were still struggling to decide whether the structure of DNA was a triple or double helix. In 1980, a team was still trying to debug programmes in the Eagle (which would be renamed Eclipse) minicomputer. In 1985, the Eclipse minicomputer functioned smoothly – it was no more problematic than a piece of furniture would be.

In these anecdotes, Latour reveals a two-faced Janus – 'science in the making' on the right side and 'ready-made science' on the other. Watson and Crick hadn't enough confidence as to what the correct DNA shape was, even though other distinguished scientists such as Linus Pauling had insisted that DNA was a triple-helix structure (Latour 1987: 1–7). This scene of 'science in the making' can be contrasted with the phase where their final take of the double-helix structure is established as a ready-made 'scientific fact'. The exploration phase is now closed, and the knowledge of the DNA structure functions as 'ready-made science'.

The same can be said of anthropology: even for contemporary scholars of anthropology, there is a distinction between 'anthropology in the making' and 'readymade anthropology'. In the nineteenth century, the first scholars who called themselves anthropologists – they are now often referred to as 'armchair anthropologists' – relied mainly on the writings of explorers, travellers and missionaries. For armchair anthropologists in that era, that is, several decades before B. Malinowski established the modern methodology of anthropology, anthropology was the study of 'living fossils' under the strong influence of Darwin's evolutionary theory (Nanda and Warms 2010: ch 3). They might not have anticipated that anthropology in the future would be a study based on fieldwork. In the same way for us contemporary anthropologists, our field and practice some decades later may be greatly changed and different from what we are familiar with. It is useful to suggest at this point that an implicit theme of this chapter will be the anthropological inquiry of a changing discipline (i.e. anthropology) from a historical perspective (Spencer et al. 2009). [1]

Since 2008 I have been observing ethnographically how Japanese firms use and consume anthropological/ethnographic methods in relation to other tools and resources. Needless to say, nowadays, ethnography is not exclusive to anthropology. [2] Ethnography as an investigative method has been gaining popularity in other disciplines such as engineering, design, marketing and so forth.

This chapter is concerned with the consumption of anthropological methodology or the commodification of ethnography in the Japanese business scene. As Arjun Appadurai (1986) and others have pointed out, the values ascribed to an object are constantly in flux. Depending on the phase and context, ethnography can be a commercialised research tool or an authoritative and scientific source for advertising.

Sometimes it is not even a tool but a mere buzzword in business. My focus will be on the way in which ethnography, the mainstay of anthropology, is redefined and valued in the business context. Ethnography as a 'new' technique – not new, per se, but relatively new for business people – is regarded as a most promising technique which approaches/uncovers hidden needs and leads to new products and services which excite customers/users.

As will be made clear in what follows, the ethnography introduced by companies in their businesses does not look like the academic ethnography in which we anthropologists are trained (at least in the Japanese context). In a nutshell, differences arise from the fact that business tends to package ethnography as a 'tool'. It could be said that ethnography is reduced to just one of many replaceable business tools, and that is to say, ethnography is standardised and formulated for everyone who wishes to use it as such. [3] The rationale behind this packaging is related to the rationale underlying company organisations and businesses. Business organisations view ethnography as a tool and use it as such – for instance, to achieve a deeper understanding of consumer behaviour.

Baba (2014) describes the present situation as the 'decoupling' of ethnography and anthropology. It goes without saying that the coupling of ethnography and anthropology was rooted at the heart of the establishment of anthropology as an academic discipline. However, ethnography is now being carried out by nonanthropologists (including business people and engineers). [4]

On the one hand, the association between 'anthropology' and 'ethnography' by non-anthropologists is different from the way anthropologists view the two. The association of concepts such as 'anthropology', 'ethnography', '(participant) observation' and 'field' is different outside of the discipline (anthropology). On the other hand, historically speaking, as we anthropologists all know, 'anthropology' and 'ethnography' were not coupled as I mentioned above, during the era of armchair anthropologist E. B. Tylor – the way they are now. This implies the possibilities of different ways of the association of 'anthropology', 'ethnography' and so on in historical context. Therefore, in the same way that knowledge or technology taken for granted varied during different periods (in 1951, 1980 and 1985) over DNA structure and computer, how we relate to 'anthropology' and 'ethnography' or how the two are associated and coupled even within the discipline might change, for instance, several decades later, according to environmental changes outside of the discipline.

Even as the decoupling of anthropology and ethnography proceeds, anthropology still retains its authority or 'brand'. Anthropology continues to be regarded as the roots of ethnographic research. When it is introduced in industry, anthropology is always mentioned in introductory paragraphs. An opening sentence found on a particular business website reads: 'ethnography was originally from anthropology – nowadays it is being widely used in other realms'. A special issue of a business magazine styling itself as a brand new marketing textbook explains many keywords including 'ethnography' including 'ethnography' (each keyword takes up a twopage glossary-style explanation in the book; other keywords include 'O2O' (online to offline commerce), 'inbound marketing', 'gamification', 'big data' and so on) which may be useful for people who are interested in marketing. The explanation of the keyword 'ethnography' begins with a famous – at least, for anthropologists – photo of Malinowski, clad in white, and posing with naked men in the Trobriand Islands in 1918 (Nikkei Digital Marketing Special Issue 2013). [5]

From here onwards, I provide a brief overview of the relationship between anthropology and industry. Secondly, I describe why ethnography is hailed in the business scene; thirdly, I outline how it is incorporated into the practices of Japanese firms. Although companies worldwide share common characteristics, since the trend has just started to move into high gear, Japanese firms practise ethnography differently in some ways. Finally, I turn the spotlight on some features of Japaneseness in firms and the relation between such Japanese-ness and ethnography.

  • [1] I would like to stress that we should pay careful attention to institutional differences between the anthropological scenes in various countries' – in other words, the plurality of anthropology. Unlike USA and UK anthropology where a certain portion of graduates seek jobs outside academia (Baba 1994), almost all graduates of doctorate courses try to find employment at universities in Japan.
  • [2] Sanjek (2002) describes that ethnography has double meaning – one is that of product (monograph) and the other means the process of anthropological fieldwork. Obviously, ethnography here means not ethnography as product but ethnography as methodology.
  • [3] Some engineers at Japanese companies claim that they need to re-engineer ethnography for their businesses. I will return to this below when I deal with the connection between the logic of academia and that of business.
  • [4] Moreover, she points out that the hybridisation of anthropology with other fields (such as design) has been taking place (Baba 2014). To my thinking, from one perspective, the use of ethnography has spread to various fields (other academic subjects, such as design and engineering, as well as in business). From another angle, we could also say that we are witnessing the decoupling of anthropology and ethnography.
  • [5] It might be worth mentioning here that the first chapter of the bestselling book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, by Tom Kelley (2005), general manager of the world's most famous design-based consulting firm IDEO, begins with a chapter titled 'The Anthropologist'. He advocates an anthropologist-type role in creative organisations since anthropologists are extremely good at reframing problems in a new way. As we mention afterwards, Hakuhodo, a pioneer firm who launched ethnography for business and who has been collaborating with IDEO, announced that they launched the new business section, and they call their method 'anthropological'. Ethnography, usually used as a part of the design thinking process, and anthropology are intricately linked as such in business scene.
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