The science of desire
Companies have been harnessing the social sciences, including ethnography, since the 1930s, writes Spencer E. Ante in Business Week. Back then executives were mostly interested in figuring out how to make their employees more productive. But since the 1960s, when management gurus crowned the consumer king, companies have been tapping ethnographers to get a better handle on their customers. Now, as more and more businesses re-orient themselves to serve the consumer, ethnography has entered prime time.

The beauty of ethnography, say its proponents, is that it provides a richer understanding of consumers than traditional research methods. Yes, companies are still using focus groups, surveys, and demographic data to glean insights into the consumer mind. But closely observing people where they live and work allows companies to zero in on customers’ unarticulated desires.

Ethnography’s rising prominence is creating unlikely stars within companies in retailing, manufacturing, and financial services, as well as at consulting firms such as IDEO, Jump Associates, and Doblin Group. […]

With more companies putting ethnographers front and center, schools around the country are ramping up social science programs or steering anthropology students toward jobs in the corporate world.

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