On a hot Austin night last summer, 60 natives convened for a social rite involving stick-on mustaches, paella, and a healthy flow of spirits. Young lesbians formed the core of the crowd. The two organizers, who had been lovers for a couple months, were celebrating their birthdays with a Spanish-themed party, decorated in bullfighting chic. It was a classic hipster affair, and everyone was loose and at ease, except for one black-haired interloper with a digital camera and a tiny notepad.
This interloper was Min Lieskovsky, a 31-year-old straight New Yorker who mingled freely and occasionally ducked into a bathroom to scribble notes. She’d left a Ph.D. program in sociocultural anthropology at Yale two years earlier, impatient with academia but still eager to use the ethnographic skills she’d mastered. Tonight, that meant she partied gamely and watched her subjects with a practiced eye, noting everything: when the party got started and when it reached its peak, who stuck mustaches on whom—and above all, what, when, and how people drank.
For Lieskovsky, it was all about the booze. The consulting firm she worked for, ReD Associates, is at the forefront of a movement to deploy social scientists on field research for corporate clients. The vodka giant Absolut had contracted with ReD to infiltrate American drinking cultures and report back on the elusive phenomenon known as the “home party.” This corrida de lesbianas was the latest in a series of home parties that Lieskovsky and her colleagues had joined in order to write an extended ethnographic survey of drinking practices, attempting to figure out the rules and rituals—spoken and unspoken—that govern Americans’ drinking lives, and by extension their vodka-buying habits.
“There’s a huge amount of vodka that’s sold for drinking at home,” Lieskovsky says. “But no one knew where it was really going”—apart from down someone’s throat eventually, and on a bad night perhaps back up again. Was it treated as a sacred fluid, not to be polluted or adulterated except by an expert mixologist? Some Absolut advertising and iconography suggested exactly this, assuming understandably that buyers of a “premium” vodka would want laboratory precision for their cocktails. Another possibility was that the drinkers might not care much about the purity of the product, and that bringing it to a party merely lubricated social interaction. “We wanted to know what they are seeking,” Lieskovsky says. “Do they want the ‘perfect’ cocktail party? Is it all about how they present themselves to their friends, for status? Is it collaboration, friendship, fun?”
Over the course of the company’s research, the rituals gradually emerged. “One after another, you see the same thing,” Lieskovsky told me. “Someone comes with a bottle. She gives it to the host, then the host puts it in the freezer and listens to the story of where the bottle came from, and why it’s important.” And then, when the bottle is served, it goes right out onto the table with all the other booze, the premium spirits and the bottom-shelf hooch mixed together, in a vision of alcoholic egalitarianism that would make a pro bartender or a cocktail snob cringe.
What mattered most, to the partygoers and their hosts, were the narratives that accompanied the drinks. “We found that there is this general shift away from premium alcohol, at least as it’s defined by price point, toward something that has a story behind it,” Lieskovsky says. “They told anecdotes from their own lives in which a product played a central role—humorous, self-deprecating stories about first encountering a vodka, or discovering a liqueur while traveling in Costa Rica or Mexico.” The stories were a way to let people show humor, or to declare that they’re, for instance, the kind of Austin lesbians who, upon finding exotic elixirs in far-off lands, are brave enough to try them.
ReD consultants fanned out and shadowed drinkers at about 18 different parties, trying to see which drinking practices held constant, whether in Austin, New York, or Columbus. This is one that did. Which meant that if a premium vodka brand tried to market itself solely as a product with chemistry-lab purity, it risked misunderstanding the home-party market and leaving money on the table.
The corporate anthropology that ReD and a few others are pioneering is the most intense form of market research yet devised, a set of techniques that make surveys and dinnertime robo-calls (“This will take only 10 minutes of your time”) seem superficial by comparison. ReD is one of just a handful of consultancies that treat everyday life—and everyday consumerism—as a subject worthy of the scrutiny normally reserved for academic social science. In many cases, the consultants in question have trained at the graduate level in anthropology but have forsaken academia—and some of its ethical strictures—for work that frees them to do field research more or less full-time, with huge budgets and agendas driven by corporate masters.
The world of management consulting consists overwhelmingly of quantitative consultants, a group well known from the successes of McKinsey & Company, the Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company. ReD’s entry into consulting represents an attempt to match the results of these titans without relying heavily on math and spreadsheets, and instead focusing on what anthropologists call “participant observation.” This method consists, generally, of living among one’s research subjects, at least briefly. Such immersive experiences lead not only to greater intimacy and trust, but also to a slowly emerging picture of the subjects’ everyday lives and thoughts, complete with truths about them that they themselves might not know.
Absolut, which paid ReD to observe home parties, is using both quantitative analysis and this new form of ethnographic research. “We are intensive consumers of market research,” Maxime Kouchnir, the vice president of vodka marketing for Pernod Ricard USA, which distributes Absolut, told me. “The McKinseys and BCGs of the world will bring you heavy data. And I think those guys sometimes lack the human factor. What ReD brings is a deep understanding of consumers and the dynamics you find in a society.” That means finding out not only what consumers say they want in a liquor, but also what their actions reveal about the social effect they crave from bringing it to a party. “If you observe them, they will be humans, exposed with all their contradictions and complexities,” Kouchnir says. “At the end of the day, we manufacture a spirit, but we have to sell an experience.”
The method dates back nearly a century in academic anthropology, though its pedigree in the business world is somewhat more recent. Xerox PARC, the legendary Palo Alto think tank that birthed many of the ideas that made the personal-computing revolution possible, employed anthropologists as early as 1979. Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor who has applied participant observation in corporate environments, says, “There is a long history of doing this in the study of organization—taking the ethnographic method from anthropology and, instead of taking it to faraway places, trying to understand the culture of our own work worlds.”
Now a handful of consultancies specialize in ethnographic research, and many companies (including General Motors and Dell) retain their own ethnographers on staff. Microsoft is said to be the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world, behind only the U.S. government.
Tech firms, certainly, appear to be major consumers of ethnographic research. “Technology companies as a whole are in danger of being more disconnected from their customers than other companies,” says Ken Anderson, an ethnographer at Intel. Tech designers succumb to the illusion that their users are all engineers. “Our mind-set is that people are really just like us, and they’re really not,” Anderson says. Ethnography helps teach the techie types to understand those consumers who “aren’t living and breathing the technology” the way an Intel engineer might. (A curious exception to this cautious embrace of ethnographic methods is Apple, whose late co-founder, Steve Jobs, trusted his designers—and especially himself—more than he trusted consumers or researchers. “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want,” he famously said.)
Min Lieskovsky, the ReD consultant on the Absolut project, has been a friendly acquaintance of mine for nearly a decade. Christian Madsbjerg, a co-founder of ReD, gave me access to ReD consultants on two other projects, one on home appliances and the other on health care, and allowed me to tag along while they did their research. I agreed not to disclose the clients behind these two projects, and to change the names of the two women whose households the company was studying. In each case, ReD paid the households a nominal amount to answer its consultants’ questions.
Both interviews I attended felt unusually intrusive. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed people about sensitive topics, such as their murderous past, or their fondness for sex with children. But a six-hour ethnographic interview felt in many ways even more intimate. After all, the corporate clients who commissioned these studies already knew the type of consumer information they could get through phone or Internet surveys. They knew everything except their customers’ naked, innermost selves, and now they wanted ReD’s ethnographers to get them those, too.
The first ReD anthropologist I went into the field with was Esra Ozkan, an MIT Ph.D. who had joined the company less than a year earlier. She wrote her dissertation on the study of corporate culture in the U.S., but she was a trained ethnographer, and spoke fluently about how Michael Fischer, a cultural anthropologist at MIT, and Joseph Dumit, an anthropologist at the University of California at Davis, had influenced her work. By birth a Muslim from eastern Turkey, Ozkan is married to an American Jew, whose family provided the connection to the woman she’d be interviewing.
The household we were about to visit was in Forest Hills, New York, and Ozkan said it was a home kept so strictly kosher that it had two kitchens, one for daily use and another, ultraclean one for Passover. The plan, she said, was to ask the ranking female, a 50‑something working mother I’ll call Rebecca, how she and her family used their living space—how they negotiated the kitchens, the bedrooms, the living rooms; what rules they followed and, more important, which ones they sometimes broke. “We want to hear them describe their homes, both for functionality, but also to hear what emotion they use to describe places,” Ozkan said.
She said much of her method involves noting which objects are assigned special importance. Interviewees carefully select the parts of their lives they exhibit to an ethnographer, and sometimes they will pause over a certain item—say, a kitchen utensil that cost $5 at Walmart, but that carries with it the memories of 30 Passovers—indicating that the object’s meaning is greater than its utility. “Those moments, when something is more than itself, are the ones I pay attention to,” Ozkan told me.
We drove to the house, a detached two-story Tudor in a quiet wooded neighborhood, and parked on the street. Upon exiting the car, Ozkan immediately whipped out an iPhone and began photographing everything, from the front lawn to the windows to the mezuzah on the doorjamb. Rebecca answered the door before we had a chance to knock, and introduced her poodle—a little yapper named Sir Paul—before introducing herself.
We walked into the house, where the children’s photos and religious decorations—every room in the “public” areas of the house showed signs of Jewish practice—gave a clear sense of self-presentation and values. Upstairs, away from the area most visitors would see, she showed us her room-size shrine to the Beatles, packed floor-to-ceiling with concert posters, guitars, and other memorabilia.
Rebecca sat us down in a slightly messy dining room adjoining a large and well-used kitchen, and Ozkan set up a camera to record everything. Our host dove right in, pointing to various appliances and explaining what each one meant to her, and where it fit in with kosher law. For every note I made, Ozkan made two. Although she knew Jewish practice well through her husband and past research, Ozkan asked Rebecca to explain the holidays and purity laws, just to see how she talked about them.
Rebecca confessed without any prompting that she would occasionally let her kosher vigilance slip slightly when she ate out, and that her husband, also Jewish, would drop the kosher thing entirely without her. “He’d eat a bacon cheeseburger if I weren’t around,” she said, perhaps half-joking. But Rebecca also said that inside the house itself, and especially around the inner-sanctum Passover kitchen, she never considered defying kosher law. “It’s like breathing, for us,” she said.
Over lunch the next day, I asked Ozkan what she had concluded from the visit. She noted all the things that Rebecca had never stated explicitly, but that were clearly what mattered most in her life. “She treats the kitchen as a holy place,” Ozkan said. That made three holy places in the house, if you count the two kitchens separately, and the Beatles shrine upstairs. Her deviance on the outside was, Ozkan said, a point well worth noting. “If you listen really carefully, you’ll find some things that don’t quite match the super-ideal framework of kosher,” she said. “And it’s always great to see that. It’s a way to see how people deal with practicalities and challenges in life, and how they choose to break that ideal image.” Listen to people talk about how they break the rules, in other words, and you’ll figure out what they consider the important rules in the first place.
Ozkan’s questions had hinted at product ideas that ReD’s client, a home-appliance maker, was considering. Would Rebecca contemplate buying an automated fridge that would advise her when she was running short on orange juice? And as Rebecca responded, her implicit consecration of her kitchen became evident. She seemed to care less about whether her kitchen remained well stocked or running smoothly than whether it remained her sacred space, controlled by her for her family, and not by, say, a talking robot. As with the vodka drinkers, the key elements were emotional ownership and connection.
The client’s goals were, in this case, never made fully clear to me. But Rebecca’s was only one of 21 homes the consultants would visit, and the only kosher one on the list. The visit would, however, begin to tell a story about Americans who love and hate their own kitchens, fetishizing some gadgets while simultaneously viewing them as instruments of their own enslavement.
If the lessons were indistinct, they were deliberately so. ReD is gleefully defiant of those who want clear answers to simple questions, and prefers to inhabit a space where answers tend not to come in yes/no formats, or in pie charts and bar graphs. “We know numbers get you only so far,” the company’s Web site announces. “Standard techniques work for standard problems because there’s a clear benefit from being measured and systematic. But when companies are on the verge of something new or uncertain … those existing formulas aren’t easily applied.”
Jun Lee, a ReD partner, says that when clients are confronted with the company’s anthropological research, they often discover fundamental differences between the businesses they thought they were in, and the businesses they actually are in. For example, the Korean electronics giant Samsung had a major conceptual breakthrough when it realized that its televisions are best thought of not as large electronic appliances, measurable by screen size and resolution, but as home furniture. It matters less how thoroughly a speaker system rattles the bones and eardrums of its listeners than how these big screens occupy the physical space alongside one’s tables, chairs, and sofas. The company’s project engineers reframed their products accordingly, paying more attention to how they fit into living spaces, rather than how they perform on their technical spec sheets.