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Steve Portigal Ethnographic Research

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Design as a Cultural Activity.” Steve Portigal. ACM’s SIGCHI Bulletin, March 1997.


As we speed through 2002, eager to wipe away the memory of 2001 (or at least the bad stuff), we’re still tempted to look back to try and better understand the turbulence that existed before. It’s hard to remember anything that happened before September, isn’t it? There has been a lot written about the effects of September 11— on health, family, economics, tourism, global affairs, emotions, entertainment, and beyond. We’re still trying to make sense of what we know and what we hear.

It’s the media’s job to eliminate complexity and ambiguity. They make their stories as simple and digestible as possible. But anyone looking for ways to respond to such a crisis may wish to look deeper, to consider the complex, contradictory, and divergent set of cultural themes that emerge in the wake of such events.

We don’t even have a proper way to refer to the event (or is it multiple events?) and we can’t seem to figure out just what the situation is. The events of September 11th? The war on terror? Anthrax? Osama?

It’s natural to try and reduce everything that’s happened to an easily understood series of events, perhaps a monolithic notion. We may thank the media for simplifying things, but we must keep in mind that there is a whole range of (often contradictory) cultural stories being told—all equally true and equally valid. These stories—combinations of beliefs, ideas, values, and mental models—are often more effective drivers of behavior than facts.

Let’s look at a few examples that show how a variety of cultural stories contribute to the surface stories.

“Issue conflation” can be seen in the spate of high-profile tribute concerts that took place in October. We may remember the concerts, but what were the causes? The overriding story was for the viewer to be moved, and therefore to “Donate! Help out! Stand up!”—but for what? Actually, one concert paid tribute to the firefighters and police of NYC, another raised money for the Red Cross, and in Canada a nationally broadcast concert raised money for Afghan refugees. These concerts provided a powerful emotional release, and gave people an opportunity to respond in a tangible way. What they were responding to was less apparent, and, in this case, less important.

Then, there’s “transnationalism,” the American flag being adopted by other nations as a symbol of their support for the U.S. In Canada, long vigilant to maintain an identity distinct from the U.S., the American flag was flown across the country, and now appears on buses and billboards with the words “United We Stand.” This would not have happened before 9/11. (Nor would it have happened without an increase in Canadian nationalism that has been percolating for a couple of years, and in case you think this isn’t relevant to business, that particular trend was capitalized on, if not generated by Molson, a Canadian beer company).

“Back or forth” comes when people speak of their hopes or expectations for an unclear and perhaps scary future, they speak of two different things—moving forward or moving backward. Some express a yearning to return to what was once good and simple, what our society thought was important, before the events of 9/11. Others describe moving ahead, getting past the tragedy, to find a new place where we’ve learned some lessons, and things will be good and simple, and the focus will be on what is important. The endpoint is the same, but the perceived direction is opposite.

“Security first.” Even before the details about Todd Beamer, and subsequently Richard Reid, were made public, both gun sales and enrollment in self-defense classes were on the rise. It is doubtful that anyone really expects to protect themselves from anthrax, bombing, or hijacking in this manner, but general feelings about security are leading people to respond. Under the same general concern even issues around computer security seem to be receiving more media attention. A general feeling about one issue drives behavior in logically unrelated but culturally connected directions.

“Symbol devaluation” led to American flags being in such high demand that companies couldn’t make enough of them. Millions of individuals sought to express something (Do we know what it is? Patriotism? Sorrow? Anger? Support?) with the flag. A week after 9/11, NBC changed their logo (appearing in the bottom right corner of every program) to a red, white, and blue version. Local auto dealers covered their showrooms with red, white, and blue balloons. Are they doing what they can to help out, or are they cashing in on a crisis? Or both?

In addition, cars began to sprout antenna flags. But what happens when a car with a flag on it cuts you off in traffic? Or the driver yells something angry or impatient at a pedestrian, the flag whipping in the breeze as they speed away? What does the act of posting a flag imply about neighborliness, kindness, or brotherhood? Should we expect things to be any different than they were?

Then, consider the complex issues around race that have emerged. Hate crimes directed at people who are or appear Arab or South Asian. People with dark skin being taken off airplanes because of the concerns of other travelers, then suing. Letters to the editor that suggest foreigners better simply get used to it if they want to live here. On the other hand, there has been a sharp rise in enrollment in Arabic language classes. Groups of friends are choosing Afghan restaurants for their dinners as a small piece of social action.  

In each of the above examples, some basic principles that our cultures have assumed were fixed and permanent are being challenged, questioned, and pushed. And for each, there are responses—columns in the newspaper, advertising campaigns sponsored by the ACLU, on-line debates, and so on. But issues are more complex than before, new thoughts are being voiced, and old beliefs are being challenged, at least for the time being.

Remember, these stories exist in the culture. They appear in the media, at dinner parties, in email, around the photocopier at work, on blogs, anywhere that people express beliefs, ideas, thoughts, opinions, or otherwise tell stories. The telling is happening simultaneously, and we’re all participating to some extent by listening, by responding, and by repeating them.

There are implications for organizations in all of this. They need to look carefully at culture before stepping into it. In fact, this is just basic good business practice: the need to understand the culture of the “customer” (i.e., whoever consumes your product, service, or message) before launching an artifact. A crisis such as 9/11 highlights the (oft-hidden) complexity of culture, where what we may believe to be simple and uniform may actually cleave into multiple, contradictory, and shifting themes.

The most important step in beginning to look at culture is an interest and willingness to do so. Keep your eyes open for multiple perspectives and conflicting stories (wherever you hear or read them). Look at what is not being said, and keep track of stories as they evolve (i.e., the FBI “whistle-blowing” and inter-agency finger pointing would have been unthinkable in September, when lawmakers sang “God Bless America” on the steps of Capitol Hill). Get out into the world of the customer, see how they live, work, talk, worry, and play— and understand where that does (and does not) overlap with the conventional wisdom. Lurking in those spaces are the opportunities. Grab a flashlight, open your eyes wide, and see what’s waiting for you!

Steve Portigal is a consultant who uses ethnographic research to help his clients discover (and act on) new insights about how their customers work, play, shop, entertain, eat, and live their lives around products and services. He writes FreshMeat, a semi-regular email column about the relationships between business, culture, technology, products, and consumers. Check out his collection of Foreign Grocery Products. Drop him a line at, or read more at


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