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Cultural anthropology for entertainment

A People Nerds interview with Susan Kresnicka

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Remember that childhood moment, in first grade or second grade maybe, when you recognized the singularity of your own life experience?

Remember that? No, neither do we.  

Susan Kresnicka remembers. A medley of seemingly incongruent circumstances -- of time, place, family, gender, religion and race -- made her childhood that unique, that fascinating. It was this rich cultural terrain that fostered her enduring curiosity about human life as both an individual and shared experience. As she explains, “I was an anthropologist in the making from an early age.”

At Los Angeles-based branding firm Troika, Susan leads a team of anthropologists that specializes in understanding the culture that both feeds and emerges from entertainment media. (She has since left to start her own firm, Kresnicka Research and Insights.) Listening for and understanding shared meaning, through dscout and other quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, is at the heart of her team's work. 

Kresnicka sat down with us recently to talk about the dream job of a business anthropologist and the role of research in culturally relevant storytelling … as well as a little more about her six-year-old self.

Event announcement from dscout:

Susan will be joining us at this year's People Nerds conference! In a panel discussion with Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, the group will be discussing how parents control and navigate the messages their children receive from media. 

Join this all-star roster at our virtual event on October 19th! Be sure to register for free today while spots are still available.

dscout: Do you frequently have to explain to people what it means to be an anthropologist, especially when you are working in the business world, not in a university?

Susan Kresnicka: Oh yes. I get many quizzical looks. I start by explaining that anthropology is the study of people. And business is ultimately about creating value for people – then effectively translating that value into revenue.

Anthropologists help businesses better understand people and thereby develop more effective offerings, strategies, and creative communications.

When did you first know you were a people nerd? Was there a moment?

I’m not so sure there was one particular moment when I knew I was a “people nerd,” but my childhood was a perfect breeding ground for an interest in anthropology.

My parents are Irish.  They each immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s, and met at an Irish dance in the Bronx. Shortly after I was born, my dad took a job in Memphis. It was February 1969, and the city was still reeling from a sanitation strike that had crystallized issues of racial inequality, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement in general. On the night my parents drove into town, they were pulled over by police and told to get a motel room for the night because the city was still under curfew.

By the time I was school age, I was living in two worlds.  I lived in a decidedly Irish household—Irish food, music, literature, heavy-duty Catholicism. My dad spoke fluent Gaelic. But I would leave that house each morning and spend most of my day at a Southern, all-girls school where almost everything was different (except the Catholicism!).

Between first and second grades, my mom and I went to Ireland for the summer.  We spent almost three months with my aunt, uncle and cousins, just living daily life with them. On my first morning back in Memphis after the trip, I was looking in the bathroom mirror and was struck by a profound sense of how different the world had looked the day before when I was living an Irish kid’s life. I was still the same person, but everything now looked different through my Southern eyes.

I was obviously too young to grasp the meaning of all this.  I was just really scared at the time. 

But this incredibly powerful experience of appreciating how cultural subjectivity shapes the way we see the world set my course to becoming an anthropologist. 

It was a truly profound moment. It never left me.

That is a powerful early memory. You’ve said before that you bring a uniquely anthropological perspective to ethnographic research. Don’t most ethnographers come from the anthropology field? 

Many ethnographers are anthropologists because ethnography is the primary research and reporting method of cultural anthropology. But ethnography as a research method is used across many social sciences, as well as in market research.

An anthropological approach to ethnography is usually focused on shared meaning—ideas and understandings (both conscious and subconscious) shared by a group of people. We've got a whole list of ‘meaning’ codes up on my wall right this minute for a dscout project we're doing.

Which is another way of asking: how is culture reinforced, perpetuated, challenged, or changed at the most basic level of human experience—in everyday life.

Can you provide an example of how you’d see this play out in an actual study? 

Sure. We fielded a study about gender, using dscout as one of our research methods. Over a course of three weeks, we had women submit videos and answer questions every time gender proved important, meaningful, or relevant in everyday life. 

At first, we were worried that our research participants would struggle with the exercise because gender is not something most of us actively think about in daily life. It’s a bit like asking fish to think about water—it surrounds us all the time, so we don’t tend to notice it. 

But within a couple of days, the women in the study were sending us a wide array of moments in which gender mattered, some when being a woman was a positive thing, others when it was a challenge and still others in which gender was both positive and negative at the same time—a double-edged sword.

With each submission, we were listening for shared meaning: How do our shared ideas about womanhood shape our experiences in everyday life?

In those everyday moments, we could hear our participants negotiating social expectations about what women ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do, be, think, feel, wear, etc.

For example: I feel like I should always go out into public looking my best; I should always have on makeup; I shouldn't be aggressive in the workplace, and I should work well socially with others, because I don't want to be called a ‘bitch.’ 

And while the woman in our study had a remarkably consistent understanding of society’s expectations for women, they negotiated those expectations in a wide range of ways: accepting some, resisting others, and varying their responses depending upon the situation at hand.

Lest this sound purely academic, it’s important to realize that our consumer landscape is an essential component of culture. Products, services, entertainment, and all kinds of consumer experiences are marketed based on gender. Who is your target consumer? Women 25-39, Men 18-24, we say. 

Yet what it means to be a man or a woman is not a fixed social reality, it is an idea—a shared idea about the meaning of biological difference and its changes over time. 

Brands that understand that their products, services, etc., can play an active role in either reinforcing or challenging our shared understandings of gender at any given moment, are going to be much better prepared to ride the wave of cultural change.

And, in many ways, that change starts in everyday life, in those moments when people negotiate the social expectations around gender just a little differently.

Brands that understand that their products, services, etc., can play an active role in either reinforcing or challenging our shared understandings of gender at any given moment, are going to be much better prepared to ride the wave of cultural change.

Susan Kresnicka

You’ve said that entertainment is central to cultural change. In what ways do you see that in your work?

Entertainment is central to cultural change because it serves as both a mirror and a projector of culture.  As mirror, it reflects who we are and what matters to us at any moment in time; as projector it offers us images of what could be. It’s entertainment’s projector function that seems most central to cultural change, as the images it puts forth can expand, reframe or reinforce our shared understandings.

We do many kinds of research to understand cultural change—we observe and analyze cultural conversations on a wide range of topics; we analyze media itself; and we conduct studies about shared meanings, like the womanhood study I mentioned.  But we also conduct research specifically to understand how people are impacted by the entertainment they watch. 

Entertainment is central to cultural change because it serves as both a mirror and a projector of culture.

We often use dscout to capture how people respond to content they have viewed, especially how it made them feel and what it left them thinking about, if anything.  

We obviously hear a range of responses, but we almost always learn something about how the content impacts the viewers’ understanding of key cultural questions, for example: where power comes from and what it means to have and wield power; how we make sense of human difference (gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical difference, etc.); what is right or wrong in any given situation. 

Certain types of content allow us to explore new meanings surrounding such questions—and that exploration seems to help prepare us for the range of ways that culture can change in the future.

You’ve said that you really appreciate Troika’s optimistic view of the changes facing the entertainment industry, especially embracing the opportunity arising from disruption. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

It was very clear to Troika that the main source of disruption was the shift in power from the institutions of the entertainment industry to the people who consume the content: the viewers. 

When that shift happened, Troika committed to developing expertise in understanding viewers. It would not be enough anymore to forge brand strategy and develop creative executions based on simplistic demographic audience profiles. There actually had to be a much stronger representation of consumers—their needs, their desires and their voices. And that’s what I love to do—understand people and represent their needs within business. 

Can you think of an example where Troika’s way of looking at things has led to opportunities to break new ground?

Our Fandom study is the perfect example. About a year and a half ago, in the course of talking with clients about their business challenges, brand needs, what they understood about their viewers, and what they wish they understood better, I started to notice a shift in our clients’ language. Instead of talking about viewers and audiences they were starting to use the term fans. Fandom has been among my favorite topics for many years, so my ears perked up instantly.  

Based on our clients’ needs and Troika’s dedication to a people-centric approach to the business of entertainment, we launched a year-long, multi-modal study of fandom, in all its many forms: sports, entertainment, video games, music, hobbies, digital creators, brands, etc. 

We are actually using dscout throughout the whole year to understand the role fandom plays in peoples’ everyday lives. My team—a mix of anthropologists, sociologists, ethnomusicologists and fan studies experts—and I will be exploring the full range of value fandom creates for people and helping our clients apply those understandings to their businesses.  It’s an amazing project and a real honor to undertake.

You seem to have a lot of freedom to follow new ideas in your role. Can you describe what creative freedom looks like in your business research world? 

It's been nothing but freedom, which, for me, is great. It would probably make other people crazy, but it's great for me.

I’ve had the freedom to build creative research approaches to help clients address specific business opportunities and challenges.  I’ve had the freedom to think about research that could help not just one particular client, but also many of our clients at one time.   

I’ve had the freedom to build our fandom study from the ground up; to conduct initial quantitative research to get my head around the key questions; to layer methodologies so we learn about fandom from multiple vantage points; and to build an interdisciplinary team who can approach the data through different theoretical frameworks.

It sounds like my dream job. And like there's a tremendous amount of trust they have in you.

It's a little scary to be honest—and wonderful. It does make you want to live up to those expectations. 

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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