Client Ethnography Participation Briefing: Part 1

As Consumer Anthropologists and Ethnography practitioners, we LOVE it when clients are engaged enough to want to be a part of the ethnography process. It is always a great idea for client teams to help generate data that also helps them to generate empathy for their consumers and develop ownership of the insights that come out of fieldwork.

However, the ethnographic experience is MUCH DIFFERENT from a behind-the-glass focus group experience or even an in-home In-depth interview. That’s why it’s important to engage clients prior to the ethnographic experience to let them know the purpose of this particular phase of a strategic research project, as well as to let them know what their duties are as a part of the ethnography team.

After all, no client should go into field not knowing what to listen and look for. And absolutely no client should go in to field expecting to just be a fly-on-the-wall. In order to get the most out of the experience, being an active participant in the data collection and analysis process is essential.  That is why it’s so important to prepare clients with the context of the approach and a full briefing on the expectations of their role on the team.

At Northstar Research Partners, we like to provide our client teams with an Ethnography briefing document in advance of fieldwork . Below is the first part of that document, where we set up the context of the ethnographic experience:

“We are always pleased to have clients as a part of our field team on ethnographic immersions. This document is meant to help prepare clients for the experience by:
• Defining Consumer Ethnography in our own terms and share our approach to field work
• Defining team roles for data collection while in the field


Effective contemporary marketing depends upon understanding the consumer in as deep and nuanced a manner as possible. Consumer Ethnography’s core purpose as a research methodology is to gain an insider perspective – a means of identifying significant insights around consumer experience up close and personal. In the field, basic anthropological concepts, data collection methods and techniques, and analysis are the fundamental elements of “doing ethnography.” In this sense, we are both participators and observers: not just interviewers. The following key tenets of our approach should help to explain what to expect from the process

Inductive / unstructured information gathering

  • While we enter the field with pre-defined objectives and a comprehensive discussion guide, we should not forget to be inductive and flexible in our approach.
  • Fieldwork is not always orderly. We always come well prepared knowing our guiding questions, yet we’re always ready to shift direction and improvise accordingly.
  • Sometimes the richest findings come when we’ve gotten “off-task” a bit, allowing the participant / informant to lead us down a path we had not considered previously.

Bringing a Holistic Perspective to Our Investigation

  • We understand culture to be an integrated system where everything is connected in some way to everything else. Therefore we aim to understand people within the larger context of their lives and not just in the context of the transaction under study. This means that in our approach to answering a specific set of questions, we must pull back and look for the whole in which the questions are embedded.
  •  The ethnographic research process is like piecing together a puzzle to understand the whole. The “pieces” themselves represent ethnographic data which come in many forms, including but not limited to group discussions or homework assignments that may be part of the larger scope of research. While in field doing ethnographic immersions, we should be using photography and notes to capture clues about the participants environment: including the “artifacts” in their homes and the characteristics of their surroundings.

Analysis is a Process That Starts During The Fieldwork

  • Whereas in most research analysis follows data collection, in ethnographic research analysis and data collection occur simultaneously.
  • As Ethnographers we are charged with the need to figure out what patterns the data reveal and what stories the data tell.
  • What’s exciting about Ethnographic analysis is that it is iterative; that is, interpretation begins with the first steps into the field; the first set of notes and experiences; and the first set of guesses, hunches or hypotheses. It continues until a fully developed and well-supported interpretation emerges. Along the way, data is patterned into a story or interpretation that responds to the questions that guided the project in the first place.
  • Our understandings of “what is going on” may oscillate wildly at first, but over time they will diminish as we converge toward stable interpretation. This is why it is important not to leave a single ethnographic encounter thinking “we have the answer”, as analysis will continue to evolve over the course of the fieldwork.
  • We validate data by reaching the same conclusion through identification of patterns from a number of types of data, and we attempt to collect that data from different sources and through various methods in our tool kit, such as: observation, participation, interviewing, video documentation, digital photography, participant homework assignments and the collection of relevant cultural artifacts”.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to see the instructions on shared fieldwork responsibilities, coming soon…


3 responses to “Client Ethnography Participation Briefing: Part 1

  1. I’ve been on both sides of the table – client and ethnographer – and your insights and recommendations are excellent, but in my role as client requesting (or demanding) collaboration in the field, I’ve often been met with suspicion and lots of reasons why this would interfere with data collection rather than enhance relevance and uptake of findings. They think I’m there to monitor and supervise their activities! What you propose is obviously not standard operating procedure in the industry.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m actually surprised that you have had that experience. I have always found having client participation valuable. Granted…only one or two clients at a time per encounter (so as not to overwhelm respondents if there is personal interaction involved), but more brains means more data and ultimately better insights!
      I would love if you have any perspective to add from the client side on best practices for participation i field teams.

  2. Pingback: Autoethnography « A Book of Healing: Practicing a Psychotherapy of Liberation with African-Americans

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