Demystifying Ethnography

From Fuzzy To Focus
As a part of the practice of applying a Consumer Anthropology framework to strategic research, we use ethnographic approaches; those focused on gathering facts generated by social mores and behaviors. The goal is to explore the culture that surrounds and shapes consumer lifestyles and their relationships with brands and products.
Often, in discussions with clients, or even amongst ourselves as strategic research practitioners, ethnography is used as a term or title to efer to a stand-alone research approach that involves in-home interviews, observation of consumers while they are involved in a specific activity, or some other narrow definition of a particular research tool.
This is not unusual. Even seasoned researchers who sell ethnography to their clients sometimes assume that engaging in ethnographic research means using the traditional anthropological approach of participant observation. However, in Consumer Anthropology, participant observation is merely one method for uncovering ethnographic insights. Ethnography in this case (and even more broadly in modern academic research practices) is actually a collection of methodologies that allow us to understand consumer context.
There are a number of ways to collect ethnographic data, with some examples including:
• Response-based group discussions (among strangers, friends or peer groups): this type of data collection is best used to gain input on new topics and in order to develop hypotheses

• Response-based one on one discussions: to get at deeper look at attitudes, values, motivations and behaviors and identify patterns of reactions and actions

• Ethnographic immersion: participant observation, in-situ, and either one on one or among a family or subculture group lasting anywhere from several hours to several days.

• Narrative Creation: asking consumers to write stories will provide context and language that describe how they relate to a brand, product or category. The trick here is to use this tool with the right target consumers: for obvious reasons, creative types often are better at constructing narratives.

• Ethnographic photos, video diaries or journals: consumer generated photography or videography of their lives that often include stories or narrative will add further texture and insight.

• Metaphor elicitation: having participants create collages of words, pictures and other imagery around a specific topic help participants to think more critically and abstractly. Usually assigned as homework, collages are an interesting way to identify cultural patterns.

It is also important to note that when it comes to sources of ethnographic data collection, we are only limited by our vision! That means that as the world changes and we evolve as researchers, the possibilities are limitless. If it can be observed, it counts as data. So we should always feel free to make customization a top-of-mind option for ethnographic research methodologies.

Why Do We Care?
And, why would we want to study consumer context? What is the value of conducting research that goes outside the sphere of asking consumers for their opinions or to report their attitudes, values and behaviors?
Ethnographic methodologies allow us to collect the context that helps us give meaning to consumer behavior, framing it in the influence of environmental and social factors. The greater the understanding of context and the stronger the collaboration between consumers and marketers (AKA “clients”) the more likely an increasing return on investment (ROI) will result.
This is the central philosophy of Consumer Anthropology and the reason why ethnographic methods are used as part of the “Consumer Context” sphere of the “3 C’s”(see previous blog on this topic).
At the core of the reasons to utilize ethnographic approaches is the desire to compensate for the limitations faced when using siloed approaches to gather insights, such as exclusive use of custom quantitative or qualitative studies. It is important for us to know not only what different types of research techniques can do, but also what they fail to do.
First, traditional quantitative and qualitative studies are very useful for helping develop models that seek to predict consumer behavior and for uncovering attitudes that consumers hold toward brands or products.
There is no opportunity, however, to identify patterns and differentiate between what consumers say and what they actually do, nor is there an ability to understand the impetus for those actions and the cultural influences explaining why certain patterns exist.
And, while qualitative and quantitative methodologies can create opportunities and lines of questioning that go deep, what these approaches often miss is the cultural context for interpreting the results. We don’t want to look at research in a vacuum. We want it tied to real world events, trends, and experiences.
Ethnography is a method of discovery that seeks to compensate for these limitations inherent in traditional qualitative and quantitative research.
Specifically, if in a more strategic focused research initiative (such as defining / segmenting consumer targets, assessing brand health or identifying innovation opportunities) research relies exclusively on what consumers say in a response-based setting, such as focus groups or surveys for insights, they risk missing bigger pieces of the puzzle and leaving holes in the efficacy of their final solution.
In focusing on the lived experience of research participants among other cultural factors, we gain insight into patterns of behavior that allow us as ethnographers to recognize unspoken assumptions, making the invisible visible to both the participants themselves as well as our clients!
Thus, the specifics of a research methodology or set of tools used in a strategic research approach, whether it involves primary or secondary data, matter less than its application. In other words, it is the entirety of the research approaches used that make a project ethnographic; the way they combine to provide understanding and meaning of sociocultural practices is ultimately what is important.
Getting To The Point
Ethnography is not a stand-alone offering that sits in a set of mutually exclusive products we offer to help develop strategic research solutions for our clients. Nor is a research methodology inherently ethnographic just because we are taking the experience off the survey page our out of the focus group facility.
Ethnography is, however, a set of approaches we can use to bring depth and breadth to the solutions we deliver to clients. Strategic research results that have a foundation in the understanding of human and cultural context elevate findings to insights, and elevate the return on investment clients can expect from application of those insights, both in the near and long term.
Ethnography is also a way to truly engage clients as partners in strategic research and “unlock insights that inspire!”

For more information about Northstar Research Partners and / or  our Consumer Anthropology practice area, please feel free to reach out to me directly:


5 responses to “Demystifying Ethnography

  1. This is a very well though-out piece, and well worth reading.

    In my experience, viewing ethnography as a methodology is not limited to business applications. My wife and I were in grad school at the same time, she in nursing, and I in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology.

    I was surprised to find that at one time she was considering ” using ethnography as her research methodology,” which implied putting a lot of restrictions on her data collection that didn’t fit with modern ethnographic practices among anthropologists. For example, in my dissertation on FM radio in West Africa, I used quite a bit of participant observation, but the study would have been one-dimensional without using a considerable amount of discourse analysis, a quant survey, etc.

    In some fields, particularly those where quant methods are the norm, using a “mixed-methods” approach is like throwing rigorous methodology out the window. Some very good researchers don’t understand that many principles of qual research are fundamentally different than quant. The rules are different, but they do exist. It reminds me a bit of the debate over African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, colloquially known as Ebonics), which has its own grammatical rules that are different from standard English. But because some of the lexicon and rules are shared, many with a mastery of standard English can only view AAVE as “slang” or worse. There are issues of power as well – like standard English, quantitative research is culturally dominant, leading to suspicion of the alternatives. This is more evident in the faculties of certain disciplines, like nursing (which has the burden of being viewed as subordinate to medicine) than others, like anthropology.

  2. Bravo! To both the article and the comment. I especially liked the framing of ethnography as a complement to traditional forms of both quantitative and qualitative research.

  3. A very insightful discussion of the ethnographic approach as a research strategy rather than as simply a “method” or “technique.” Ethnographers tend to think of themselves as “lone wolves” promoting a qualitative brand of research in a forest of quantitative psycho-social-financial-business types. I think you have effectively pointed out that we, as ethnographers, need to learn to be team players when it comes to Consumer behavior research and application.

    What I find missing here are two points:
    1. Ethnography is the first step in the scientific process of anthropology. The next step — cross cultural comparison — is ethnology seeking out the cultural universals or patterns.

    2. Consumption patterns (how an organism or institution) obtains and uses energy in order to to survive and replicate is the fundamental questions.for science and business. Consumer behavior is the strategic point where ethnography and ethnology come together. Consumer behavior is about a very simple problem — how do people make decisions? Ethnography enables us to look at the mechanism, not just the black box by asking such questions as: “What are the specific facts in an ethnographic sense?” “How do these relate to the ethnology of human decision making?”

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

  5. Jamie, thank you for this well-organized synopsis! I especially appreciated your point about the opportunity to get clients deeply engaged in conducting ethnographic research – this to me is a key differentiator from other types of research that have become more commoditized and a terrific opportunity to build insights with clients. Thank you!

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