Ethnographic research: What is it and How to conduct one
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Ethnographic research: What is it and How to conduct one

Date
Dec 7, 2020
Author
Andrea Mrša
Reading time
4 min

Ethnographic research is a trend that continues to grow in popularity, even though it’s one of the oldest fieldwork techniques. It is used in many industries, mainly because it’s adaptive and it represents a realistic interpretation of human behavior. For this reason, we see many variations of this research technique, as we are taking advantage of technological benefits. Even so, the foundation of this market research method remains the same.

What is ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research is a qualitative research method where researchers observe and interact with participants in their natural environment. The main idea of the research is to observe behaviors, values, and beliefs from the subject’s point of view.

"Ethnography literally means “a portrait of a people.” An ethnography is a written description of a particular culture - the customs, beliefs, and behavior - based on information collected through fieldwork." (Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.)

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Why is ethnographic research important?

Thomas Kuhn — a philosopher of science, claimed that people see things depending on their previous visual and conceptual experience. This means that a group of people can observe the same thing and see it completely differently.

Anthropologists gave an excellent example of this with the “apple test”. If you mentally place an apple in front of a group of people and ask them to write down what they imagined, not all notes will be the same. If someone, let’s say, grows apples and they are familiar with their sorts, they might focus on a specific type of apple. On the other hand, a painter might acknowledge the color of an apple instead.

The main point is that, even though they are all familiar with an “apple” as a term, what they perceive will mainly depend on their previous experience.

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There are also many other benefits ethnographic research can provide:

  • You can conduct it almost everywhere
  • One individual is enough for conducting a research
  • It is money-saving — it doesn’t require any expensive tools
  • It is longitudinal — you can record changes over time
  • You can get insightful data and a glimpse of insider’s reality
  • It can help detect unexpected issues

How to conduct ethnographic research?

After the place and question of the research have been identified, ethnographic research is usually conducted by three methods — observation, interview, and archival research.

Observation

Observation is a method where the researcher either spends some time monitoring the subject in a controlled environment or actively participates in everyday activities. In a business organization, let’s say in Peekator, the latter would mean getting a job in Peekator to truly develop an insider’s view. That way researcher could experience what it means to be a part of the Peekator culture.

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The mission is to observe the subject from the insider’s point of view and describe it to outsiders in an understanding way. However, some researchers argue that committing to the inside observation only is not enough. According to them, combining outside and inside work can be even more beneficial.

Interview

Interviews are commonly used as a supplement of observation, to help researchers understand certain events better. While observation provides information about events and behavior, the interview focuses on how people reflect on their behavior and events, which provides valuable insight.

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The most important step in interviewing is listening. The researcher should show an honest interest in a subject, and the subject should feel comfortable and relaxed in the chosen setting. By using open-ended questions, instead of fully structured ones, there is a higher chance of understanding the subject’s point of view.

Archival research

Archival research considers analyzing existing materials for research or other purposes. The best way to use it is for gaining demographic information and understanding events from the past. All sorts of documents can be very beneficial when conducting ethnographic research. Those can range from websites, newsletters, memos, ads, etc. By using relevant documentation, researchers ensure they are gaining a wider idea of a subject. This makes it easier to connect dots and put things into perspective.

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The rise of remote ethnography

Nowadays, there are many ways to conduct ethnographic research without a need for face-to-face observation. Mobile ethnography is becoming more common, as there is no need for traveling to the location and all information is instantly stored digitally. That way the possibility of misinterpreting information is highly reduced.

Online, digital solutions are especially frequent in these uncertain times when more companies are leaning towards remote work. However, this raises the question of whether or not digital ethnography can compare with the realness of the world; if we keep in mind that you have to immerse yourself into the participant’s experience. We believe it can — after all, the foundation of ethnographic research is social interaction. And while there are some differences, the ability to open up, trust, and having good communication with the participant is more important for getting a quality insight.

Conclusion

Ethnographic research is a great opportunity to learn more about participants from the first perspective. As it’s conducted in the participant’s natural environment, the gap between the researcher and the participant is decreased. This makes it easier for the researcher to fully emerge in the experience and understand the world from their point of view. In addition to the traditional approach, ethnography is also shifting towards remote, digital solutions, which makes it even more accessible to all — especially in these times of uncertainty.

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