Ethnography is a qualitative research method that originated in the academic discipline of anthropology. It is a method that prioritises understanding the point of view of the person (or group) being studied, and does this through spending time with them in their their natural environment and observing and participating in daily life. Traditionally, ethnographic research was conducted over many years but in the applied context it can be as little as a few hours. It can be hotly debated whether a research activity is ethnographic or not, and with ethnography being discovered recently (again) by those outside of the profession, research that involves going to interview people in their home or workplace seems to increasingly be called ethnographic. But for me, for research to be considered ethnographic it: needs the researcher to have the mindset of an ethnographer (see qualities and skills section below); occurs ‘in context’ of where meaning is created and the behaviour can be observed, and; involves observation and a degree of participation by the researcher. Participant-observation is a hallmark of ethnography where the ethnographer observes and participates in the phenomenon being studied.
While an ethnographic research project may use quantitative data, it is essentially a qualitative research method that provides the why (not just the what) about what humans do, think, say, act, believe, value and create.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
The researcher goes into ‘the field’, or context, to learn about a culture or people from the inside out.
Before: There is a whole range of activities that need to be done before fieldwork including devising the research question, what frameworks or theories may be used, deciding how data will be recorded, gaining entry to the fieldsite, determining criteria for who to study and arranging access to research participants to name a few.
During: In the field (wherever that may be such as a group of colleagues in a workplace, customers in a bank branch, tourists in a train station or Instagram users online), the ethnographic researcher will be observing, speaking with people (formally and informally), writing and recording notes, taking photos (always asking for permission first) and generally immersing themselves in the world of the people we want to know more about.
Due to the element of participant-observation, the ethnographic research is embodied. This experiential element of the research is an important source of data. Participating alongside the research participant is a powerful way of capturing what it is like for them to, for example, complete their banking, pack a car, catch public transport with a pram or purchase a new television.
Ethnographers don’t just casually watch people going about their business. They systematically observe them. That means that they are clear about what they are wanting to observe and are acutely aware of the difference between an observation and an inference. I think of an observation as something that is factual. If three people all saw the same thing, an observation would be the recording of that in the most factual way possible and that all three people could agree is an accurate description of what took place. An inference, on the other hand comes with an interpretation of what took place. Conversationally and casually we often merge the two together, or in an extreme scenario we call it an observation when it is actually judgement.
Ethnographers also capture rich details in their observations. This is called thick description. It is a key characteristic of ethnographic writing and the type of data collected. If you were to read an ethnographer’s account of a ritual, preparation of a meal, or shopping trip you will feel like you are actually there. All the senses are drawn upon as part of the description and it provides incredible detail of the context as well as the person and their actions.
After: Ethnographic investigation produces an extensive amount of research data. This may include things like interview notes, transcripts, survey data, census information, pictures (hand drawn or photos), video footage and audio recordings. as well as objects and artefacts. All this information is then thoroughly analysed. The ethnographic researcher grapples with all that data in order to answer the research question by coding it or breaking it down, looking for patterns, grouping commonalities and differences, identifying points to investigate further, and analysing interesting or surprising contradictions to make sense of them.
WHEN SHOULD YOU USE ETHNOGRAPHY?
You can use ethnography when you want to understand at a deep level the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, artefacts and systems of meaning of a group of people and the contributing contextual factors.
Using ethnography you can uncover insights to help:
- Record, analyse and understand the everyday, taken for granted, habitual and often unconscious activities of people
- Explain the difference between what people say and what they do (people can pretend and intentionally or unintentionally lie; be unaware of their thoughts or behaviours; behave in ways that are different from what they think they do)
- Bring the customer’s voice into the business to help improve customer experience, enhance marketing messages or define future strategy
- Uncover unmet needs to deliver better products or service, or create new ones
- Understand contextual factors that influence values, behaviour and experience
“What people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different things”
– Attributed to Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropologist
WHAT SKILLS AND QUALITIES DOES AN ETHNOGRAPHER NEED?
In my view, these are some of the key skills and qualities an ethnographer needs to have to be successful. Some of these skills overlap and support eachother, while others are distinct.
Self-awareness – Knowing about yourself so you know what biases and experiences you bring that may influence what you observe and how you interpret your fieldsite and the people within it. You also need to be aware of how others see you because this has an impact on how they will engage with you e.g. how easily (or not) you can build rapport, how trustworthy you seem or how knowledgeable you are about a topic etc
Curiosity – Genuinely being interested in the world and open to multiple points of view means you can research topics you may not feel comfortable in or agree with, be effective in the field through eager exploration and inquisitive questioning. Before and after fieldwork you can connect research data in new ways that others have missed, reframe problems to steer effort in a more effective direction or achieve solutions not thought of as possible with existing (default) thinking
Critical thinking – Ethnographers think deeply and intentionally about their research data and topic in order to fully make sense of it. Ethnographers will question just about everything, including the most basic or seemingly indisputable ‘truths’, interrogate assumptions, reframe a topic to find out what can be learned from another viewpoint and apply reasoning and logic to develop their findings, insights and recommendations for practical application to real world problems. It’s about fully evaluating all parts as well as the whole. More about critical thinking found here
Pattern recognition – This is about noticing what is a recurring concern, point of view, experience or behaviour across a cohort of research participants, but also extracting where there are no patterns or commonalities and whether or how it matters within the context of the research question the ethnographer is tasked with
Intuition – Knowing when to follow hunches, when to back away from a question or alternatively dig a little deeper, noticing interpersonal dynamics between research participants or researcher and participant, what relationships or associations may hinder what
Empathy – Being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes to effectively understand their worldview, behaviour and experience is such a significant part of what an ethnographer needs to do to do their job well. Empathy can get mixed up with sympathy, but it is very different. For me it is about being able to identify with another person and understand where they are coming from, but keeping a type of neutral position. Keeping that distance prevents the ethnographer from getting too close and over-identifying with them or putting too much distance where they can’t relate. It’s definitely not judgement. Brene Brown’s short animation is a good one if you want to look into it further. She defines empathy as “feeling with people”
People orientation – A ‘people person’ in terms of finding people interesting enough to spend a lot of time with them and making sense of them, being able to build rapport and demonstrate trustworthiness, and put their wellbeing first (before the project’s outcomes or your project sponsor).
Communication and storytelling – Communicating with your research participants is obviously critical, but it is also very important to effectively communicate with the stakeholders of a research project to gain access upfront to the fieldsite/ win the project, as well as after research to share insights and disseminate findings in a compelling way.
Observation – Ethnographers need to be both a scientific observer and subjective participant, and match these two different viewpoints of the outside observer and involved participant, together. That means they need keen observation skills that can note from a distance as well as while immersed within a culture.
Interviewing – Ethnographers need to be skilled interviewers who can uncover often quite intangible and complex aspects of the human experience. An ethnographic interview is not a typical question and answer format. It is semi-structured and more conversational in tone. It has cups of tea along the way, it moves around and changes physical location to either follow someone as they go about their day, view an object being discussed or to observe an activity in action.
Record management – Ethnographic research produces a lot of unstructured data and ethnographers need to capture, store and retrieve it to be able to rigorously analyse it and synthesise it into themes and findings with accompanying evidence.
WHAT TOOLS DOES AN ETHNOGRAPHER USE?
In ethnography, the researcher is the instrument, hence all those qualities listed above! Ethnographers also utilise a range of theory and frameworks from their toolkit and apply those that are relevant to the research topic.
On a more practical note, during research an ethnographer will typically use a field journal, notebook (or digital equivalent), audio/ video recorder, camera.
Ethnography is a rigourous research method that is underpinned by a rich anthropological tradition of respecting the importance of context and perspective of those being studied, making astute and systematic observations, conducting intense and thorough analysis and communicating those findings in highly descriptive way to share that deep level of understanding with others.
For more on how ethnography is done and applied in research for organisations, you may like to view this post.