What is ethnographic research and what are its defining characteristics?

A great interview with Gordon Milne on this podcast about what ethnography is, (and what it isn’t), and tips on how to do it. Gordon Milne is IPSOS Asia Pacific’s head of qualitative research and the podcast is part of a series of market research techniques, trends and practices. There are a couple of things mentioned in it that I completely agree with and are worth calling out, especially for those who don’t have the time to listen to the whole podcast (44mins in total).

He distinguishes between three types of qualitative research using ethnography: i) 5-7hrs of participant observation which he terns as “pure ethnography”; ii)”immersions” as 2-3hrs with participants, and ; iii) more traditional qual research incorporating ethnographic elements.

Some key points:

  • Ethnography is about seeing things and being there in the moment – not just talking about them (as it is in a question and answer format).
  • In ethnographic research you are looking for the unarticulated, and not merely describing what people report that they do.
  • Participant-led – This is such an important distinction between ethnographic research and more traditional qualitative methods such as interviews or focus groups. It’s far less about following a discussion guide and much more about being in the moment and taking cues from the research participant, such as matching the participant’s mood and energy levels. Make it a conversation, not a Q&A interview, and follow the order of their day, not them fitting to the order of your topics/questions. Be naiive – let the participant guide you.
  • Pre-field preparation – Get clear at the start about what you’re trying to achieve (i.e. the research question); recruit the right people; help prepare the participant so they know what to expect
  • “Pure ethnography” requires a trained ethnographer or a senior, experienced qualitative researcher (~15min into the interview)
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