Choosing Ethnography

The number of research methods available these days is staggering. Some are experimental, some are trendy, some are tried-and-true.

Among the most tried-and-true methods is ethnography. In fact, it may be the oldest method of research. It is, at its core, simply the study of people as they move through their lives. Ethnography is qualitative research that emphasizes detailed observations of people in natural environments.

Like some other forms of qualitative research, ethnography is valuable because ethnographers generally are not trying to test hypotheses. They are observers and documentarians who present insights that are based on what is happening, not what could or should happen.

Due to historical development and disciplinary bias, most ethnographers carried out research abroad in the past. These types of study were typically aimed toward ‘others’ and came from one group of people trying to understand the odd lives and customs of people far away whose lives and environments were very different from themselves.

Today, our main goal isn’t so different - understand what people do and why they do it - but our targets and environments are much different and our methods are no longer just the classical type, in which the collection of data was considered “natural” and ethnographers simply observed social phenomenons from a perch.

Now when we determine ethnography is the most appropriate methodology to be used for a research problem, we have a multitude of options to ensure we can discover the best insights to help answer our questions.

In some cases ethnographic research does appear classical - such as when our researchers conduct “fly-on-the-wall” observations at an event, location, or store. More than just a “secret shopper” however, these type of studies are centered on how people, whomever they may be, interact with Interact with the people and things within their environment.

But more often, we build an environment in which we are putting the right people in the right places to learn about how they feel or interact. These days, this environment doesn’t even have to be a physical location. Social media and online tools have allowed us to conduct ethnographic studies that take place completely online and participants can upload videos, pictures and text to detail and share their experiences in the moment.

This active cooperation between researchers and subjects has helped to meet the needs of clients who have ever more specific markets and target audiences. We no longer have to send out researchers in hopes that they can find and observe the right person in the right place.