Has Ethnography Become Just Another Word?

Ethnography: Just Another Word?

Research methods are inevitably watered down over time.  Distinguishing qualified practitioners from people who simply say they practice a method of insight gathering can be difficult. And indeed, all that really matters to most businesses, rightfully I might add, is the ability to produce insights that have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ethnography is just such a practice and while it is a relatively hot commodity it begs the question, has ethnography become a word with little or no meaning? Has it lost a sense of grounding as it has taken on a variety of different meaning depending on who is talking about it and in what context? How is it best used? And by whom? And who makes that determination, the buyer or the practitioner?

The “What” of Ethnography

Generally speaking, academics and research practitioners in the private sector would agree that ethnography in today’s world is about differing types of observation. With few exceptions, they would agree that participant observation, interviewing, and inductive logic are part of the ethnographic toolkit. Ethnography is as much a way of understanding the world as it is a specific set of methodological tools, putting culture and context at the heart of any investigation.

The “what” is fairly well established. Unfortunately, the “how” is less well defined and consequently ethnography increasingly becomes a muddied conglomeration of opinions rather than something people can develop clear language around. Ethnography can mean simply “hanging out with people,” to conducting in-depth interviews in someone’s home, to lurking around online to videography. Participant observation, for example, is subject to a wide range of interpretations and is as likely to involve only an hour with participants as it is to involve several days. This of course leads to arguments among practitioners which are meaningful and important, but are generally irrelevant to most people trying to decide on the ethnographer or ethnographic research team to hire.

Redefining What We Do

So what are ethnographers and the people who love them to do? Step one may be as simple as worrying less about the term and talking about results; “We uncover insights that result in breakthrough ideas and product. That makes you money and elevates your brand.” I am not advocating a wholesale shift away from the word ethnography, but I am advocating discussing why it’s relevant before we talk about what “it” is. Think of it as if you were building a house. You may want to know about the tools your builder is using, but your first concerns are about the quality of work and the results of his prior building engagements. Your builder may be the best builder in the world, but if his focus is on discussing his hammers rather than your building, then you probably won’t bother hiring him. Similarly, ethnographers tend to spend too much time at the outset talking about ethnography and not enough time talking about problem solving.

Second, when the tool kit comes up, we need to be clear about what exactly is in it. We owe it to ourselves and to our clients to define exactly what we mean by ethnography each time we talk about it. We can start by outlining and classifying the different elements of or types of ethnography  we are practicing:

  • Drive-by Observation – rapid observation and intercept interviewing with people on the street.
  • Silent Observation – pure observation with little or no interaction with participants. People may not know they are being observed/studied.
  • Questioning Observation – accompanied activities where the researcher observes and interviews the participant(s).
  • Semiotic Interviews – interviewing based on how people construct symbolic relationships. This can involve story telling, tasks and conversations around defined cultural patterns.
  • Participant-Driven Observation – participants become observers of their own behavior and the behavior of others. They develop insights which are then communicated to the research team.
  • Participant Observation – a pure anthropological approach when the researcher lives with people and learns about them through extended experience. This requires the most training and time, but yields the greatest insights.

While my personal inclination as an anthropologist is to hang on to “ethnography” people are moving away from it and focusing on what we produce, not how we produce it. Those clients who are already on board don’t need explanations. The organizations to whom we’re selling our ideas need to know what we deliver before they need to know  how we deliver it.


By Gavin

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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