Interviews vs Ethnography: A Case for Slowing Down

Ethnography is two things: (1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology, and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results. Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time.

In order to answer their research questions and gather research material, ethnographers often live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable amount of time with them. While there, ethnographers engage in “participant observation”, which means that they participate as much as possible in local daily life (everything from important ceremonies and rituals to ordinary things like meal preparation and consumption) while also carefully observing everything they can about it. Through this, ethnographers seek to gain what is called an “emic” perspective, or the “native’s point(s) of view” without imposing their own conceptual frameworks. The emic world view, which may be quite different from the “etic”, or outsider’s perspective on local life, is a unique and critical part of anthropology.

Unfortunately, it is the element of time that is increasingly overlooked in business-focused ethnographic work. The two-hour interview seems to tell us everything we need to know, rather than expansive learning.  While there are legitimate concerns over cost and time in most business structures, there is a point at which anything of real value is lost when we don’t push back with clients, internal and external, and relay the true value of a good ethnographic project – depth.  Depth does not come from a shallow interaction, it comes from internalization, critical observation and reflection.

Think of it like the relationships you have in your own life.  The first date, indeed the first few months, are giddy and exciting, often filled with moments you will never forget.  But are they a reflection of the person with whom you are engaged or a brief moment defined by the context of dating.  What we know after being involved with someone for a few months or years is significantly richer than what we know after a few hours.  Why?  Because we learn to understand the other person’s worldview along with our own.  We learn to observe, ask better questions and think about things in we may not have noticed in the early days of courtship.

There is value in short interviews, whether you take an ethnographic approach or not.  But there is as much, if not more value in taking the time necessary to really think, experience and reflect.  It may not be good for the quarterly bottom line, but it is when looking at the long-term viability of a brand, product, or company.

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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1 Comment

  1. I completely agree. Tracking as a person makes their way through a process, seeing where they stumble and how their thought process evolves brings a much greater level of understanding of the customer experience. We recently completed a study using an ethnographic “style” approach and we learned alot that we would have missed otherwise. The cost and the timing are challenges for this approach, particularly in this cost conscious environment. I think that the key is to identify the right processes for this more expensive approach, it is not needed for all.

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