The key point in ethnography is that the unit of analysis is not the individual, but the culture in which people operate. As such, it is intrinsic to understanding ethnography’s value to comprehend that the study of a culture involves exploring two levels of consciousness and meaning: the explicit and the implicit. Explicit culture is what we see and hear people articulate: social mores, tool, basic interactions, etc. It is that level of shared knowledge people can typically communicate easily, or those aspects of material culture that are readily identifiable. Implicit culture is comprised of those things, which are simply “known” and usually either unspoken or difficult to articulate. It is that space where culture is not just trappings and customs, but rather meanings, symbols, and practices. The implicit side of culture is the domain of meanings takes shape, and it is here where the ethnographic understanding finds its true value.
Participants do not attend a facility in an ethnographic study. In fact, the participants or the context/setting largely determines where and when they meet with the ethnographer(s). So, if the area of inquiry is about, say, beer consumption, the fieldwork may take place at a bar, at a picnic, or at a ball game. The point is that these are all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed and by exploring various contexts, the ethnographer begins to understand the myriad roles beer plays in people’s lives. Once the range of contexts is understood, patterns of meaning and norms emerge. Understanding these contexts helps companies identify and talk to the beliefs, needs, processes and hidden triggers of their shoppers and consumers. It seems daunting, but it is not a stretch to say that everything is data in an ethnographic project. The goal, and the hardest part by far, is to connect the dots between the various points of data and build a meaningful, valid pattern. And this is where the real value of ethnography lies.
This is also one of the hardest things to convey to a client. On the surface it seems like a simple sell, but we are conditioned to look to individuals as defined by segmentation studies when developing business plans, advertising, marketing strategies, etc. It’s known, it’s safe and it’s easy to grasp. This is why we make a point of doing some sort of field exercise with clients before we engage in a project, whether it’s an ideation session that involves limited fieldwork or actually taking people into the field with us. This is also why every session or day ends in a debriefing where the interview is compared against the unsaid, the environment and the contextual makeup of the area of study. Having clients participate in the interpretation and analysis is as significant as having them take part in the fieldwork itself because it begins to convey the complexity of the topic and the interconnectedness of people, setting and product (or retailer, brand, condition, etc.).