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What you need to know about ethnography

Last updated

7 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

Ethnography is a focused, long-form type of qualitative data-gathering. Researchers use it to answer specific research questions beyond shorter-form qualitative focus groups or depth interviews.

It involves immersing yourself in a community or culture as a researcher. This leads to deeper insights and understanding about that community compared to what you might get from quantitative or shorter-form qualitative research techniques.

This approach’s immersive nature can require a significant investment in terms of time and expense.

Let’s dive into the nuances of ethnography, including its basic definition, benefits, and drawbacks. Find out how you might apply it to gain insights that benefit your business.

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What is ethnography?

Ethnographic research first became popular among anthropologists in the 1800s. They used it to classify specific cultures and ethnic groups based on their behaviors, interactions, perceptions, and shared values.

These researchers sometimes lived for years within the culture they studied. This enabled them to gain in-depth insights into races and cultures outside of Europe. Their goal was to build a systematic understanding and representation of that culture to later aid interaction and communication.

Today, the concept is used more broadly across many other social science fields and business contexts. It can be completed in days, not weeks. This means you can get actionable business-related takeaways based on authentic insights from a specific audience segment that you want to learn about.

We’ll define ethnography as the descriptive (or qualitative) study of a group of individuals who share enough common characteristics to be considered a cohesive group.

The technique typically involves immersing yourself in that group. You can gain insights into their behaviors and group dynamics using anything from interviews to observations. It prioritizes observation (watching and studying) over elicitation (asking direct questions or analyzing text). In this way, it differs from other qualitative methods.

For example, a brand like Apple may use ethnographic research to better understand how its loyalists use their product in real-world settings. This technique allows them to identify how users say they use their products and actually observe them doing so in the real world.

The word “ethnography” refers both to the study itself and the report that summarizes the research findings.

Advantages of ethnography

The biggest advantage of ethnography lies in its in-depth, observational nature. Few research tools can provide you with more valuable or nuanced insights into the group you’re studying. 

The immersive nature of ethnography also allows for more authentic insights. You’re not just interacting with your audience for research purposes. Instead, you might observe more spontaneous interactions and natural behaviors that shorter-form qualitative or quantitative research methods may not have captured. However, you can still ask questions when needed to clarify important information.

Finally, the open-ended nature of ethnography makes it more flexible than many of its alternatives.

Other research types try to confirm or reject a hypothesis, but ethnography doesn’t uncover black-and-white truths. You can use it to learn as much as possible about the group you’re studying instead. Any insights you gain will feed into your overall understanding of the subject being investigated.

Disadvantages of ethnography

This type of research has some drawbacks, too. Consider the following disadvantages when deciding whether you should use ethnography:

  • Defining the group you’re studying can be difficult – especially when it’s not a self-defined culture. This can make the boundaries for being a part of the group challenging. Thinking back to the Apple example, how would you define a brand loyalist?

  • Ethnography is time-consuming by nature. Anthropologists spend multiple years immersed in the culture they’re studying. While business-facing ethnography studies might not be as long, the time commitment required can be extensive. Selecting the group, planning the study, and performing the ethnographic element can require days and weeks at the data collection stage. Shorter-form methods, like focus groups, depth interviews, or questionnaires, might take only hours at this stage.

  • Researcher bias can become a serious problem. Ultimately, any ethnography is subjective and based entirely on the researcher’s interpretations. You may introduce your own pre-existing biases into the observation and analysis if you don’t conduct ethnography properly, possibly leading to skewed results.

Finally, any researcher performing an ethnography needs to consider ethics. Observed information may be sensitive or private. The subjects may not always be comfortable sharing it with a broader public.

Disclosing your role and the intended outcomes of an ethnographic study is crucial to conducting it ethically.

Should you use ethnography in your research?

Ethnography is worthwhile in any situation that calls for in-depth information about a specific group. This is the case where research questions can’t be answered by direct questions and time constraints are limited. However, it won’t offer quick answers to your research or deliver quantitative data.

These four questions can help you determine whether you should use ethnography in your research:

  1. How clearly can you define the community or group you’re looking to study?

  2. How easily can you gain access to that community or group?

  3. How much time do you have for the study and its outcomes?

  4. Are there other, faster ways to gain the information you want?

For example, a focus group or interviews may be more beneficial for answering basic research questions.

Put simply, it’s crucial to know what you’re getting into before conducting any type of ethnographic research.

What are the three important variables in ethnographic research?

The following three general concepts are especially important for any researcher looking to get actionable takeaways:

  1. Open versus closed settings

  2. Active versus passive observation

  3. Overt versus covert research

Consider these three variables as individual dimensions. For example, an ethnography can be open, active, and covert, or closed, active, and overt. The best choice depends on the situation and group to be studied.

1. Open vs. closed settings

Ethnography in open settings means studying a group that anyone can join. For example, studying your current customers means anyone who chooses to buy a product automatically joins the group and can become part of the study.

In contrast, ethnography in closed settings means studying a group that’s relatively fixed because it’s difficult for new members to join. For example, students at a particular university might be considered a closed group. Joining requires being accepted and paying thousands of dollars in tuition.

Open ethnographies are easy to set up because you can easily gain access to members. At the same time, defining the parameters of what membership means can be difficult. The group’s identity might be so loosely defined that it’s meaningless. This could mean the research uncovers limited new knowledge. 

Closed ethnographies can be difficult to start because gaining access is difficult. However, the group will have a clearer identity and more strongly defined values. Once you’re in, it’s easier to become fully immersed in the group. Ethnographic research findings from this group tend to be more meaningful as a result.

2. Active vs. passive observation

Passively observing a group means shadowing the ethnography’s subjects. You’ll observe and document their everyday interactions instead of interacting with them yourself. This allows you to focus entirely on the subjects and reduces the chance of potential bias.

Active observation, on the other hand, means interacting directly with the group you’re studying. For example, you might join the group and experience the same interactions and behaviors as other group members.

While you’ll better understand your subjects’ perspectives, beware of potential biases. Your observation may be less impartial and you may influence the group’s behavior.

Each approach comes with pros and cons. Choosing which to use will depend on the research’s circumstances. For example, while passive observation may seem less likely to introduce bias than active observation, it may not be suitable in some scenarios. Some groups and communities will find it more noticeable to have a person writing and recording observations with whom they cannot interact or ask questions.

3. Overt vs. covert ethnography

Overt ethnography means being open and honest to any subject you interact with about your role as a researcher.

In covert ethnography, you’ll study the group secretly. You might provide an excuse as to why you are shadowing them or temporarily joining them.

Most researchers prefer overt ethnography for ethical reasons. You won’t be able to get your subjects’ consent for sharing or evaluating their thoughts and actions if you’re dishonest about your role.

On the other hand, overt ethnography may limit access to groups that don’t want to be studied. It may also introduce unnatural behaviors from subjects who want to portray their group in a positive light.

Part of the reason ethnography is conducted over longer time periods (like days and even weeks) is to have ethnographic subjects “forget” they are being observed, even in an overt situation. Over time, they become more likely to exhibit the kind of behavior they would in a covert situation.

As researchers become more familiar with their subjects and observe rather than elicit behavior, they increase the likelihood of gathering semi-covert observations from familiar subjects.

What are the key components of ethnography?

Every ethnography—open or closed, covert or overt, active or passive—needs to include four key components for success:

  1. Access to the community studied

  2. Advocates or partners in the community studied

  3. Observation practices and notes

  4. A recorded research report, typically via video in business contexts

Let’s discuss each of these components in more detail.

1. Community access

Every ethnography has to include a specific plan for gaining access to the group you will study. You’ll need to research the steps required to gain entry. For example, you might attend a sporting event to gain access to fans or take a college class to gain access to students.

Consider reaching out to formal or informal group leaders for information and to gain permission, depending on the type of group you’re studying. This is an essential first step for overt ethnographies, but can also help mitigate some of the ethical concerns of covert research efforts.

Finally, build a plan B in case you cannot gain access. You should consider your backup plan early on. It would typically involve studying a similar group (like fans of a different sports team) or using a different research method.

Financial incentives may work to your advantage in a commercial market research setting, where your objectives are to understand behavior within a particular customer segment (e.g., Tesla owners). After defining the recruitment criteria for your target subject, you could financially incentivize them to take part.

2. Partners in the community

Your group’s formal or informal leaders may become your go-betweens—your partners in the community. They will act as your primary points of contact during the study. These informants will provide basic information about the group, provide access where needed, and help with logistics.

You should identify your informants before and during the early stages of the study. Their logistical help will allow you to focus more closely on the more qualitative aspects of the group and your subjects.

Take care when working with your informants during the ethnography. You could become too reliant on their information, mistaking their opinions and actions as representative of the larger group. Working with multiple informants can help mitigate some of these potentially negative effects.

This step is less of a consideration for commercial market research studies. These tend to be observational studies with individuals and don’t involve community leaders or partners. However, you may still gain insights and access through informal group leaders, like influencers or thought leaders.

3. Observation

The study itself will mostly involve you observing the group you’re immersed in. Note-taking is a key tool here.

Most ethnographers keep a daily journal to record their observations and interactions with community members. Items of note may include observation of unique behaviors and emerging patterns, how different group members interact, and more. Try to record more than what you need in case this material helps you identify a pattern later on.

Ethnographers may also use video and audio recordings as well as photography to support their findings. This is especially valuable in commercial research settings. Demonstrating behaviors is extremely compelling and can provide irrefutable evidence to shape marketing and brand strategy.

Remember to obtain permission from anyone appearing in a recording or photograph if parts of the study may become public.

4. The research report

The study’s conclusion brings the final piece of the puzzle: the written report that includes core takeaways and insights resulting from your immersion. That starts with reviewing all your field notes and recordings and analyzing the data for patterns and trends. Many researchers like affinity diagrams to organize their thoughts and analysis.

If you used video for observation, this step includes cutting longer edits of content down to shorter thematic edits that capture and express key behaviors. These can be used as an analysis tool or video report.

Ethnographies don’t have specific structures to follow. Instead, the goal is to remain as focused as possible, listing the research’s insights and takeaways. Introduce the study by discussing its original goals and purpose, share your findings, and conclude with any next steps or takeaways that result from these insights.

Unlike other research methods, your personal context should also be part of the ethnography. Identify exactly how you felt, your background with the group, and other variables. This can help the audience better understand the insights and identify potential biases.

8 important things to consider with ethnographic research

Follow the eight steps below as you plan and execute your ethnography. They will help maximize the value of insights you can gain from it.

  1. Start with clear goals, outlining why you want to study this community.

  2. Clearly define the community or group with as many shared values and variables as possible.

  3. Build a timeline that establishes how long you’ll spend with the group for research.

  4. Decide on and define the type of ethnography you’ll perform—open or closed, overt or covert, and active or passive.

  5. If needed, reach out to group leaders and other potential informants to build connections with the group. This step may not be necessary in a commercial market research setting.

  6. Take notes diligently during the study. Record too much versus not enough.

  7. Create a research report that outlines the goals, process and actionable takeaways to share with other stakeholders.

  8. Share your research report with any stakeholders that can benefit from the insights in their work.

Every ethnography is different because it’s largely defined by the group you’re studying. Still, findings from one ethnography may inform your next study. Your process will improve over time as you look to learn more about the communities that matter to you, your organization, and other stakeholders.

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