Ethnography Done Right

The marketplace is full of companies and individuals claiming an ability to conduct ethnographic research to support all kinds of things: business strategies, product innovation, customer segmentation, etc. While many businesses and business leaders may recognize the value of deeper insight generated by ethnographies, there is a disconcerting tendency to assume that "this ethnography thing can't be that hard" and to assume that anyone who can interview a consumer in their home is qualified to design, execute, and analyze ethnographic research. As nice as that would be (really!), it's simply not the case. Based on our deep ethnographic experience at Cheskin, I'd argue that there are three distinctions between ethnographers (in the rich sense of the word) and interviewers (in the limited sense of the word): needlessly shallow research design, passive interviewing tactics, and insufficiently limited analysis.

Needlessly shallow research design is the first indication that "ethnography" may be only an interview. To prepare for an interview, researchers find and recruit the interviewee, schedule an interview and write a questionnaire or guide to keep the interview on track. So far, so good - no real difference at this level between interviews and ethnography. But take a closer look at the nature of that questionnaire, and the first area of difference starts to come into focus.
Planning for ethnography requires extensive thought and preparation regarding how the discussion should take place. It requires an understanding of the appropriate location / context for conducting the discussion. It requires taking into account the participant's surroundings and environment to supplement the verbal interaction. It requires a firm perspective on how to best communicate and develop rapport with the participant (particularly important in international contexts). In short, ethnographic discussion guides must draw the interaction, insight and investigation deeper than simple verbal interactions. This deeper interaction and focus allows access into meanings and frameworks that guide participants' interactions and perceptions. It requires thinking through exercises and points of observation beyond simple open-ended question and answer.

But the differences don't stop at the discussion guide. Deep research design calls for a consideration of what will be done with the insight gathered. How will interactions be captured? What hypotheses will be tested and how will we know if those hypotheses have been proven or disproven? What is the analytical framework that will be brought to bear? All these questions must be carefully answered and thought through before research is under way. But often this is left undone in many "ethnographic studies".

At Cheskin, our teams can spend weeks thinking through the variables that should be considered and addressed in an ethnographic study. We rely heavily on prior experience, academic insight and frameworks, and a collaborative perspective that leads to a deeper, more holistic research design. It's harder than it looks!

A second common distinction between ethnographers and interviewers is in the nature of the data collection itself: passive research design. Imagine a standard interview; a job interview, a business interview. any kind of one-on-one discussion around a shared topic. Most of the time these discussions are focused on the verbal interaction, with perhaps minor attention paid to body language to uncover "hidden" meanings. Unfortunately, this is often the nature of untrained "ethnographic" interviews. A few people sit together, the leader of the discussion asks questions, the participant answers, responses are recorded, and the discussion moves forward. The goal is to get the participant's "take" on a particular topic or area of interest.

This is in direct contrast to the ethnographic interview, which is an active, dynamic, and nuanced discussion that takes places on a variety of levels simultaneously. Ethnographers are trained to use the verbal interaction as an entrée into the broader world of meaning and significance that drives the participants' responses. They gather verbal input, but are simultaneously taking in environmental contexts, body language, linguistic maneuverings, and indicators of deeper meaning and cultural constructs. The goal of the discussion isn't to just get the participant's "take" on the topic (at least it's not limited to that). The goal is to understand this person (or people) and their culture - the "webs of significance" as the late Clifford Geertz so nicely put it back in 1973. Ethnographers move beyond the question and answer and focus on the very meanings and constructs that have significance in a participant's life. As noted above, this requires heavy planning and thought before the interview, and it requires a very active and vibrant awareness during the discussion.

This emphasis on understanding the participants' holistic experience dovetails nicely with Cheskin's approach to uncovering meaningful benefits. While the business goal may vary with client and target audience, the methodological goal of most of our ethnographic studies is to understand the values and meanings that participants hold - an understanding that leads to richer and more complete insight into participants and their worlds.

The third distinction that sets ethnography apart from interviews lies in what's done with the insight gathered in these discussions. Too many "ethnographies" present findings as a superficial condensing of participants' feedback. It's like playing the old "telephone" game, where one person whispers something to the ear of the person to their left, and that person in turn whispers the same thing in the ear of the person to their left, until everyone in the circle has heard some facsimile of the original message and we all laugh at how different the final message is from what was begun. True ethnography can be distinguished by good design planning and effective interviewing, but also by the analytical depth and rigor applied to the learnings from that interviewing.

Ethnography, by definition, involves describing, understanding and explaining cultural variables that impact a people's identity, values, perceptions of self (and others), and even behaviors. To remain true to the name, true ethnography should report findings and output that delve deeper than simple description or relaying of what was said. By analyzing the holistic experience of the interview (the said and unsaid, the nuances and underlying meanings), ethnographers are able to generate and communicate much richer insight to inform the understanding of consumers. And, even better, it's incumbent upon ethnographers to take the insight one step further to discuss its significance within the broader research problem. Not content to simply relay verbal input, ethnography brings real value in discussing ramifications and implications of the insight. What does it mean for a segmentation? How does it fit in with what's currently known about this group of people? How does a client take an understanding of the "meaning" and bring it to bear on the challenges faced? These are all marks of true ethnography.

A few disclaimers on this argument before I bring this to a close. It may be easy to read into this that only trained (academic) ethnographers / anthropologists should conduct ethnographies. Not true - and not practical. Different backgrounds and passions bring great variety to any ethnographic study. It is important, though, that those conducting ethnographies have adequate training in the nuances of the field that distinguish it from simple interviewing.

It may also be easy to read here that ethnographies are the "best" qualitative research methodologies. Also not true. Ethnography is one tool in a much larger, diverse toolkit of qual and quant methodologies. It's not valuable if it's brought to bear on the wrong problems. Ethnographies are great for uncovering deep meanings, entrenched habits and attitudes, and general lifeways. It's not for everyone - or every problem. But where it's needed - it's unparalleled for yielding amazing insight.

And for more on Cheskin ethnography, see our recent primer on ethnography and design.

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