Commence rant: One aspect of the business consulting world that I find particularly bothersome is its propensity to coopt methodologies and concepts that have been decades in the making, painstakingly perfected, and pretty much impossible to do correctly without a real, tangible expertise in the field of study, and condensing them into cheap, buzzwordfilled packages. The most egregious example: ethnography. Now, maybe that sounds harsh, but it annoys me when, at the mention of the word “ethnography,” many people picture a participant taking a photo of their bathroom vanity or refrigerator door with their mobile phone. Or this picture, taken from a recent Greenbook blog post about ethnography:

Seriously? You think ethnography is a bunch of stone-faced scientists in lab coats peering into people’s homes? Not only is that perception incorrect, it’s downright creepy. Now, I realize that in order for ethnography to be commercially viable as a market research methodology, it needs to repackaged. I realize that companies do not typically have 3 years to devote to a single ethnographic engagement. But I worry that the original essence and core principles of the methodology are getting lost in the rush to save time and money. Whatever the iteration, there are three elements that every ethnography should contain.

Ethnography is holistic: In many ways, ethnography is the most inefficient research methodology there is. One of the main principles is to enter the participant observer role with very few preconceived notions in mind. In that sense, hypotheses are nearly impossible to develop. Your role is to watch everything that goes on around you, to notice the interconnectedness of human life, how everything ties in together as a single cultural system. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have a research topic, or that you cannot prioritize the data you collect based on your research questions. But too often there is this assumption that ethnography is just market research in a home setting, and researchers become myopically focused on the product they are asked to study. Ethnography is about the big picture. It’s hard, it’s subjective, and it’s unpredictable, but its richness is worth it.

Ethnography is engaging: This is what I really hate about the picture above. When I conduct ethnography, I like to call it ‘professional hanging out.’ Ethnography is participant observation. You engage on a very deep and personal level with your participants. The relationship between the researcher and the researched is so delicate that anthropologists have been engaged in a heated debate for decades about just what to call the participants. Subjects? No, too dehumanizing. Collaborators? Colleagues? Consultants? Buddies? Ok, I made that last one up, but the point is that the clear hierarchy that you might encounter in a focus group evaporates in ethnography. And this happens for obvious reasons. Trust and friendship (“rapport” as we say) need to be built before any of the really good data can be gleaned. I hate to see the ethnography of the market research industry downplaying the relational aspect of the methodology for the sake of streamlining the process, which brings me to my last point:

Ethnography is an investment: I always want to roll my eyes whenever I see an “online ethnography” platform. If you tried to pass that off in any academic anthropology circle, you’d be laughed out of the room. I’m not saying these platforms aren’t valuable. They are. They get fascinating and high quality data when used correctly. But for the love of Pete, stop calling it ethnography. This is much more than a semantics argument. When you call it ethnography, you are making the claim that your methodology, which is typically little more than an online forum, can get the holistic, engaging, authentic data for a tiny fraction of the cost of a real ethnography. The fact is that you get what you pay for, and if your objectives dictate the level of subtlety and richness that you need from an ethnography, you have to make the investment.You could chalk this all up to me being a stickler for tradition and being closed minded to more efficient technologies that challenge the status quo. You could make the argument that people share more of their lives when interacting with an anonymous online interface. I get all that. I’m not saying that we should do away with the technologies that are available. I simply think that we as professional market researchers need to be aware of the context and history of the methodologies that we tout. There’s a reason anthropologists do ethnography in person with people who often become closer than family to them. We’re taking the human element out of ethnography, and I for one will stand up for the magic of this unparalleled methodology.


Photo courtesy of Greenbook Blog

Ellen Hart is a Senior Associate Consultant at Vivisum Partners. She specializes in in-depth qualitative research in healthcare and nonprofit fields.

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