Ethnography: why you should hire an anthropologist

Ethnographic research has become very much ‘in vogue’ to the extent that everybody seems to be ‘doing ethnography’ these days. Business has been quick to recognise it as a way to uncover customer insights and to drive innovation. But what is it and, more importantly, are you getting the real deal?

Ethnographic research, or ethnography for short, comes from the discipline of anthropology, the social science that seeks to understand human behaviour within the social context and looks at the cultural beliefs and practices that underpin what people do and say. Anthropology gets underneath the social surface and makes visible that which is largely invisible.

In a previous blog article, I explained the value of using ethnography as an exploratory research method in product design, and stated that “nothing comes close to it in terms of revealing deep insights about how actual people — the future consumers of your product — behave as well as uncovering unmet and unexpressed needs”.

What is ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research ('ethnography') is the research method used by anthropologists, and was ‘invented’ by the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski. In 1922 Malinowski published the first ethnography, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific, in which he described this now familiar research method. In academic settings, ethnographic research is typically characterised by long-term fieldwork during which time the researcher usually lives among the people they are studying and seeking to understand. 

Because businesses do not have the luxury of time, anthropologists working in corporate environments have successfully adjusted their research scope and methods to produce valuable work within the constraints imposed by the commercial context. 

Ethnography, when done by social anthropologists, has the power to reveal deep cultural insights about the people you're designing for. Which is why it is so well-regarded by Fortune 500 companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Google, and Miele, to name a few.

Is ethnography talking to and observing people?

Most people understand ethnography as observing and interviewing people. However, this is simply the data collection stage of an ethnographic project when researchers spend time with real people in their natural setting, such as their home or workplace. Ethnographic data collection involves observation, interaction, and structured ethnographic interviews to explore and uncover people's cultural frames of reference. In other words, how they see and experience the world. 

Because researchers are asking open questions, listening, interacting with, and observing people in their own environment, they are not testing prior assumptions or hypotheses, unlike some other types of research.

Cultural analysis is key

Socio-cultural analysis is the most important stage of an ethnographic research project. Otherwise all the researcher has done has collected information about what someone said and did. It is understanding why a person did and said something from a socio-cultural perspective that makes ethnography done by anthropologists so powerful.

The analysis takes place after spending time with people at their home or place of work ('the field'). The researcher organises the data in a logical way and uses social theory (‘idea tools’) to make sense of the picture that emerges. Researchers look for the patterns and themes, and provide social context to the findings — the meanings people attribute to things, their beliefs and values, and ways of doing things.

Making sense of that data from a cultural perspective, then, is what distinguishes good ethnography from poor ethnography: the ability to explain the cultural meanings behind the participants’ experiences rather than just offering up a description of what the participants said and did. 

How to distinguish bona fide ethnographic researchers

When you are hiring a consultant to conduct ethnographic research for your product or service design project, here is what you should be looking for:

  • Research informed by anthropological and sociological theory: Any firm offering ethnographic research should have either an anthropologist or a sociologist on their staff who has been trained to graduate (BA) or post-graduate (MA or PhD) level. Real ethnographic research is rooted in the methods and theory of anthropology. Otherwise the ethnographic research you’re paying for is just another market research method.
  • Ethnography is not quick: If you are being promised ethnographic research that only takes a week, then it’s not ethnographic research. While ethnographic researchers have certainly sped up the research method in response to the constraints imposed by the commercial environment, ultimately, done too fast, ethnographic research loses its power to deliver in-depth cultural insights.
  • Ethnography takes place in the field: Ethnographic research involves researching people in their own environments (the ‘field’), not in a lab, typically in their home or at their place of work.
  • Ethnography means research with real people: Ethnographic research is done with ‘real’ people, not people who have actively chosen to take part in market or user research, or who are friends or employees.

If you want to introduce ethnographic research into your product and service design, contact Mundy and Anson today.

Photo © 2018 Dawn Walter.