Ethnographic research, conceived by sociologists and cultural anthropologists, is a qualitative, observational technique that studies people in their natural environment (i.e., where they live and work).  Closely observing people where they live and work allows companies to zero in on customers’ unarticulated desires. Ethnographies are focused on creating a better understanding of the customer – it seeks to uncover true thinking, motivations, and reactions through observing a subject(s) over a sustained period of time.

One ethnographic researcher put it best when she explains, “If you want to understand what motivates a guy to pick up skateboarding, you could bring him into a sterile laboratory and interrogate him…or you could spend a week in a skate park observing him, interacting with his friends, practicing new skills, and having fun. Ethnography is observing people’s behavior in their own environments so you can get a holistic understanding of their world – one that you can intuit on a deeply personal level.”

Ethnography Basics

As one can tell, ethnographies can be a powerful, qualitative research tool, but the methodology needs to have clear objectives that can be addressed through observation – it is not a good tool for measuring or generalizing how a population thinks, feels, or behaves. Instances when ethnographies are well suited to be applied for marketing research involve designing new products, revitalizing current products or services, breaking into new markets, and transforming internal cultures.

Data collection methods for Ethnographic research include, but are not limited to:

  • Participant observation
  • Naturalistic observation
  • Field notes
  • Conducting interviews (sometimes audio or videotaped)
  • Reviewing documents, records, photographs, videotapes, maps, etc.