Ethnographic Research:  Trendy Method or Essential Tool?

Judy Langer and Jon Last wrote an interesting article in the February issue of Quirks.  They interviewed 26 end users to get their perspecitives on the use of ethnography.  Some of the my highlights are included here. 

Generally end users were very positive about the use of ethnography as one of many tools to for the research toolbelt.  They felt that ethnography was here to stay as a method but would not become the dominant method for conducting qualitative research. 

Positive aspects were the ability to “go deeper” and the “viewer impact.”  Ethnography is part of a broader trend in qualitative research to get below the surface to attain a deeper understanding of consumers that go beyond understandings that depend primarily upon participatant articulation.  The end user “viewer impact” can be impressive as well since ethnographic research gives the marketer a rare glimpse into the “real lives” of their consumers.  The soft insights from these impressions make better marketers and lead to better decisions.

 

The technique has several barriers that can make selling it to top management difficult:

  • Time.  Ethnographies simply take a while to conduct and analyze.  Other methods are faster.
  • Cost.  Ethnographic interviews, A/V equipment, travel and analysis make ethnography an expensive technique, particularly if viewed on a cost/interview basis.  Langer and Last make the point that, though this is “qualitative research,” clients still tend to look at the results on a cost/interview basis.
  • Samples.  Even though qualitative samples are never “sold” as representative, clients have difficulty understanding that ethnographic studies can “represent” their market because of the small sample sizes.

Interestingly, these end users delineated between ethnographies and focus groups/IDIs based on application.  They generally felt that ethnography was suited to strategic understanding applications while focus groups/IDIs better were better suited to tactical research applications.  Though end users generally expect ethnographies to grow, they do not expect them to become a dominent method. 

According to these end users, ethnography should not be confined to the world of anthropologists.  Different disciplines bring different perspectives and skill sets to the technique.  Some researchers prefer anthropologists, some prefer qualitative researchers.  The researcher skill set should match the client needs and proclivities. 

Based on this article, it sounds like the best way to “sell in” an ethnography project is to sell the value of deep insights over the high perceived cost.  Then the researcher better be able to deliver something of value that could not have been obtained by other means.  This is an interesting article that you might want to read if you are an ethnographer or want to use it.  You can get the entire article in the Quirks magazine or online at www.Quirks.com