Ipsos Encyclopedia - Ethnography

Ethnography is a qualitative research method derived from the fieldwork practices of anthropology. It is often characterised by its emphasis on spending extended periods of time with people or groups of people to generate/create a holistic picture of cultural practices.


Ethnography is a qualitative research method derived from the fieldwork practices of anthropology. It is often characterised by its emphasis on spending extended periods of time with people or groups of people to generate/create a holistic picture of cultural practices.

Originally used as a method to understand tribes or cultures in distant lands, today it is applied to any culture including our own. Ethnography is employed to understand people's daily practices and routines in regard to products, services, illnesses or brands. Despite being one of the oldest fieldwork techniques, it is often characterised as being a new, sometimes innovative, research method in market research.

The term 'ethnography' is sometimes misused and poorly defined by people in the world of market research, and has on occasion become a trendy word chosen to make a research tool appear more innovative, such as 'ethno-lite', 'self-ethnography', 'webnography', or even 'glassnography' (referring to participants wearing video recording glasses).

This definition will discuss:

  1. The components of good ethnography
  2. The ways in which ethnography is used by our clients
  3. What ethnography is not.

1. The components of good ethnography

Ethnographic fieldwork takes many principles of anthropological investigation (participant-led research, using observed phenomena as data, empathetic questioning methods, participant observation) and combines them with more modern approaches to data collection (photography, film, app-based recording).

In doing so, ethnographic fieldwork follows a number of important tenets, detailed below:

  • Situation-based
  • Say and do
  • An observational technique
  • Participant-led
  • An empathetic approach
  • Specialist, trained ethnographic researchers
  • The importance of analysis
  • The use of video

Situation-based: As opposed to other research methods, the fieldwork is not only based on a group profile, but on situations. If we want to understand the behaviours related to beer consumption, we will need to analyse what happens in homes in daily situations + during parties + in the bars and restaurants + in the streets.

Say and do: Ethnography can be described as an interpretive method which illustrates the difference between what people say they do versus what they actually do: for example, participants tell us they are healthy, but they actually eat a salty, high-fat diet and do little exercise. While this is theoretically true, it is rare (and often gives a disingenuous view of the participants) that this stark comparison can be made. A more sophisticated view of the say vs. do gap would be to say that ethnography gets beyond what people simply tell us, to add a thicker layer of description that includes their behaviour; or, put more succinctly, ethnography tells us what people say and do.

An observational technique: Ethnographic fieldwork uses visual cues as data. Modern ethnographic fieldwork often uses video cameras to record what participants show us, as we are able to see the wider context in which people live (their home, friends, family, weight, income). However, ethnography is rarely purely observational, as many research projects need us to understand the 'why' as well as the 'what' (though there are techniques for analysing purely observational data). Ethnography is still described as an observational technique since many of the questions that ethnographers ask are derived from observing what is in the participants' environment.

Participant-led: Ethnographic research is always participant-led. This means that we use participants' agenda (daily routine, work pattern, shopping trip, etc.) as the starting point for how our time with them is spent; it is their schedule, not ours. This means that they will show us the things that are important to them, rather than the researcher making assumptions about what is important. As the day unfolds, we can then ask the right questions at the right time, making it not only more relevant but also more 'in the moment', bringing us closer to the behaviours that we wish to know about, and that really matter to them.

An empathetic approach: Empathy is a crucial ethnographic tool in interviewing as it allows one to 'walk a mile in someone's shoes' and to build rapport with the participant. Empathy is difficult to teach (though there are empathy training courses), and many respected anthropologists have said that 'ethnography chooses you; you don't choose ethnography', when referring to the use of empathy in interviewing. It also emphasises the importance of having ethnographers do the fieldwork - and of only having one person in the field – as opposed to qualitative researchers who are used to asking a succession of questions with numerous people involved in the interview.

Specialist, trained ethnographic researchers: While ethnography is sometimes seen as just another qualitative technique, it is important to stress the difference in skillset between ethnographic researchers and qualitative researchers. Many of the best ethnographic departments have purely anthropological or sociological backgrounds, as many of the techniques listed above are rarely used to the same extent in other qualitative research, such as focus groups or in-depth interviews.

The importance of analysis: It is often said that ethnography takes a long time, which is true, but what is not commonly understood is that most of that time is spent on analysis. To make meaning out of the data that has been collected, ethnographers like to have at least three times the amount of time that they had in the field for analysis.

The use of video: Modern-day ethnography often uses video as the basis of the data collection. While video is commonly digested online and on TV, it is still a difficult and process-heavy way of working. The main advantage of using video in ethnography is that during the analysis process many people can see the same thing that one ethnographer saw when they were in the field. Trained ethnographers are specialists in analysis too, allowing them to derive insights from all the visual data through interpretation and analysis.

2. The ways in which ethnography is used by our clients

In market research, ethnography is more of a foundational study for many research departments where the business/research questions are very open and investigative. Ethnography is less well suited to more targeted research problems, or where there is little behaviour to be observed.

With that in mind, there are several ways in which ethnography can be used for our clients:

  • Creating impact through video
  • Observing System 1 thinking
  • Targeted behaviour change
  • Cross-cultural analysis of behaviour
  • Segmenting consumers by need states
  • In search of white space for innovation
  • Agile research

Creating impact through video: We only remember 10-15% of anything that happens in any given moment, which only gets worse as we become bored. Our mind is fallible: it gets distracted, and it forgets things easily. This poses two big challenges for market research:

  • Firstly, the old style of presenting page after page of PowerPoint, no matter how engaging the speaker is, does not help a message stick. It's more likely that an audience will remember a random assortment of ideas, taken from the beginning of the presentation (primacy effect), and from the end (recency effect). But most of all, they are likely to remember the findings that confirm their current point of view (attention bias). Video helps engage stakeholders, keeps their attention for longer, and challenges any preconceptions they may have had about a group of people. Watching video also encourages visual and emotional thinking, as it engages with different parts of the brain. Bringing film into the boardroom, or to the desks of civil servants, is more likely to lead to creative results, as it helps spark thinking.
  • Secondly, on a research level, the camera never lies. If we conduct an interview for seven hours, we have seven hours of data. Recording an interview on camera means that we can remember what happens even when our fallible mind forgets. This is an important part of our method, as ethnography should seek to understand the mundane moments of everyday life – which are, by definition, the parts we are more likely to forget. Placing video at the heart of analysis means that we can replay the images as they happened, rather than in our mind as we constructed them.

Observing 'System 1' thinking:

  • "We think far less than we think that we think."
  • "We're not as smart as we think we are."

These two phrases that sit at the core of behavioural science literature suggest that we often act without thinking, and we then try to justify or rationalise what we've just done.

And these phrases are well supported by experiments and demonstrations that show that we conduct up to 99% of our daily behaviours on autopilot. If someone throws you a ball, you catch it. You don't think about catching it; you just do it, because there is a 'reptilian', 'System 1', 'instinctive' part of the brain that allows you to catch it. Making a cup of coffee every morning is the same – we do it on autopilot and we actually remember very little about how we do it. This presents some obvious challenges for the research industry.

Observation helps us understand how people behave on autopilot. Removing the need for people to describe what they do, and instead watching what people are doing, means that we are able to see automatic behaviour in action. We act on autopilot to stop the world becoming overcomplicated and difficult to navigate. Supermarket shopping is a classic example of this: sitting an A-level Maths exam would be easier than weighing up the cost, style, relevance and quality of all the products on 17 aisles when doing the weekly shop. Instead, our brain quietly navigates us through the aisles in a way that cannot be explained, and therefore needs to be observed.

Targeted behaviour change: The application of behavioural science has offered researchers a way of finding levers to change behaviour. Behaviour change has become popular in the US and UK governments; the UK government, for example set up a Behavioural Insights Team to specialise in categorising particular approaches to changing behaviour. Furthermore, the application in the private sector has focused on small interactions between organisations and consumers to help 'nudge' them in a preferred direction, using many of the cognitive biases and heuristics that have been uncovered through academic experiments.

Behaviour change is most effective when used beyond what is said, looking at what people do and how they feel. Many of the reasons for our actions – or even, inaction – come from an unarticulated desire or feeling that is discovered when observed. Provoking a different emotion at the moment of decision-making, or reminding people of a promise they made to themselves to not buy any more 'cheap' products, for example, helps create behaviour change.

Using ethnography within a behaviour change model ensures that product development or policy formation is not made in a vacuum and, instead, relates to behaviours that are actually taking place. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that consumers are indeed open to these triggers for change, as it helps them create an easier, simplified set of options, that enhances their lifestyle.

Cross-cultural analysis of behaviour: Culture is at the heart of anthropology, and in business, good cultural interpretation is what makes a product a success. As the world gets smaller, companies are introducing their products to new markets in the hope of expanding their customer base. However, this can be fraught with problems, as culture is difficult to interpret: people find it hard to explain their culture, and their reasons for accepting or rejecting a product may be simply instinctive rather than rational. Let's take the breakfast routine as an example: it has evolved in different countries over many centuries, but a product that tastes good, looks appealing, and has sold well in one market, does not immediately spell success in other markets. This is because breakfast is not simply about the act of eating in the morning – it is a behaviour that's become imbued with different cultural meanings­­. In many cultures, for example, breakfast signifies a parental offering to their family, an expression of the family's success. Even something as ubiquitous as breakfast has wildly different meanings attached to it, making cultural insight a necessity.

Segmenting consumers by need states: We all become different people when in different places, at different times. As we slowly emerge from an unconscious slumber in the morning, through to our (productive?) working day, our after-work activities, and evening relaxation, we move through a number of different places and display an array of emotions and motivations. We also display very different needs in all of these different scenarios.

The 'coffee example' is always a great way to describe this idea. After our desperate thirst for caffeine in the morning, coffee is then needed as a way to create a break in the working day, and is later used as a reason for meeting someone after work. And it can also be a way to finish dinner. Coffee is needed for different reasons, due to different states of mind.

To understand need states from first principles, we have to be with people at different moments in time, analysing which needs are being fulfilled at a particular moment in time. Doing so is crucially important for products and brands, if they are to successfully communicate the attributes consumers are looking for. In order to understand the full range of need states, we also need to observe these motivations in the places in which they are experienced.

In search of white space: Predicting volumes in upcoming innovation means that a company knows how much to invest in new products. Yet, through what occasionally feels like an unexplained curse, trialled and tested innovations sometimes fail. There are two ways to overcome this: the first is to marry up the product with early insight into how the product will apply to real life. Using ethnography to create a behavioural grounding tells us how innovations are likely to be adopted by consumers in daily life. In the same way that concepts can be tested quantitatively, products can be evaluated ethnographically to see whether their usage is likely to stick, and even become truly habitual. Secondly, once the innovation has been given behavioural grounding, this insight can then be carried through to the rest of the screening experience. A major reason why an innovation 'sticks' is that it resonates with many of the innate heuristics and cognitive biases inherent in the way we behave. Placing behavioural insight at the heart of concept testing allows us to use the discovered core drivers of usage right through to product launch. Anticipating the usefulness of behavioural knowledge throughout the innovation process avoids costly failures at the end.

Agile research: Good design is a driving force behind product success, but good design means understanding the target audience. Involvement in agile research has given designers greater authority within organisations, as they create products using insight alongside creatives.

Creatives and designers need inspirational stimuli for design. Ethnographic research – understanding the behaviours and environments of your target audience – focuses design firmly around the behaviours of the end user. Video ethnography brings consumers to the desks of designers, ensuring that the core consumer need is kept top-of-mind throughout the process.

Whether designing new products for people with poor mobility or digital development for online services, agile research relies on behaviour and was conceived with ethnography in mind.

3. What ethnography is not: The blurred lines

As market research tries to innovate and differentiate, many products or techniques are branded as being part of the ethnographic spectrum. The following techniques are regularly described as ethnographic in the industry, but these are not actually ethnographic:

Mobile ethnography: Often described as being ethnographic because it is in-the-moment. Firstly, mobile ethnography is rarely participant-led, as participants are given directions about what to show, rather than you being there to observe them. Secondly, mobile ethnography is not empathetic, a key tool in the ethnographer's tool box.

Self-ethnography: Getting participants to show you parts of their life, often over an online platform, is not ethnographic for the same reasons as those above (mobile ethnography).

In-home interviews: Simply going to someone's home does not make an interview ethnographic. Many in-home interviews that are described as ethnographic, or 'ethno-lite', lack the necessary time spent to build up rapport or demonstrate empathy. They are instead a set of question and answer sessions that are led by a discussion guide. On occasions, these interviews are filmed, but this doesn't make them any more ethnographic.

Vox pops: Vox pops are a snapshot of what people think, and do not employ any ethnographic techniques. Vox pops simply use film to record responses.

Ipsos Point Of View

Ipsos responds to market demand with two offers of how to conduct ethnography:

  1. Industry-leading ethnographic research conducted by the Ipsos Ethnography Centre of Excellence that communicates deep human truth through production-quality video.
  2. In-home UU ethnography conducted by trained qualitative researchers who are using ethnographic principles to communicate deep human truths through video.
  3. In-home UU Immersions conducted by trained qualitative researchers who are using principles of anthropology to help clients critique consumer behaviour.

These offers put good, investigative fieldwork at the heart of the approach, along with rigorous analysis approaches that are derived from anthropological research. Both the fieldwork techniques discussed earlier, and the analysis structures below allow Ipsos to differentiate itself from other players in the market.

Analytical structures are important, as these demonstrate to a client the types of insight we are looking to generate. The following analysis structures are rigorous and robust, but also take time to conduct:

  • Emic/etic
    • Emic/etic analysis is an important tool for ethnographic analysis, which offers cultural explanation of a behaviour within its context (emic), whilst also bringing the outsider's point of view to a particular behaviour (etic). One of the basic tenets of anthropology is that our behaviour and personality are shaped by the cultures and subcultures that surround us, which can only really be analysed through an emic/etic lens; emic to explain the nuances between different cultures and subcultures, and etic to challenge and understand the fundamentals of the combined behaviours. In practice, this requires a multidisciplinary team to be working on a project, getting different members of the team to take a different approach to analysing the data.
    • The emic/etic approach to analysis is neatly summed up by Christine Hine, Professor of Anthropology at University of Surrey: "Ethnography entails making the unfamiliar become familiar, whilst at the same time making the familiar feel unfamiliar."
  • 4 pillars of ethnographic research
    • Ipsos has adopted an approach amalgamated from many other academic approaches that looks at four important drivers of behaviour. Using the 'pillars of ethnography' to analyse behaviour helps us understand why people behave in particular ways, beyond what participants are likely (and able) to tell us:
      • Relationships: the relationships people have with one another are based on a set of unspoken rules, such as hierarchies, paternalism, provision, adversity, etc. Seeing these relationships in front of you in the field – be it between mother and child, or that of employees, or even to products or brands – will allow you to make analytical inferences about the relationships.
      • Emotions: emotional states are ever-present and hard to articulate. Observing and prompting for the emotional states which people have in relation to a service, product, person will help us create a clearer picture of their behaviour.
      • Cultural norms: cultural norms are often unspoken rules to which a group of people adhere. Culture can most accurately be described as "a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems" (Edgar Schein, 2010). A simpler way to describe culture is 'learnt behaviour' or 'how groups learn', and it points to the importance of asking participants in the field how they came to learn about a given idea.
      • Environment: the place and space in which we behave affects our behaviour in deeper and more complex ways than we are normally able to articulate. Observing participants in different places/spaces helps us isolate the effect of the environment.
  • Empathetic/wider/deeper understanding
    • Ethnography can help create new patterns of understanding based on the way we look at participants, which can be particularly important in the business setting when engaging with consumers/customers:
      • Empathetic understanding: through our quality time spent with customers, we come to truly know them and share real moments of intimacy with them. This enables clients to connect emotionally with the needs of their customer
      • Wider understanding: the ways people behave are often determined by the context of those behaviours – we observe and analyse their culture, their environment, and their interaction with the people around them. This helps clients to see the influences behind their customers' behaviour
      • Deeper understanding: since we understand that a lot of our behaviour is subconscious, we focus on observation – seeing people in action, rather than making conclusions based solely on what they tell us. This allows clients to truly

Best reading

  • Malinowski, Bronislaw (1932) Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Routledge.
  • Geertz, Clifford (1975) The Interpretation of Cultures. Hutchinson.
  • Alan Bryman. 2001. Social research methods. NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Bernard, H.R. 2001 (2nd edn) Research methods in anthropology. Alta Mira:London (4th edn 2006).
  • Ellen, R.F. 1984 (ed.) Ethnographic research: a guide to general conduct. London: Academic Press.
  • Gupta, A. & J. Ferguson (eds.) 1997. Anthropological locations: boundaries and grounds of a field science. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hammersley, M. & P. Atkinson 1983. Ethnography: principles in practice. London: Tavistock.
  • Hastrup, K. & P. Elass 1990. 'Anthropological advocacy: a contradiction in terms?', Current Anthropology 13: 301-310.

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