Ethnography in the digital age: do we still have to be there?


Written by Emma O’Connell

Researchers and clients are understandably drawn to ethnography with the promise of going deeper, getting closer to the reality of people’s lives. And at RDSi, we have a number of ethnography success stories (available on request)

Traditionally, the barriers to ethnography have been difficult to overcome – more time and cost and a less robust sample size can make clients anxious. Clients may wonder if qualitative researchers are qualified to undertake ethnography and reach out to professional ‘ethnographers’ instead.

We believe that qualitative researchers, with the right training, are absolutely the right people to conduct ethnography in a commercial context. RDSi is lucky to have researchers in the team with an academic background in social anthropology (the broader academic subject that encompasses ethnography) acting as a centre of excellence within the business. We understand that ethnography isn’t just a method, i.e. participant observation, it’s also a discipline. It is the systematic study of small scale societies to understand their culture. Like global research, ethnography helps reveal what is universal in human culture as well as specific cultural traits.

Ethnography has made its way into qualitative research largely by stealth. We began making greater use of pre and post tasks to access ethnographic detail like behavioural information and artefacts. The observation and intercept methodology, otherwise known as hanging out in stores, pubs, cinema foyers, to find out how people are behaving, has become an accepted tool in the kit bag. More recently, we have begun ‘snooping’ in a digital way. Online communities, sometimes described as ‘digital ethnography’, involve collecting behavioural information, encouraging respondents to film or photograph themselves and upload the results. It goes further… we are infiltrating online forums and using social media to find out what people are saying about brands.

Ethnography’s integration into qualitative research allows us to go beyond group discussions in a pragmatic, commercial way. So when we can’t physically be there in someone’s home or place of work, we can access some of the ethnographic richness that helps us understand a target audience.

But, when insight hunting, there really is no substitute for being there. People can’t articulate ‘what is’ in its entirety – showing is more revealing than telling. Insights can also come from left-field, like an impromptu visit from a neighbour. Being there allows us to get up close and witness the interaction with the product as it unfolds, so we can ask the right question at the right moment.

The sharpened senses of a qualitative researcher trained in ethnography will see, hear and sniff out what people themselves overlook, witnessing how the brand lives in people’s lives. To uncover latent needs and reveal untapped insights, sometimes we do just have to be there!