Ethnography is a form of qualitative research which is vastly different from its more well-known qualitative counterparts, focus group and interviews.   To conduct ethnography, the researcher enters into the environment of the study participants as unobtrusively as possible, with the goal of becoming a “fly on the wall.”  While the researcher is a dynamic part of other forms of qualitative research, in this form the researcher’s role is strictly that of observer.

The researcher aims to capture key moments of the participant’s experience in as true a form as possible.  Rather than relying on the memory or the descriptions of a study participant, ethnography is all about observing and recording important moments as they happen.  The ethnographer will often videotape the ethnography experience for later review.


There are innumerable possible objectives of ethnography.  Many of them involve understanding the cultural context of the study participants, particularly with an eye to information that the study participant might not self report.  Ethnography is looking for the symbolic, social and environmental factors that influence a participant’s experience.

Let’s say, for example, that the goal of research is to discover ways to market a product to young adults.  Ethnography would be employed to observe study participants in their daily routine.  The ethnographer  might observe the home environment, looking for clues.  What type of music do study participants listen to?  How are their apartment s decorated?  Who are their friends, and what do they do for fun?  These may all be rich sources of cultural information.  What makes ethnography different from other forms of qualitative research is that the goal is to observe and record – not to ask.   In this young adult example, the ethnographer may gain insights through observation that the study participants may not have thought to report through other means of qualitative research, as sometimes rich data may be mined from events that may seem insignificant to the group being studied.


Context is key.  The ethnographer should be a detective in search of clues, and any details in the environment being researched can turn out to be significant.  If the goal is to observe meal preparation, for instance, every aspect of the environment should be recorded.  How is the kitchen lit?  What are the ambient sights, sounds and smells?  Who is present in the home?  What is the study participant wearing while cooking the meal?

Because of its format, this form is more time-consuming than other forms of qualitative research.  The ethnographer must commit hours to being immersed in the study environment.  A large time commitment is often required on the back of the study to review the material collect, as well.   The pay off may come, though, when the study yields rich data that might not be collected any other way.

For commercial applications, ethnography may be used to reveal unmet needs or see how a particular product is used in everyday life; ethnography can be employed to test new products in the home environment or observe how purchasing decisions are made as they’re being made.  Ethnography can shed light on a particular lifestyle or can add color to the understanding of a consumer niche.

Questions That Ethnography Answers

This form of qualitative research should be used to answer very specific questions.  As is the case with other forms of qualitative research, findings should never be considered statistically significant, as by its very nature, ethnography can never study large enough numbers of participants.  The researcher should take care not to load too many questions into the study design, as ethnography is best suited for getting rich and valuable answers that can only be obtained by looking in great detail at a small number of issues.  Similarly, the most effective results are achieved by being very specific in the study design as to the segment being researched.

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