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Ethnography: Caught between myths

28 Feb 11 - 12:00AM  | General
By Isabella Simpson

Ethnography has been around since the early days of the qualitative profession, but over the last 20 years qual researchers have been talking about it more and more. Anthropology graduates and postgrads such as myself have made their way into the jungle of commercial research and set up specialised agencies or joined the ranks of the big players. Ethnography is no longer a novelty – but it is still shrouded in an aura of mystique, which often makes clients and researchers uneasy about it, especially in the face of the high costs it can involve.

In commercial research, ethnography faces a difficult predicament: on the one hand there is a sense that it’s all about filming and anyone with a camera can do it, while on the other hand quallies too often feel that what they do is not ‘proper’ ethnography. Clients, meanwhile, are often baffled as to why it should be so expensive. I’d like to dispel some of these enduring myths about the ethnographic approach.

The first myth: It’s all about filming

“In commercial research there’s a perception that anyone can do ethnography if they can use a video camera”

Most qualitative researchers are aware of ethnography’s roots in social anthropology. Many also associate the term with observation which is one of the most distinctive features of this approach. However, since I moved into commercial research, I have observed that when ‘ethno’ is mentioned, the first thing that many people think about is ‘filming’, to the point that the two have become synonyms. While in academic circles, filming is seen as just another way of illustrating a point, in commercial research there’s a perception that anyone can do ethnography if they can use a video camera. I’m not denying the value of ethnographic filming or the skills required to do it, but what appears to be lost is the idea that observation itself is not a passive task, and that it requires a great deal of skill and experience: to create a rapport with the person being observed, to choose what to observe, what to ask, how to ask it and so forth. Moreover, ethnography means thinking about the implications of observing, interpreting and representing; about the subjective nature of observation; about the relative power of the observer and the observed. Ethnographers should be aware of these issues.

The success of ethnography as film resonates with the recent explosion of infographics and other data visualisations. But in the same way that flashy infographics should not be a substitute for information, film that is used to reinforce findings should not be mistaken for insight in itself. Data collection and presentation cannot replace analysis.

The second myth: Only trained academics do ‘proper’ ethnography

“Good qualitative researchers are excellent observers because we observe constantly”

A while ago I was chatting to an experienced researcher at a training course. When I mentioned my anthropological background, she told me apologetically that she did not do ‘proper’ ethnography, only ‘ethnography light’. But she then proceeded to describe a study in which she had spent days travelling up and down the country on trains talking to passengers about their experiences. This sounded to me like a very good starting point for what I’d consider proper ethnography.

This is an attitude I’ve come across many times. While it’s not true that everybody can be an ethnographer, many qualitative researchers are very well-equipped to conduct ethnographic research and there is nothing ‘light’ about what they do. This is because they have been using an ethnographic mindset (without perhaps calling it that) for a very long time.

Ethnography literally means ‘writing about people’ but it is probably better described as ‘contextual research’. It is not something you can learn to do from a book. In order to participate in the lives of your subjects you need to create a rapport – observing their world from within and feeling what it feels like to be one of them. These are things good quallies are highly practised in doing because they know that people don’t always say what they mean and don’t always mean what they say. Over the years qualitative research has developed a number of techniques to tap into people’s unconscious or repressed feelings and to help them express things they can’t easily put into words, as well as shifting from a focus on individual responses to viewing individuals as part of society.

Good qualitative researchers are excellent observers because we observe constantly: when we interview people, when we accompany them shopping, travelling or surfing the internet, and even in the artificial context of a group discussion.

The third myth: Ethnography costs the earth

“As the online world becomes more and more integrated with the physical world, we are developing online approaches that allow us to capitalise on this”

One of the defining features of academic ethnography is the extraordinary length of time researchers spend in the field. For my doctoral research I spent 18 months in an indigenous village in the Bolivian Amazon – any period of time less than that for the fieldwork would have been frowned upon. Traditionally, anthropology students have been expected to study societies that were totally foreign to them, which often meant they didn’t have clear objectives and may have had to learn a new language.

The idea that ethnography must be time-consuming and expensive has been transposed to supposedly ‘light’ versions. But good observation can be done over a few days or even hours, especially when we have the advantage of working in a culture we are familiar with. Moreover, technology is on our side. As the online world becomes more and more integrated with the physical world, we are developing online approaches that allow us to capitalise on this. Kantar Media’s study looking at media consumption related to England’s 2010 World Cup Campaign demonstrated that online and mobile activities can increasingly help us to get closer to people’s lives and immediate emotional responses.

Commercial ethnography, if conducted rigorously, doesn’t need to be ‘light’, and experienced quallies are well placed to do it. This is why it is essential to look at ethnography as a way of thinking about the world and about people rather than an exotic, elusive and expensive technique defined by specific parameters or timeframes.

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