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The Evolution of ‘Ethnography’

From the Greek language came the term ‘ethnography’; the systematic study of people and cultures. Little did we know it would have such a huge impact on market research, offering an in-depth view of individual everyday lives and practices. Ethnography is a type of qualitative research - in essence, exploratory insight looking at the principle opinions, behaviours and motivations of individuals. The output it generates peers into the lives of consumers, highlighting behavioral patterns, problematic areas and trends.

Ethnography was originally used to build a better understanding of the relationship between culture and geographic location, to see an insider’s point of view was essential for a social anthropologist. Ethnographers used an array of different collection techniques, including informal interviews, in-person interviews, and photographs - all revolving around close observation.

The business world did not get caught napping with the rise of these techniques and quickly adopted ethnography, deploying it as a rich format of qualitative consumer research. This captivating technique enables businesses to delve deeper into the lives of their customers and analyse their needs in detail.

Technology has further developed the reach and ease of ethnography, allowing it to come into its own. As individuals gain access to more advanced technologies in the way of smartphones (with front-facing cameras), advanced tablets and complex digital cameras, the ease with which companies can gain an insight into individual lives and habits are at an all-time high. The number of smartphones in homes is still increasing dramatically, giving individuals first-hand access to a camera at all times. This ease of access can significantly shorten project timelines.


The fierce increase in technological advances has helped revolutionise market research across the board. The rising trend of mobile surveys and mobile qualitative studies has once again enhanced the reach of ethnography and keeps it relevant to the modern researcher. So whether you’re adding video open-ends to your surveys, running a daily video diary, or using online interviews as an alternative to traditional in-person work, you’re adopting those early ethnographic concepts and using them to deliver richer insights that will shape your products and services. These approaches have kept ethnography relevant and, more importantly, enabled us to unearth and emphasise customers’ emotions. This gives the individual an opportunity to be enthusiastic about their thoughts and opinions. Which, after careful analysis, will improve businesses in many ways.

The benefit of these modern takes on ethnography serves both researcher and customer alike. For the researcher, the ability to observe in-home behaviour, attitudes and opinions without the costly procurement of a camera crew is a leap forward for qualitative research. The customer feedback experience is far better too - no longer will the camera crew or an interviewer need to intrude into our homes. As customers, we can give more honest, candid feedback without these external pressures.

The final benefit serves everyone. A significant frustration for all involved in research is the feeling that all your efforts are falling on deaf ears. Customers want to know companies are listening to them, and researchers want to know their research findings are having an impact. New ethnographies ensure that both parties’ messages speak volumes by bringing the customer story to life in an engaging way. One thing’s for sure - the window into the life of the customer just got a whole lot clearer and the products and services we produce all stand to benefit as a result.

If you found this post interesting, you should check out our latest article in Greenbook blog - The Focus Group Turns 60: Time For An Upgrade?