Ethnography

What Is Ethnography?

Written by Paula Gray

What Is Ethnography?
by Paula Gray, AIPMM

In order to properly define ethnography we must look at what it is not. It is not the process of one person armed with a video camera and a microphone, interviewing customers as they shop. Nor is it a group of observers watching a sampling of individuals use a piece of equipment in a focus group setting. While these methods of gaining information are valuable, they do not constitute the whole of ethnography. Ethnography is the research process by which anthropologists observe and study human behavior in context. It is gaining more popularity as companies use the process to learn about their customers, inform their design of products and marketing programs.

Many of the Fortune 500 companies have utilized ethnographies to gain valuable insight and an insider perspective of a customer’s values, beliefs, and behaviors. For example, ethnographies can reveal where a particular product fits into a customer’s life. Often those who had a hand in creating the product can view it from their own perspective giving it more importance than a customer does. The product may mean months of hard work, long hours, and in-depth research and development to the company stakeholders whereas a customer may view it as a tool to simplify their life without giving it much thought. Ethnography offers a shift in perspective to the customer’s point of view.

Ethnographies usually require a significant commitment of time, labor and money. Traditionally they have been immersive studies requiring an anthropologist to live with the group of people being studied, usually for a period of nine months to a year. As ethnographies and anthropologists have moved out of the jungles and into the corporate world, there has been a shift to condense, simplify, streamline and generally modify the process to fit in at the office. While modifications are essential to the process in order to make it relevant for use in business, the process should not be cut so short that it loses its value.

Ethnography consists of several methods of gathering data. Participant observation is the hallmark of ethnography. It involves the researcher sharing, as much as possible, in the experience of those being studied. Within the participation continuum there are two extremes: detached observer on one end, and complete participant on the other end. Detached observation involves a more distant approach while still being within the group studied. Complete participation involves a risk of losing the observer perspective altogether as the researcher converts to being a group member. Somewhere in-between is a level of participation that works for both the group and the researcher. It is in observing unexpected meaning and behavior that real insights are found.

A second method of gathering data involves interviewing members of the group. Often they are in-depth, one-on-one interviews with the researcher. The interviews may also include other members of the group who influence each other. The purpose is to explore meaning, values and beliefs by asking open-ended questions. An important factor in successful interviewing is the interviewer’s lack of opinion or judgment. The goal is to simply gather the information without adding input or making the interviewee feel that they are being interrogated.

The researcher needs to understand the types of information that is gathered throughout the interview: feelings; beliefs; values; opinions; behavioral data; sensory data; background information; and knowledge. With this knowledge, the interviewer can plan the order of the questions for each topic. For qualitative research the questions should be phrased to uncover meanings and motives behind actions. Questions should begin with phrases like ‘what influences’, ‘what do you think’, ‘how’, or ‘why’. These questions will allow the interviewee to add the detail and richness needed for the researcher to understand what is important to them.

The product of this ethnographic research is a new understanding of the target audience. It offers a holistic view of the customer and the role the product plays in his/her complex life. It also offers the company an opportunity to challenge organizational beliefs that may be hindering innovation, creativity, and effectiveness.

The term ‘ethnography’ has been used loosely as more and more company executives are hearing about its merits and consultants are springing up to take advantage of the demand. The executives are sometimes unaware of how to choose a competent ethnographer and may end up with less than valuable results. In order to select a firm, look for individuals with a background in anthropology. They should be well versed in anthropological theory and in best practices for research design, sampling, data collection and analysis.

Anthropologists have come a long way from studying indigenous peoples found in the jungle, to studying the ‘jungles’ of corporations and markets. Anthropology’s relevance cannot be overstated as it offers a unique, holistic, and comprehensive picture of the customer and product in context. A firm led by anthropologists can offer a business an incomparable wealth of information unavailable from within the organization.


Paula Gray is Vice President and co-founder of the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM). With a background in cultural and applied anthropology she uses tools from the anthropologist’s toolbox to assist product managers and product marketers in understanding customers and their behaviors, in context.

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.