Ethnography is a creative process of discovering and mapping the cultural patterns within a group. Ethnography also helps to develop models that could explain those patterns. Therefore, ethnography can be used as an anthropological design research method to investigate everyday social life and give a description of the culture of a group of people. Additionally, many anthropologists and sociologists are employing ethnographic techniques to understand everyday product experiences and the processes of design.

Quick details: Ethnography

Structure: Semi-structured, Unstructured

Preparation: Participant recruitment, Research recruitment, Logistics

Deliverables: Photo, Video, Audio transcripts, extensive field notes

More about Ethnography

Ethnography can be a tricky method to define. Some may wonder about the differences between Ethnography and other observational methods. Most observation-based methods involve the researcher observing the behavior of a group, listening to the group, asking questions and recording the sessions. But what distinguishes ethnography is that it tries to create a link between the cultural background of a group and how this culture influences the behavior of individuals who are part of this group.

The researcher observes the participant, listens carefully, converses and engages with groups of people to gain an understanding of the participant’s culture and behavior without imposing their own conceptual frameworks. Ethnography is by nature a time consuming exercise. As the researcher doesn’t always have the luxury of time, a variant of regular ethnography is employed.


Types of Ethnography

Regular EthnographyTo get a detailed anthropological understanding of a group of participants, the patterns in their behavior and cultural influences behind those patterns.
  • Detailed data
  • Unexpected discoveries that may not have been planned during research.
  • Time consuming.
  • Requires an experienced and skilled researcher.
  • Difficult to compile results because of the huge amount of diverse data.
Rapid EthnographyTo achieve a relatively deep understanding of peoples’ habits, influences and other anthropological data about individuals in a group quickly.
  • Quick and specific data
  • Focused insights on specific topics of interest for the researcher.
  • Not detailed
  • Requires an experienced and skilled researcher.
  • Difficult to validate specific information collected during limited interaction with a very specific set of participants.


Advantages of Ethnography

1. First hand insights

As the researcher has interacted, experienced as a participant and observed with the participants firsthand, they can be sure of the insights that surface reliably.

2. Detailed data

The length of the time spent with the participants, probing and observations lead to rich and detailed data collection.

3. High reliability

Because the researcher is directly engaged with the group participants and immersed into the group, the data collected is not from external or from individuals outside of the group under consideration. The data collected is highly reliable.

4. Close-interaction

The ethnographic researcher is a participant within a group or culture, and involved closely with the other participants, they can develop perceptions, which can give them a peek into the lives and experiences of the participants within their culture. This also helps the researcher gain a deep understanding of different perspectives of individuals.


Disadvantages of Ethnography

1. Time-consuming

A good ethnographic research study will require a huge time commitment from the researcher’s end. For studies that can go on for years at a stretch, researcher needs to stay part of the group for a long time.

2. Diversity of results

The large number of participants and the extended exposure to their thoughts, preferences, cultural backgrounds and behavior can generate large amounts of diverse data which can pose a challenge to collate.

3. Reliability

As the researcher is solely involved in the group, it’s difficult to validate the reliability of data collected and insights generated.

4. Researcher Bias

As the researcher is engaged first hand with the other participants being studied, they are likely to introduce bias.

5. Participant reservations

If the role of the researcher is well known to the group participants, they may not always be open to sharing their perspectives.

6. Moral dilemma

Sometimes, information shared with the researcher as part of the group could be in confidence and may not be ethically correct to incorporate in the findings.

Think Design's recommendation

Ethnography is an experiential research method which means that the researcher experiences the environment while observing it. Why it should take more time than other research techniques is precisely due to this reason: While we learn through experiences, we may have to go through several cycles of those experiences in order to rule out initial biases… and this itself could take much longer than planned to accomplish.

Do not employ ethnography if your need is quantitative data or a set of observations in finite frame of time. Generally speaking, it takes several months to arrive at insights from ethnographic research and that’s the reason this should be employed when this is the only choice left of all the research methods… and arriving at this itself is a tough ask. 

All is not over, however. A variant of Ethnography, Rapid ethnography is a method that could capture insights in a shorter frame of time. In most cases when you hear or read people doing ethnographic research, they may have actually employed Rapid ethnography but are not articulating that way!

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