Ethnography is the qualitative study of a certain people and their nature. The discipline was originally part of the methodology of Anthropology, but is now crossing over to many areas as a useful form of research, for example in sociology, cultural studies, marketing, or usability, as well as selling as non-fictional literature.
The discipline generally follows two main activities, firstly there is participant observation where the person conducting the study not only observes behaviour, but participates in it. This gives the person a better idea of what those he is observing are feeling or thinking, because he himself is engaging in the same thing as opposed to standing back. This also means that the subjects feel more comfortable being open with the ethnographer because they are doing the same thing together.
The second part to ethnography is a thick description which means a rich and extremely detailed description of not only what is happening, but also the context in which it’s happening. For example the classic example is cited by Anthropologist Clifford Geertz. According to Geertz, a wink is just a man “rapidly contracting his eyelid” but it could also be a man "practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive a an innocent into thinking conspiracy is in motion"
It is the context in which someone winks which gives it meaning. A general rule of thick description is to record everything, no matter how trivial it might seem.
A thick description is also normally written over a long period of time. For anthropologists, this is normally around two years, provided you know the local dialect which is also important as recording contextual or rich details is in theory impossible through translation.
Ethnographic studies are often done mainly through participant observation or fieldwork, however, there is an ever-increasing use of the 'multi-cited' ethnography. A multi-cited ethnography uses a number of sources to cross reference findings and information. Often this can be fieldwork in a number of different locations, or it can be reading, Internet research and other methods combined with a thick description, to create an incredibly detailed and well referenced study.
In terms of Market Research, this provides a useful tool, but also a challenge. Markets change so researching something for two years isn't useful due to length and cost. Ethnography then can be refined for commercial purposes. Culturally, ethnography is extremely useful. Ethnographers have a good cultural understanding and can be employed to gain an insight into a particular consumer group and their culture. This can be invaluable when launching a product in another country or when trying to engage a certain consumer demographic.
The use of ethnography is especially visible when considering some of the cross cultural marketing blunders which have happened in recent years. For example United Airlines passengers travelling from Hong Kong were handed white carnations- a symbol of bad luck and death. Also, the low sales of the Vauxhall Nova in Spain were due to the fact that 'nova' translates as 'doesn't go'. Finally, a large telecommunications company formed called GPT, which translates in French as “J’ai pété” or 'I've farted'.
The use of ethnographic methods doesn’t necessarily require an ethnographer or anthropologist. There are many other ways of conducting qualitative market research for example the article below explains the merits of spending a night in the house of an average consumer. One researcher was employed to find out why a coffee brands advertising campaign in the Philippines was failing. After a night in a typical consumers house, the researcher realises that the sound of rain in the adverts was from stock footage, and the target consumers experience of how rain sounds is generally from being under a tin or corrugated iron roof. Sales shot up after this mistake was fixed, which shows how being connected with consumers on ground level can be crucial to a business.
Some Useful links on Market Research:
Some useful links about ethnographic market research