Ethnographic Research vs. Market Research

ethnographic versus market research

As market researchers, we should all be aware of the role other fields, like psychology and sociology, have within our industry. One field, in particular, that has had a significant impact on the qualitative nature of research we conduct, is ethnography.

Ethnography, while widely regarded as a research methodology, is also its own entity as well. Having got its start in anthropology, ethnography uses empirical, or sensory data (information gathered from observation and experience) to capture insights about a group of people, culture, or individual. Observations and interviews are just two forms of ethnographic methods that help market researchers glean a deeper level of insights from consumers when it comes to their behaviors and perceptions.

How Ethnography Differs From Other Research Methods

While methods of observation and interviews don’t sound all that different from market research, ethnography differs most in its approach to a research question. Market researchers often develop hypotheses and test those hypotheses against dependent and independent variables, but ethnographers refrain from making any assumptions about their subjects. Ethnography is also far more personal even though it doesn’t always entail asking questions— participants of ethnographic studies are allowing you to observe their daily and personal lives. Ethnography also utilizes three main principles within its various methodologies:

  • Naturalism: As the name states, these methods work to capture naturally occurring behavior where consumers are not asked to conduct an action but researchers let them occur naturally.
  • Understanding: Methods of understanding seek to learn more about a consumer and culture before observing them so as not to let bias interfere with additional ethnographic research and market research.
  • Discovery: Methods of discovery are used to determine hypotheses prior to market research methods.

Application to Market Research

Ethnography is pivotal to the market research industry and qualitative methods. Ethnographic practices, when used in market research, lend additional context, emotion, and a deeper understanding of consumers. We utilize the field in order to observe consumers at their own convenience and to avoid influencing customer feedback. In other words, they may know we’re there, but don’t know what we want. Online methodologies have a reputation for creating challenges when it comes to ethnographic methods. But today many online and non-traditional research methods are influenced by ethnography, including

  • Mobile Shop-Alongs
  • In-Home Usage Tests
  • Video Responses
  • Image Uploads

Ethnographic research, in its purest form, is incredibly time-consuming. So applying it to agile market research can take a good chunk of the time and effort required without sacrificing the benefits of depth and understanding. Ethnographic research plays an even more important role when it comes to international research. Download our eGuide to cultural nuances of the most internationally researched countries, and learn how those nuances impact respondent engagement.

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