Ethnography, a brief description

I just banged out a description of ethnography for a client.

Here it is:


The object of ethnography is to determine how the consumer sees the product, the service, the innovation.  Often, this is obscure to us.  We can’t see into the consumer’s (customer’s, viewer’s, user’s) head and heart because we are, in a sense, captive of our own heads and hearts.  We have our way of seeing and experiencing the world.  This becomes our barrier to entry.  Ethnography is designed to give us a kind of helicopter experience.  It takes up out of what we know and lowers us into the world of the consumer.

Ethnography is a messy method.  In the beginning stages, we don’t know what we don’t know.  We don’t know what we need to ask.  We are walking around the consumer’s world looking for a way in.  Eventually, as we ask a series of questions, we begin to see which ones work.  We begin to collect the language and the logic the consumer uses.  And eventually, we begin to see how they see the world.

The method is designed not to impose a set of questions and terms on the discussion, but to allow these to emerge over the course of the conversation.  We are allowing the consumer to choose a path for the interview.  We are endowing them with a sense that they are the expert.  We are honoring the fact that they know and we don’t.  (Because they do!)

Eventually, we end up with a great mass of data and it is now time to stop the ethnography and start the anthropology.  Now we will use what we know about our culture, this industry, these consumers, this part of America to spot the essential patterns that make these data make sense.  “Slap your head” insights begin to emerge.  “Oh, that’s what their world looks like!” “That’w what they care about!”  “This is what they want!”

And now we begin to look for strategic and tactical recommendations.  Now we can help close the gap between what the consumer wants and what the client makes.

(For a more technical description of the method, please see my The Long Interview. Sage.)

8 thoughts on “Ethnography, a brief description

  1. Pingback: All This ChittahChattah | Grant McCracken’s brilliant “Ethnography, a brief description”

    1. Grant Post author

      James, excellent, yes, this is a work in progress, who to work with people who don’t come from an interpretive tradition. Just discovered a book called Mental Models by Jerry Wind. It expedites the task of talking “across communities.” Thanks, Grant

  2. Steve Poppe

    Indeed, indeed. Ethnographers are observers and recorders. Sullying that up with selling strategy is what brand planners do. Doing so with a light, poetic touch is what the good ones attempt. Easier said than done sir.

  3. Cat Macaulay

    Love this thanks Grant, the search for ways into why ethno works is so important; especially as there are so few case studies of it working in practice for people to pull on. I get asked for this kind of thing all the time by my students and colleagues in industry, it’s great to have things to point to.

    One angle I find useful is to discuss in relation to something people typically do know about (or think they know about) – market research. IE ethno is not a super-power that will save design and wipe out market research in the process, it’s just another tool for building understanding across the user/consumer – designer/producer divide (though personally I believe it’s much more, but that’s not for these kinds ‘persuade the client of the value’ conversations, at least not right away!). Market research is great at asking pre-defined what and how questions, but ethno can really help with a) the why questions and b) (as you say) the questions we didn’t know to ask.

  4. Eugenia

    Grant, just read and loved this description of ethnography. I tend to use the example of helping companies and nonprofits facilitate that light bulb “A HA!” moment but I like “slap your head insights” also. I actually wrote a blog post about this, but I should go back and link to your post too.

    Thanks for sharing!

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