Seeking the human meaning in consumer behavior

Fast-Paced Ethnography

Fast-Paced Ethnography

A big insurance company recently put out an employment notice for the position of “Ethnographer/Design Researcher”. The person filling this position, the notice advised, would “be responsible for designing research to uncover attitudes and needs related to insurance and financial services and providing consultation on research related issues.”

What caught my eye was this: That the ethnographer / design researcher would need to work in an “incredibly collaborative and fast-paced” research environment.

fast ethnographyAn ethnographer working in a fast-paced research environment would indeed be incredible – but not in the sense of being of especially remarkable quality.

Ethnography is a word that is tossed out easily in the world of market research these days. It has come to mean, in the minds of many research managers, any kind of research in which some kind of observation of consumer behavior takes place. Such a broad definition of ethnography, however, cheapens the work of people who take the idea of ethnographic inquiry seriously, and deprives market research of one of its most powerful tools.

Ethnography involves observational research, although ethnographers use other research tools as well. What truly differentiates ethnography from other forms of research is its dedication to a deeply involved research process in which culturally-relevant information is gathered and interpreted with great care and consideration.

Ethnography is an extended form of research that lasts for years, not for hours. Ethnography in a fast-paced research environment is a contradiction in terms.

Some market researchers will protest that an ethnographic project that lasts for years isn’t practical, and would be too expensive. What such objections fail to account for is that ethnographic research, unlike traditional market research methods, covers a broad range of research topics, and is open-ended, adapting to address new research questions as they arise. Genuine ethnography isn’t like a survey or a focus group that is designed with precision to answer a very specific set of questions with a high rate of certainty. It provides an ongoing source for cultural engagement with customers in an authentic way, providing a sense of deep meaning that is capable not only of answering research questions as they arise, but also of developing new research questions that would otherwise never even be conceived of.

Ethnography takes time, but companies already spend enormous amounts of time on programs they call “customer relations”. Ethnographers in market research do require more investment, but they also provide greater returns, giving their clients the understanding required to transcend the commodified transactions that trap marketers and customers alike.



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