Ethnography has a very complex history and not a single, well-defined, standard meaning. It originates in the work of 19th century anthropologists who travelled in order to observe and describe different communities and cultures. During the 20th century, ethnography spread into other disciplines as well. The meaning of ethnography has been interpreted in various ways in the different disciplines and at different times. According to Atkinson and Hammersley (2007:3), “ethnography usually involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people's daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions - in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the emerging focus of inquiry”. Nowadays, ethnographic methods are applied to sociology, cultural studies, consumer research and various other social scientific fields (Kozinets, 2002). Ethnography is increasingly used in the marketing discipline as well. However, there are differences in the ways ethnography is conducted in academia and in the industry. They are parallel but not interwoven (Belk, 2007).
Ethnography in academia:
The value of ethnography in academia is the production of theoretical knowledge, not solving practical problems. However, theory is a part of practice and practice cannot exist without theory so the value of the knowledge provided by ethnography should not be underestimated (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). Ethnography as a methodological means provides rich opportunities for developing contextualized academic studies. I will now discuss the most characteristic principles and features of ethnography as a methodology used by scholars in academia.
Ethnography follows the principles of naturalism and respects the nature of the phenomenon being studied, instead of following any particular set of methodological principles (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). The main sources of data used in ethnographic research are collected in the real world, in everyday, natural contexts, rather than under conditions created by the researcher, which is the case with focus groups and structured interviews. Ethnographic methodology gets the researchers closer to the informants. The researcher enters participants' natural environment, gets involved in real situations in their everyday lives, and observes their natural behavior. Thus, ethnographers can get a more holistic view of consumer satisfaction, frustrations and limitations than could be produced by any other research method (Malhotra and Birks, 2005).
Long-term field work:
Ethnographic work is a very time-consuming methodology and requires lots of efforts and resources (Atkinson and Hammersely, 2007). It is probably the most expensive research methodology in marketing. Moreover, a lot of training is necessary in order to be able to conduct an ethnographic research. Ethnographic studies are labor-intensive as well as emotionally exhausting. The researchers commit themselves to search beyond their academic reference frames for what is important to participants. Ethnographic research requires long-term immersion and sometimes researchers spend years conducting their field work (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). Although very difficult to conduct, it is very useful and could provide a lot of insight. The more time an ethnographer spends doing field work, the more likely they are to spontaneously come across significant moments in informants' course of daily life (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994).
Multiple data sources:
Data in ethnographic research is collected from a variety of sources including participant observation, verbal reports, field notes, and cultural artifacts. Thus, it generates a variety of different perspectives within a cultural context and offers a rich qualitative content (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). Through participant observation, details about behaviors can be recorded and the consistence between verbal and non-verbal communication can be checked. Observation also helps in providing in-depth research findings (Mariampolski, 1999). Multiple data sources could lead the researcher to more specific research questions and explorations. However, there are some limitations to observational data. The presence of the researcher could change the natural consumption behavior of the informants to some degree (Kozinets, 2002). Another limitation of observational data is that it does not provide direct access to the perceptions, values, and beliefs of informants and reveals little about their internal state. Researchers may not access experiences that are hidden from outsiders and may describe surface similarities and tend towards stereotyping (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). Questioning during participant observation can provide such information that remains hidden during observation. This is why some ethnographers use more data sources in addition to participant observation. They combine it with verbal report data to account for the phenomenon being studied more thoroughly. Verbal reports contain selective memories based on participants' experiences and emotions (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). However, verbal reports are not naturalistic as they do not show actual behavior. The words of participants are often not entirely consistent with what is observed by the researcher. Thus, when constructing interpretation, researchers don't always use people's words as accurate accounts of their behavior. They interpret them having in mind that they are situated and motivated. The limitations of both participant observation and verbal reports could be overcome by combining both methods (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994).
One of the biggest challenges in interpreting ethnographic work is combining data gathered through a variety of methods into a credible account. While positivist research uses multiple methods to establish consistency and validity of the research findings, ethnography uses different data collections methods in order to gain different perspectives on behavior (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). Thus, researchers avoid early use of theories and concepts which may not fit with the perspectives of the members of the culture. Rather, data analysis and theory development come at the end. The researcher tries to induce theory from observation and to make sense of the phenomenon from the perspectives of the participants (Garson, 2008). As the data in ethnographic research is collected in an unstructured form it is often difficult to process and analyze it. It requires considerable skills and resources to discover the underlying meaning behind behavior. It is difficult for the researcher to transfer the rich knowledge gained through ethnography into theory (Mariampolski, 1999).
One of the main principles of ethnography for understanding human behavior is the idea that human actions are framed by their cultural notions (Mariampolski, 1999). Events could only be understood when they are situated in the wider social and historical context (Malhotra and Birks, 2005). Thus, ethnographic interpretation requires an understanding of the local cultural context (Hackley, 2003).
One of the most important characteristics of ethnography is its flexibility. Ethnographic research is unexpected and it cannot be programmed (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). It explores the nature of a particular social phenomenon rather than testing hypothesis (Belk, 2007). It has an open-ended and unstructured research design which increases the possibility of coming across unexpected issues (Malhotra and Birks, 2005). The researchers gain access to data that they may not even initially sought but that prove to be central to understanding the phenomenon being explored (Lillis, 2008). Ethnography does not follow uniform rules; rather it is dictated by the nature of the phenomenon, the researcher's prior experience and degree of conceptual understanding, and the research questions that emerge during the research process (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). However, there is still need for some prior preparation of the research design but it is a reflexive process that operates through every stage of the project (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007).
In-depth qualitative insight:
Ethnography is sometimes considered inappropriate for use in social science since its focus is usually on just one or a few small-scale cases. On the one hand, these cases cannot provide a solid basis for rigorous analysis. On the other hand, ethnographic research provides a much more in-depth study than other types of marketing research (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007).
As it was shown above, ethnographic research has a lot to offer marketing academics. It has a great potential. Ethnography is accessible and has the ability to research sectors of social life that are not popular or known within the academy. Recently, the scholars practicing ethnographic research have increased and have become more diverse. This also leads to a diversity of academic works on a range of social problems, probed by ethnographic methods (Grant and May, 1999).
Ethnography in industry:
Marketing ethnography is not only used to build theoretical knowledge. It has value in applied contexts as well. As a whole, ethnography in industry is not as widespread as ethnography in academia but it is growing as a trend in qualitative marketing research as it is able to get the researcher closer to target customers, to understand the phenomena from their point of view, and to generate qualitative insight. Marketers who understand ethnographic principles could use them to research consumers' needs and motivations and to understand the meanings behind consumer behavior, and to become aware of the wider cultural and social contexts in which it takes place (Belk, 2007). When conducting ethnography in applied contexts in the business, marketers follow some of the principles of academic ethnography. However, it is not conducted in exactly the same way it is conducted in academia, which is why it is often criticized by the scholars. Marketing ethnography is different from ethnography conducted by academic researchers in its focus, depth and perspectives (Mariampolski, 2006). I will now discuss the most significant characteristics of ethnography as a methodology used in applied business contexts.
Ethnographers enter consumers' natural environment and investigate their natural consumer behavior in the course of everyday life. Ethnographic methods allow marketers to get involved in real situations, involving product and services usage and experiences. Thus, researchers can get a more holistic view of consumer satisfaction, frustrations and limitations than could not be gained through any other research method (Malhotra and Birks, 2005). Ethnography can be used to develop useful marketing strategies and recommendations. It helps marketing managers understand their target markets or develop new markets. It can be useful in improving product and brand positioning and promotional strategies. It helps in developing product innovations or innovative ways for using the old products (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). Ethnography is very useful when there is little known about the target market or when there is a need for qualitative insight about the market segment. It is also effective when there is little information about consumer practices concerning the usage of the product (Mariampolski, 1999).
Long-term field work:
In comparison to academics, most ethnographic researchers in marketing rarely have the opportunity to spend long periods of time doing field research. In the business world it is not practical to involve in a long-term immersion in the field as is the case in academic works. Moreover, it is more expensive than other research methods used in marketing and companies are not very likely to spend so much money on this kind of research. Because of the limited time and resources, many marketing research studies apply the principles of ethnography to much shorter periods of field work (Hackley, 2003). Moreover, societies are changing fast nowadays so the information collected has a very short effective life. Thus, marketing ethnographers have to quickly analyze and interpret consumer behavior, which could contradict with the nature of ethnography, which aims at providing “thick descriptions” (Mariampolski, 2006).
Multiple data sources:
Ethnographic research for business purposes uses the same research design used in academic ethnography, combining multiple data sources, most often participant observation in naturalistic settings and verbal reports. The objective of ethnographic research in industry is to allow researchers to learn from the consumer and to bridge the gap between what people say they do and what they actually do (Jobber, 2007). In focus groups and interviews, the researcher is involved in asking questions and receiving answers which are normally taken for granted as representing some accurate state of the respondent. However, asking questions is a highly limited form of obtaining information because respondents' attitudes are controlled by the impressions they are trying to make on the researcher (Mariampolski, 2006). Moreover, even willing participants do not formulate accurate statements about their behavior. Thus, observing behavior could overcome the limitations of asking questions and receiving answers (Belk, 2007). It shows what people really think and do rather than what they say they do.
In comparison to ethnography used in academia, ethnography in industry has to be very valuable and useful for strategy development. One of the main problems of ethnographic research in the marketing practice is analyzing the data and transforming it into managerial implications that can be uses by the client. It could be useful to involve the clients in the ongoing data interpretation to ensure that they receive the necessary strategic insight. This collaboration could bring benefits as well as risks (Mariampolski, 2006). It could create more valuable and credible results as the clients can contribute with their knowledge and background information. However, this collaboration could also be risky as the clients may involve their self-interests in the research and insist on particular results.
Ethnography conducted in industry follows the principle of academic ethnography that events could only be understood when they are situated in the wider social and historical context. Thus, ethnographic research done for business purposes is a very appropriate research methodology since most of consumer behavior is dependent on the context and ethnographers have the opportunity to involve themselves in the everyday context of consumers. According to Mariampolski (2006), quantitative marketing research and other qualitative methods distance the researcher from the reality of the respondents. On the contrary, ethnographic research is based on the idea that participants should be captured in their own terms and space. Focus groups and interviews are not as good as ethnographic research because they are limited in their ability to get closer to consumers and to capture the human dimensions. Although focus groups and interviews are cheaper and quicker methods they provide only part of the picture and cannot produce such insights about consumer practices like ethnographic research (Mariampolski, 1999).
Ethnographic research is more flexible and unstructured compared to other types of research. Its open-ended research design is on of its biggest strengths. The ethnographer tries to develop inductive theories based on the insight gained throughout data collection, instead of trying to test predefined hypotheses. However, using ethnographic research in the marketing practice could destroy this flexibility. When conducting ethnographic research for a company, the researcher may already have in mind ideas about the phenomenon being explored and the aims of the client, which does not fit with the ethnographic principles. If the open-ended research design is preserved, ethnography could generate very complicated results and not a straightforward, actionable conclusion. This could be a problem for clients as they sometimes want ready strategies and recommendations. Thus, they need to be aware of the objectives of the research and the results it can and cannot produce.
In-depth qualitative insight:
Ethnography could produce more in-depth insight that cannot be achieved through other research methods. However, it is probably the most difficult research methodology. It is very important to be conducted by trained ethnographers instead of market researchers. Trained ethnographers pay more attention to contextual clues and analyze hidden things. Although it is a primary method in sociology and anthropology, ethnography is not so popular in marketing. Thus, it is recommended that ethnographic research should be combined with other methods for the research needs of the company (Mariampolski, 2006).
There are many examples where ethnography has been successfully applied in industry and its usefulness is reflected in the fact that big companies such as Adidas, Nike and Nokia have used this form of research (Jobber, 2007). A great example of ethnographic research successfully applied in industry could be found in the company Procter and Gamble. The organization often conducts ethnographic research, which involves visiting the houses of consumers for a couple of hours and recording by camera their household behavior in order to gain insight into their consumer habits (Jobber, 2007). The findings generated through this methodology have had implications for the company's approach to product design, packaging and promotion. For example, it was ethnographic research which revealed that the nappy was not as important as the company previously thought. New mothers were more interested in information and knowledge than nappies. Based on these consumer insights the company introduced Pampers.com, which is an online community for mothers that attracts over 650000 users across Europe (Jobber, 2007).
Marketing ethnography is a very useful methodology both in academia and in industry. There are differences in the ways ethnography is conducted in both ways. The value of ethnography in academia is the production of theoretical knowledge. However, theory is part of practice and practice cannot exist without theory. Thus, the value of the knowledge provided by ethnography should not be underestimated. It could be used as a theoretical basis for conducting ethnographic research in industry for solving more practical problems. Recently, there has been an effort to bridge the gap between both fields as more collaboration between academics and practitioners will be beneficial for both and for the further development of ethnography as a methodology. However, the future and the scope of ethnography in marketing are still unclear.