Ethnography, new technologies and opportunities for qualitative market research


Ethnography is the cornerstone of Anthropology and, by allusion, of Social Sciences. Ethnography is a lot of things at the same time, but I would like to think of it as the sum of art and science to describe people, their behavior, their way of thinking and acting as well as their surroundings, objects or space. Hence, its etymological meaning, “description of the people”, coming from the Greek word ethnos —εθνος, “tribe, people”— and grapho —γραφω, “I write”. The term was created in 1770 by August Schlozer to designate the “science of peoples and nations”.


Despite being historically relegated to the academic world and especially to the image we have of the European or North American anthropologist who goes to live for a period of time with isolated tribes in Africa or Asia, the epistemology may also be of interest for market research as it allows gaps to be filled in, such as:

  • Define research questions and scope of the problem
  • Identify stakeholders who act or were involved in the study object and those we had not considered.
  • Allow access to motivations, doings and sayings in their natural context. In other words, access the deep knowledge of the consumer, implicit knowledge that is not verbalized and which forms a part of the relationship with brands, products or services.

Normally, research is considered in present terms and it is difficult to infer towards the future, while the selection of people to study or the ethnographic emplacement allows one to see a different temporality of the present. For example, if we want to observe how will be used a technology when it is mainstream -that is, used by late-adopters to become mainstream by covering various population strata-, we can ethnograph early-adopters and infer this reality to identify barriers or triggers. Another clear example is that if we want to know how people will adopt a new service, we can look at other places where that service, or another similar one, is functioning to foresee how it will be accepted by other people. In the words of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they study in villages. You can study different things in different places, and some things…you can best study in confined localities.’ (Geertz, 1990, p.22)

  • Triangulate the insights we extract is mandatory, which provides validity and reliability, since is very easy to share and validate the emic vision -point of view of the people- and etic-point of view of the researcher- with the people with whom we have carried out fieldwork and make sure that our descriptions and explanations are not the result of chance, but that they are based on the fieldwork and the meaning attributed is correct.
  • It allows the contradictions between what people say (sayings) and what people do (doings) to be made visible, facilitating access to deep and actionable insights through the study from a natural context in which the research is carried out. Although it seems very obvious, people are full of contradictions, reasons and emotions, with biases of social desirability so that only by looking at the natural context can we understand all this and see the contradictions that make up a human being.
  • Being a multi-technical epistemology, it can be adapted, even more so, to the context of the study. Although participant observation is usually used as a synonym for ethnography, documentary analysis, network analysis, and depth interviews with the population of interest as well as the analysis of secondary data sources are a part of this pool of ethnographic techniques. But always respecting the research context by having a naturist approach, conducting research where the action takes place.

Although their approaches have not changed much since their institutionalization, the popularisation of new information technologies (NIT) at the beginning of the XXI century has allowed its reformulation and adaptation to new consumption patterns and new types of consumers as well as the relationship between them and brands. Taking advantage of NIT to facilitate the  introduction of the researcher into fieldwork through technological mediation, in a natural step that we have taken from traditional ethnography to virtual ethnography -carried out in virtual spaces such as forums, chats or social networks- to digital ethnography that integrates this non-physical reality as a single space, or even mobile ethnography to emphasize the mediation of the smartphone as a cornerstone of information collection.

How have NITs benefited ethnography? People, in general, feel barriers to the unknown, with the popularization of the smartphone more than 10 years ago, together with social networks, a climate of access to privacy has been created that has benefited ethnography for several reasons:

  • People no longer feel the same apprehension about showing their privacy and the introduction of the researcher (moderator) in a context of studying a population of interest is much easier. That barrier no longer exists and the period of time for obtaining in-depth knowledge of the consumer is shortened: NITs have fostered this context of sharing and a greater impact of stimuli that an ethnographer can take advantage of to gain faster and deeper access to the intimacy of consumer practices.
  • Sharing different aspects of our daily routine on social media has created the possibility of (re)exploiting this data to transform it into actionable brand insights, without the need to generate “ad hoc” information for research. Access to public conversations on social media allows us to access in real time and with a history of the relationship of a brand or service with consumers at different times such as its launch, evangelization, problems in consumption, moments and emotions associated with consumption or brand, etc.
  • The use of the smartphone or computer for people to build a research diary, in an environment that is familiar to them and in which they like to share, makes it easier to access their daily lives. I particularly like the option of video diaries in which consumers describe, for example, their home while they show it: what their kitchen is like, how they organise the weekly purchase, how they distribute food in the kitchen or how it is prepared and consumed. The video diary works like a kind of ethnographic journal in which the consumer narrates, according to guidelines given by the researcher, the moments of consumption, their emotions or the role played by people, objects and spaces.
  • The quantification of the different aspects of everyday life, such as journeys and the means of transport, the amount of time spent using a smartphone, vital signs, such as pulse or the exercise we do, are elements that can be taken into account when planning what and where to display advertising to gain greater attention to advertising impacts.


Market research has a golden opportunity to access an epistemology that allows it to enter a constantly changing reality, which evolves towards the provision of services and the positioning of brands (brand positioning) in unexpected places in the life of consumers, with ethical and transparency requirements for brands. Ethnography seems key as a solution that allows us to understand the contradictions between doing and saying, reaching the inherent behavior in people, integrating emotions in the analysis phase and responding to a changing reality with an epistemology that adapts to this reality and the context in which it takes place and, most importantly, with an amazing ability to generate actionable insights for those that know how to see this opportunity.

Geertz, C. (1990). The interpretation of cultures, Gedisa: Madrid

André Soren