Ethnographies are a methodology that is gaining popularity in the research community. They switch the dynamic of a focus group. Instead of coming to a facility to partake in a focus group, participants are observed in their homes by researchers, who take notes and ask questions over the course of a few hours. In this sense, ethnographic research is similar to an in-depth-interview because the interactions between the participant and the researcher are on a more individual and personal level.
The practice of using ethnographies to study people actually originated in the field of anthropology. Anthropologists have long been going into the field to observe the nature and culture of the group of people they’re studying. Invaluable information can be gathered from observing people in their natural environments. This information is fundamentally different from information gathered via other methods. Qualitative market researchers recognized the value of this information, which is why ethnographic research is a commonly accepted and practiced research technique today.
So what makes the information you can get from an ethnographic study so different from information gathered in focus groups? For one thing, the dynamic of the study is different. Focus groups take people out of their natural environment and involve them in a group discussion. Essentially, they’re a very active means of research where participation is essential. Ethnographies, on the other hand, are more passive. Observation, as opposed to engaged discussion, takes a precedent here. That’s not to say that there is no discussion at all as researchers do ask people questions during these studies, but their main focus is on observing people’s habits, which brings us to another key difference between focus groups and ethnographies.
A lot of the actions that people take are largely the result of either unconscious or emotionally influenced decisions. As such, these actions are not always rational. When people are in a focus group, they are forced to think rationally about the topic at hand. Their contributions to the discussion, while they may be rational, are not necessarily the most relevant, because their irrational, unconscious behavior may differ from their rational line of thinking.
Here’s an example. A health foods company may want to learn if they could successfully market health foods to children. They set up a focus group for parents with children and ask if parents would be interested in buying a specific health food product marketed toward kids, a granola bar for example. As parents, one of the main interests of the participants is the health of their children. Rationally they want to feed their kids healthy food and they’ll probably say as much in the focus group. However, while they’re in the grocery store, emotional-based decision making comes in. What’s going to make my child happier, a granola bar or a candy bar? Unless your child has a particular affinity for granola bars, the answer is probably a candy bar. This kind of decision making is also the reason that candy bars are located right by the check-out. Sure they’re not healthy, but they’re right there, all you have to do is grab one and throw it on the conveyor belt. That chocolate bar could be in your stomach by the time you get to your car. The grocery store makes it easy for you to make an irrational, but tasty choice.
This is where the benefits of ethnographic research lie. These kinds of studies allow researchers to get a glimpse at what people actually do in the real world. It lets them see what choices people actually make in their natural environment. Ethnographies are just one part of a holistic approach to qualitative market research, which gives researchers another perspective to work from.
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