When should you consider ethnographies?

Good qualitative researchers are fundamentally nosy people.  We like to delve deeply into people’s psyches, to understand what, why and how they think and behave.  For this reason, there is no methodology more thrilling than ethnographies.  We get to poke around in people’s real-life environments, and pry into matters that would be impossible to recognize in a focus group setting.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that researchers are often excited at the prospect of conducting ethnographies: they are incredibly insightful, fascinating and fun.  That said, ethnographies have some serious drawbacks.  If they are conducted correctly, they require a lengthy fieldwork period, often rely on small sample sizes (even by qualitative standards) and are relatively expensive.

So when are ethnographies appropriate?  In our experience, there are three scenarios that clearly call for ethnographic research:

  • When it is important to understand how the respondent’s environment is impacted by a specific issue.
    • For example, a project focused on understanding superfans’ relationships with a franchise would want to explore how this relationship manifests itself in their home life, identifying every touchpoint, and the role of those touchpoints, in building and supporting the relationship.
  • When the research objectives require a full understanding of how the respondent’s environment impacts a specific behavior, attitude or thought process.
    • For example, a project identifying how, when and why people interact with different content platforms would benefit enormously from observing individuals interact with these platforms at home.
  • When the respondent’s social interactions (family, coworkers, friends, etc.) are key to addressing the core research objectives.
    • For example, a project that seeks to understand the decision-making process for a family purchase (e.g., a vacation) would want to include all family members in the conversation. Having this discussion in the home environment automatically puts everyone more at ease (particularly children), allowing them to express themselves with fewer inhibitions.

Although all of these issues could be discussed and explored in a focus group or interview, the level of insight and knowledge provided by observing, and socializing with, the respondent in their natural environment simply cannot be matched.


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