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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:

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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