Freelance ethnographer, researcher & consultant

By Jacob Langvad Nilsson on April 3, 2012

What is Ethnography

Ethnography in broad terms defines the scientific study and research that is done on human behavior. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at different types and usages of ethnography and finaly define “what is ethnography”


There are distinctive features of a culture and various circumstances that form the basis of every social circle or ethnicity. Ethnography deals in obtaining a range of data on phenomenon using collective qualitative and analytical methods to study these features extensively.

The basic idea behind ethnography is to use research and analysis to arrive at an informed decision about the mechanics of why certain factors affect the outcome of various events that happen within a society. This can be derived using proper exploration of the facts and collective research, which can in turn provide general ideas about a culture to arrive at a plausible hypothesis.

The roots of ethnography can be traced back to socio-cultural anthropology. Sociocultural anthropology is a blend of social and cultural anthropology that deals in finding out the core differences in human behavior under varying social circumstances and in different cultures.

Ethnography is being largely used in social studies to understand the various aspects of different cultures across the world, and is also used to better comprehend the values of historians. History does tend to make use of ethnographical studies to understand the evolution of humans and their culture across generations.

Ethnography is also used in the present day context to improve communications so as to enhance trade ideas between different ethnic groups and cultures. So, we’ve defined the basics of what is ethnography. Let’s dig a little deeper.

In this article:

What is an Ethnographer
Ethnography vs Cultural Anthropology
Ethnography for Business
Online Ethnography, Virtual Ethnography

What is an Ethnographer

An ethnographer is a person who deals in ethnography. In essence, an ethnographer is responsible for collecting and recording data using social references to analyze and arrive at conclusions on human culture and behavior. The research techniques adopted by an ethnographer varies according to the specific study or research that is specific to a society or culture. Ethnography is a broad subject, and there are sub-topics such as Field, Visual and Design Ethnography.

The choice of ethnographical study group is up to the ethnographer, and they decide to adopt a category depending on the specific requirements for studying different models to arrive at a logical reasoning. It is the duty of an ethnographer to clearly understand the problems experienced by a large group of people from varied cultures and living under different backgrounds using ethnography as a basis to find recognizable patterns.

The data represented by ethnographers will depict the point of view of a person within a culture or society that is being based for the ethnographical study. This will help researchers understand the occurrences and cultural phenomenon that happens within a society from an insider’s perspective.

The advantage of these studies is that all amounts of research available to the researcher will help them gain valuable information from ethnographical representation through a “first-hand experience’, rather than deriving them out of existing data and assumptions from outdated socio-cultural models. On other accounts, an ethic perspective can only provide data and information from an analytical and distant point of view, thereby separating the researcher from the actual experience.

Ethnography vs Cultural Anthropology

Ethnography is in broader terms; a field related to and branched from cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology deals with the study on human culture and behavioral aspects of humans in societies.

It is characteristic for people to get confused between ethnography and cultural anthropology. There are even instances where both are used conversely. The matter of the fact is that ethnography is far simpler in terms of research and approach when compared to cultural anthropology.

The research techniques associated with cultural anthropology deals in grouping together data and hypothesis on various occurrences and phenomenon related to the society. On the other hand, ethnography deals in furthering research through building up from the already available empirical data of existing models on societies and human culture.

Ethnography encompasses most of the aspects of cultural anthropology. Ethnography is actually related to finding out about the society or culture through direct interaction with the subjects, while cultural anthropology adopts studying about society and culture as a part of science. Therefore, cultural anthropology is considered as an academic discipline, while ethnography may be considered as a research oriented approach to cultural anthropology.

The fields of expertise for an ethnographer range from education, geography, education, economics, linguistics and social work that forms the basis of a society. While choosing their area of specialty, ethnographers should accumulate data that can be used for the overall welfare of the society, or can in turn be used to aid business ventures or economic ideas. In most cases, the information gathered by ethnographers will be used to improve the living standards of people within the society by understanding their basic needs.

Ethnography finds quite a lot of significance in cultural anthropology, and the information that is accumulated through ethnographical research is often used by various anthropologists to help them better understand and build up on the various aspects of a society.

Ethnography can provide great insights into the basic human behavior, and helps keep track of the changing trends in lifestyle and culture. This is why various advertisement and marketing agencies make use of ethnographical research data to target their advertisements so as to cater to the latest consumer trends and market demands.

An ethnographer’s technique in research on social and cultural values varies greatly from an Anthropologist’s perspective. However, the fundamentals behind the collection of information are embedded in the overall academic discipline of Anthropology.

In many ways, one can consider ethnography to be a qualitative research process that describes the outcome in the form of interpretation of the social behavior and culture of a specific ethnicity or demographic. An ethnographer’s job is not to observe the aspects of a civilization from a distance, but to understand and analyze various events that occur within a civilization or society through first-hand experience.

Ethnography for Business

Multi-national companies and business organizations are increasingly spending a large amount of money and effort on ethnography to understand the demands of the market and to tailor their products or services according to the existing demand. The concept of demand and supply with respect to consumers in the market can be clearly understood using ethnographical research strategies. Ethnography is the basis for all new product or service ideas development.

In other words, business ethnography is a core part of international companies research and development efforts.

Businesses require ethnographers to be true to their research standards by being systematic and complete in their ethnographic methods. All the first-hand and real life experience gained by an ethnographer will be put to good use while designing and developing products. The research data will also help companies understand or tap into any unknown aspirations for products or services that are relatively non-existent in the market.

Unlike normal quantitative research methods, where the data is being generated through word of mouth or controlled opinions from a small set of individuals or focus groups, ethnography deals in qualitative data acquisition, which is the actual real life experiences and scenarios associated with a community.

Hence, by avoiding focus groups and surveys, ethnography can cater to the exact requirements of the public demands, and can help companies with better marketing and advertising to actually sell their products and services to the customers. There might be various cultural and social stigmas associated with several products, and by opting for ethnography, rather than focus groups, it is possible to avoid the perils of ordinary focus group oriented research and data.

Design ethnography is one of the key disciplines that work well with businesses and companies. Design ethnography deals with the study of requirements, desires, impulses and overall demand of people in a community. Design ethnography is highly targeted and oriented towards offering key research data for companies to build products and services to cater to the demands or requirements of the consumers in a demographic.

The key aspect of Design Ethnography is that the research done by design ethnographers can be used by all industries, and there isn’t any need for different types of research or data acquisition. As an example for this kind of ethnographical research, the lack of consistent electrical or power supply in a majority of developing nations has led various companies to design consumer electronic products such as mobile phones to work on alternate sources of energy. This was made possible by directly experiencing the issues faced by the people within that community through ethnography.

Online Ethnography, Virtual Ethnography

Online ethnography is the latest addition to the field of ethnographical research, and its presence or requirement was fueled by the increase in online presence of various social communities and businesses. Online ethnography, or also known as virtual ethnography, is entirely similar to normal ethnography, the difference being that the entire research is based out of online experiences.

The virtual world doesn’t allow actual physical interaction between people, but virtual ethnographers tend to work around the concept of experiencing the social behavior of people and communities through online avenues. Unlike normal communities and societies, social networks bring together a group of people on the basis of their passion, ideas and beliefs, rather than being based out of an actual geographical location.

The basic idea behind virtual social communities is to share ideas and views on different subjects that are of interest to a particular group of people. There are different strategies adopted by online or virtual ethnographers to research and understand such groups. One way to research these communities is to actually join the group as a participant and share ideas to get involved in the group, which will eventually help the ethnographer to gain useful insights about the people involved and the community as a whole.

On the other hand, virtual ethnographers can remain in the background and analyze the community from a distance. This is usually done by being anonymous and invisible to the community that is being researched. While this may prove to be a great way for the ethnographer to remain hidden, the process of researching an online community from a distance is also called “Lurking”. Lurking involves studying or monitoring the actions of a part or all of the components of the community, from a distance, to gain a better understanding of the fundamentals and ideas that contribute to the events that happen within the online community or society.

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Human-centered Design Research in Emerging Markets


Jacob Langvad Nilsson continues to work persistently in the cross-section between editorial photojournalism and visual ethnography, pushing the boundaries of human-centered design research to tell stories about globalization, cultural shift, and the aspirations and desires of people living in a changing world.

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Jacob Langvad Nilsson / JLCO Group contact@jacoblangvad.com+1 (917) 740-9015