Ethnographic research and qualitative research, what do they have in common, apart from too many syllables?
More than you might think, to judge from AQR's excellent conference, 'Ethnographic Research - lessons from the edge', held at the Russell Hotel on Thursday last week.
Caroline Hayter Whitehill introduced the conference with an expertly summarised view that many in our industry viewed ethnographic research as anything which is neither a focus group nor a survey. So, a video recorded retail exit interview is called 'ethnographic', which is surely stretching the term beyond recognition.
Ethnographic research is 'the naturalistic observation of people in their environment'. There are a range of methods, from complete observation, through combined observation and participation, to complete participation.
Many years ago I read Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut (highly recommended). Some of the same issues arise when you observe and participate in a culture, even if the culture is the Smith household in Buckhurst Hill, rather than the Dowayo people in northern Cameroon.
Nobody knows this better than Siamack Salari of EverdayLives International (pictured), the conference’s main speaker and arguably the world's leading authority on commercial video ethnographic research. His website and his blog are well worth a look, to get a full understanding of how his ethnographic research methods have evolved.
Ethnographic research of the type Siamack practices is a fascinating branch of qualitative research, quite different to the interview-based methods that most of us are accustomed to. As different as growing fruit in a greenhouse is to picking wild fruit from the hedgerows, perhaps. But there are skills in common to both activities (eg patience, care, attention to detail) even if the activities look quite different.
Siamack was a product designer by training and one of his first forays into ethnographic research had him perched on a step ladder in an Esso forecourt shop filming people coming and going. He found that, rather than imitating a security camera, he did a much better job when he came down from the ladder, observed and filmed on the shop floor, on the same level as shoppers.
He has since found that analysing CCTV footage and using fixed cameras in home is not the best way to understand behaviour. His way of doing ethnography is not pure observation, it is not about quantifying gestures and eye movements etc, it is a much more human, interactive, a much more qualitative process.
It is also a very rigorous process, too and quite a difficult sell to clients, partly as it was relatively time-consuming, intensive and therefore expensive, but partly also because it deals in ordinary moments in ordinary, everyday lives, and some clients are used to idealising or distorting their brands and its consumers.
But it is possible to learn extraordinary things from studying ordinary behaviour and ordinary lives, if you study hard. There is insight and beauty in the mundane (pic credit booshpatch).
His interpretation of a film clip we had seen earlier revealed the extent to which our ‘symbolic nature’ is played out in everyday terms. The clip showed a man trying to avoid answering his two sons’ questions about what was on TV. This showed, according to Greg, how the sons destroyed their father’s symbolic power.
Another clip showed two children microwaving a Mars bar (boys again, tch!) which in semiotic terms was about the importance of brands allowing for improvisation, which gives symbolic power to brand users.
While the language of semiotics may be unusual, the way we all interpreted film clips in the afternoon session revealed that we all shared many of the same intuitions about the breakfast routines and rituals in the three households we watched.
Siamack ended by talking about the future of ethnographic research and the increasing role of technology and also how one could generate multiple interpretations of ethnographic raw footage in less time than it normally takes.
The conference was an example of how AQR, under Rosie Campbell's wise stewardship, is regaining the high ground and returning to form by bringing into the qualitative fold the many and varied disciplines which impinge on the discipline. Another example of this is the recent indepth pamphlet, written by Ailean Mills.
I suspect we shall look back on this period as the Golden Age of the AQR - just like the Golden Age of Ballooning, but without the ballooning.
We shall return to the subject of ethnographic research again soon, as we are immersing ourselves in it, in preparation for a major, new development coming soon – watch this space ... very closely.