Posted: 23 Feb. 2022 4.5 min. read

The human experience

Making the most of ethnographic research

Despite becoming increasingly vogue as a research method in the corporate world, ethnographic research is frequently not done right. In no small part, this failure to make the most of ethnography comes down to a deep neglect of social and cultural theory. This is because, without theory, the researcher lacks the interpretive and critical tools to make sense of the raw data that ethnographic work generates. Only by carefully selecting and applying theory can the researcher turn qualitative data into the kind of actionable insights that can truly transform how a product or service is designed and built. 

The ethnographic bandwagon

One of the first companies to use ethnography to grow its business was Intel, all the way back in the mid 1990s. They wanted to know if products it sold to businesses could be used in household environments as well. Rather than making assumptions about how these kinds of products might be used at home, they sought to observe people in their home lives to illuminate the contexts in which customers might use a product and the meanings it might hold for them. Whilst Intel might have been something of an outlier in its use of ethnography back then, the business world has since jumped on the ethnography bandwagon, deploying it in everything from product and service design to proposition development.

Indeed, look across the corporate research landscape and you’ll likely see the word ethnography in abundance. You’ll see it listed as a required methodology in RFPs, as a desired competency in job postings, as a skill in a person’s LinkedIn profile, or else described as an integral part of a company’s research toolkit. You could say we are currently in the midst of what might be called, in the business world at least, ethnography’s “great normalisation.” By this, I am talking about the way in which a historically niche research technique from the social sciences has turned mainstream, becoming a part of everyday business vernacular.

Doing ethnography right

But what does it actually mean to “do” ethnography? And are we even doing it right? For those who have heard the word but never really delved further into what it means, ethnography is essentially a research method that involves immersing oneself in the worlds of other people to gain a deeper understanding of what forms the fabric of their everyday lives. What the ethnographer is after is an “insider perspective” that is gathered through careful documentation of what is happening in a person’s world, who it is happening with, and under what broader social and cultural conditions. Ethnography, when applied in a business context, is ultimately about people and their relationships with products and services. It starts from the assumption that produces and services do not exist in a vacuum, but rather are constantly being made sense of and imbued with meaning by people as they go about their daily lives.

To give another example, the German manufacture Miele™ used ethnography to create a new range of vacuum cleaners tailored to the needs of allergy sufferers. They observed how people with allergies would spend far more time cleaning than they needed to, the vacuum becoming a kind of hygiene ritual that was more connected their own physical wellbeing than how clean the carpets looked. So, Miele installed a sensor that told the person when all the allergens had been hoovered up. In anthropological circles, these observations form part of what are called “thick descriptions” of everyday human life – detailed, contextually rich accounts that are layered with interpretive frameworks drawn from social and cultural theory.

One-handed clapping

When it comes to ethnography in the corporate sector, it is in the theoretical department where we are really falling down. Someone might be a gifted ethnographer, blessed with an uncanny ability to create rapport with people, build empathy, actively listen and write rich and vivid field notes. But without the theory to make sense of all this raw data, the ethnographer will find themselves stuck, as though trying to clap with just one hand. This is where we need good ethnography to be used in tandem with good theory.

If ethnography is there to help us gather the data, anthropological and social theory is there to help us think critically about it. Both are skills that require years to hone. And both are fundamentally complimentary – which is why it is such a crying shame that the business world been so quick to normalise one (ethnography) whilst mostly neglecting the other (theory).

Young people and their money pots

To take just one example from a recent project, myself and a colleague were conducting in-depth ethnographic interviews with young people to try and understand the role of money in their lives. After a while, we spotted a pattern emerging. People were setting up lots of different pots of money, often across multiple banks and multiple accounts. When we asked them to tell us more about what they used these multiple pots for, they described using them as a way to organise their money into distinct categories. There were “sensible” pots for things like long-term savings, bills and rent; “experimental pots” for investing; and “fun pots” for things like eating out and impulse shopping.

So far, so ethnographic. In order take things to the next level and more deeply understand what these pots mean from an anthropological perspective – that is to move from raw description to “thick” description – we need to apply theory. If we don’t, we remain stuck as that lonely clapping hand.

Technologies of multiple selves

Rather than viewing these accounts as neutral technologies, we instead came to understand them as what the theorist Michel Foucault would call “technologies of the self.” A technology of the self refers to the tools and practices people use to act upon themselves and create change in their lives. Technologies of the self can be anything from reading, journal writing, dieting, exercise, meditation, cosmetic surgery, drug-taking (including coffee!), Instagram filters, tracking your steps, to setting up multiple bank accounts and money pots. Understood in this way, each account can be taken as connected to the multiple (and often conflicting) self-aspects that comprise our sense of identity. The sensible pots are about cultivating a responsible future-oriented self, the experimental pots an entrepreneurial self, and the fun pots a more present-focused carefree self. Here, we are able to layer in another theoretical level – the Multiple Selves Framework from social psychology.

What this example demonstrates is that there is never just one theory that will work. There are many different interpretive possibilities for any given set of ethnographic facts – the key is having the requisite knowledge base on which to draw. Much like a carpenter surveying their toolkit to pick the best instruments for the job at hand, the trained anthropologist will employ their years of training to select and apply the most relevant theory, transforming the raw material of ethnographic data into anthropological knowledge. Put simply, these theoretical frameworks help us understand people’s experiences better.

Managing money, managing selves

From this example, we can see how managing money is not just a practical matter, but rather connected to deeper psychological and existential processes. Financial management as (multiple) self management, if you will. These insights have since sparked the imagination of our FS clients, prompting them to reconsider their youth proposition in a way that is resonant with the way their young customer-base see and experience the world, rather than how they might presume it to be. Not only, then, does this kind of ethnographic research offer them an “insider perspective” into the younger generation, the theoretical layering offers them the interpretive tools to turn these perspectives into something actionable that can fundamentally shape the services and products they build going forward.

Clapping with two hands

As we seek to elevate a holistic understanding of the human experience to the core of our client offering, marrying our research capabilities with a commensurate level of theoretical application will not only make our insights better and more impactful, but they will also propel us to a level far beyond what our competitors can offer.

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Dr. Joshua Burraway

Dr. Joshua Burraway

Senior Consultant

Dr. Joshua Burraway is a Senior Consultant at Deloitte Digital. He holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology, using his social science background to drive innovative product, service and systems design. This means infusing research and delivery projects with a deep appreciation for sociocultural context and how this shapes everyday customer needs.