At HRW, our core ethos is to ‘access the reality’ of our respondents’ world, and we have developed a wide and robust toolkit that helps us support this aim. A key component of this toolkit is, naturally, ethnography.

Back to our roots: what does ethnography really mean?
Originating from anthropology and the social sciences, ethnography is a qualitative method of research whereby researchers study people, their cultures and their societies. Ethnos, from the Greek, means ‘folk, people, nation’ and grapho is ‘to write’ – to write about, or document, a people. Typically, longitudinal participant observation is conducted through a deep dive fieldwork approach, to gain rich insights and understanding of human behaviour, social interactions, beliefs and perceptions that occur within groups, communities and organisations. This traditional ethnographic approach was made famous by Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist, who is perhaps most famous for his several years of fieldwork spent in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia. He studied the indigenous culture and crafted his detailed methodological and theoretical approaches to the study of intricate social systems.

Through the researcher accessing their respondents’ own habitats, and participating in their day-to-day lives alongside them, the formal ‘set-up’ of research is diminished. The researcher immerses themselves into the respondents’ setting; observing the natural flow of life; witnessing their everyday ‘norms’; building organic rapports; encouraging a sense of comfort and familiarity; eliciting ‘real’ responses through mostly unstructured and/or semi-structured approaches and reducing the risk of respondents potentially giving responses they think the researcher wants to hear.

How have HRW utilised ethnographic methodologies into our market research?
Ethnography is, of course, a well-established approach within the MR space, and at HRW, we have a dedicated team who explore and fine-tune our suite of EMR (Ethnographic Market Research) offerings. However, due to the (often ‘challenging’) time frames, shrinking budgets, and focussed objectives, we are turning increasingly to creative thinking and flexibility in order to make use of this highly effective tool. ‘Adapted Ethnography’ (ethnography over a shorter period of time or using modified techniques), still provides us with rich insights accessing the reality of our respondents’ lives- but in a way that meets our clients’ internal demands and practical constraints.

A recent study with type two diabetes patients provides a great example of how Adapted Ethnographic research has helped HRW, and our clients, understand customer’s lifestyle factors, attitudes and social context to strategically relevant effect. The purpose of this project was to understand patients’ experiences, needs, and reactions to a novel diabetes management programme, helping them overcome the challenges of managing their condition.

Through “home tours”, we physically walked patients through their routines: seeing how and when they take their medications, and therefore seeing first-hand how such a concept could ‘fit’ into patients’ day-to-day lives. This ethnographic element highlighted the reality for diabetic patients, through their eyes: and revealed insights into likelihood to adopt based on the delivery of the concept, practicalities in a real-life setting, patient enthusiasm, engagement, and behavioural shifts.

Such immersive approaches (which can be complimented with multimedia homework tasks, photos, drawing and videos) offer creative ways of collecting data, generating significant amounts of discussion and in-the-moment thoughts- even amongst those who might usually be overshadowed by more vocal members of a group discussion.

To further enhance the holistic representation of patients’ lives, tele-depth interviews with carers, physicians and patient support organisation staff can accompany the core ethnographic element.

The benefits these combined methods provide to our clients are rich, reflective outputs, allowing them to see the reality of their consumers’ lives through their own eyes- whilst understanding exactly how client products and services are, and could be, integrated ‘on-the-ground’ (in a way that will not cost the earth!).

What are the key considerations when carrying out ethnographic market research?
It is important to consider the logistical practicalities involved prior to implementing ethnography (adapted or otherwise) into market research studies. It is key to ask questions like:

• How much time do I have?
• Should we use a small sample size to produce in-depth case studies, taking into account budget?
• Is the location accessible and feasible?
• What types of specialist resource do we need to involve (e.g. videographers)?

When carrying out ethnographic research, as when carrying out any market research, it is also particularly important to follow market research guidelines and good ethical practice, alongside stringent data handling.

HRW offer a range of ethnographic approaches to suit specific research needs and we continue to develop our knowledge and expertise of this exciting and compelling method. If our clients feel ethnography is right for them, the potential benefits in bringing their respondents to life can be significant!

Over the coming months, Sian Thapar (Senior Research Executive), Olivia Brickman (Research Executive), Kirsty Page (Associate Director), and I will be teaming up to provide the company with some additional resources, information and training sessions on all things ethnography. Watch this space!


By Bethan Crisp

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