Ethnography In B2B Markets – What Does It Really Mean?

Ethnography research is a technique that is being used more and more in business to business markets and in the last month B2B International has carried out numerous ethnographic projects looking at getting into the mind of the trade (both plumbers and builders).

Ethnographic research must surely be among the most misunderstood, misrepresented and misused of the currently used qualitative research techniques, and this is true whether it is within a B2B or a B2C context. This article below by Neil McPhee and taken from this month’s BIG Times spreads some light on the technique.

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography is a research process that is rooted in the anthropological and sociological traditions of understanding that places a researcher within the context of the research setting they are studying. Through the process of first hand observation and participation in people’s lives, a process known as cultural immersion, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of individuals and their cultural belief systems. Ethnography represents more than mere observation, it involves direct participation into the lives and the culture of people. Its strength is its attempt to get at the underlying meanings of actions and beliefs within the context of a cultural group/ setting. In order to leverage ethnography to generate new insights, commercial research organisations have uniquely adapted ethnography to fit the needs of commercial business practice.

My friend and co-tutor, on the ESOMAR Ethnography and Observation workshop, Hy Mariampolski PhD, from the USA, calls it Marketing Ethnography. I tend to call it Research or Commercial Ethnography, but in any event, it has a number of characteristics which make it a very different animal from an interview. Commercial ethnography is a movement away from the study of ‘native cultures’ and a movement towards the study of consumer cultures, this including a B2B context here. The principles are the same: a quest to understand people within the context of their natural environment.

Due to both consumer and business pressures we spend much shorter periods of time than would be ideal with people but our aim is still to participate directly in people’s lives in order to gain access to social situations that help us to better understand their world. We then take this understanding into the realm of business to better design products and services that will in turn better meet the needs of our constituents.

How do we recognize “ethnography?”

There are a number of attributes that constitute its practice.

1. Ethnography: describes the behaviours, values, beliefs, and practices of the participants in a given cultural setting. This is important, as the notion of Culture/Values etc, are prerequisites for “real” ethnography. We need to identify, and then understand,
the rules and their symbolism and significance within the respondents’ worlds.
2. Context: Thick and Thin descriptions (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures). We observe, analyse and report on contextualized behaviour and symbolism, and we tend to seek the broader definition of context. Simply observing office workers, say, eating in the staff restaurant, tells us little about the company, but placed in the context of employment policies, working
culture and management attitudes, we learn a lot about the personality of the company, the pressure on staff to minimise lunch hours etc. This leads us to “thick” and “thin” descriptions:
i. A thick description of a human behaviour is one that explains not just the behaviour, but its context as well, such that the behaviour becomes meaningful to an outsider 2. It provides context that interprets observed actions and provides meaning to these actions. In this way analysis can fuse with description.
ii. A thin description describes only the event/act itself, and would only detail events whereas a thick description would try to analyse possible intent and the interpretation of events by participants.
3. Ethnographer role and conduct: A key principle of the method is that the researcher must not just observe, but must find a role within the group observed from which to participate in some manner, even if only as “outside observer.” The creation of a non-threatening role and presence, and the creation of virtually instant rapport, is one of the critical dimensions of effective ethnographic
work. Instant “rapport” is essential. Simply turning up with a video camera and a script and asking questions as in a quantitative questionnaire, or assuming that respondents will behave naturally, with no further guidance, is naive and useless. We must establish our “presence” in a way that allows people to become oblivious, as far as possible, to the presence of the researcher.
4. Time and duration: Realistically, we cannot often spend months or years living with our subjects, as did the ethnographers of old. Spending two or three years on an island was possible in the past but few clients would wear that in a proposal. However, time and duration is still a crucial dimension. I would argue for a full day (8-10 hours) as a rule of thumb, and a real half day (4- 5 hours) as being a minimum time to spend with someone/someplace. In reality, by the time you have arrived, got established, created some rapport and done a basic “fact find”, you have probably been there for two hours already! To go further, to become an accepted part of the furniture and to achieve that critical blend of visible but invisible presence, you really cannot expect to be there for LESS than half a day, and to be around long enough to observe a range of behaviours more than once ideally, and to observe the context, simply takes longer. A 2 hour visit simply is not long enough for any measure of real ethnography.
5. Participant observation: This is a critical element, as it is, in practice, what we spend a lot of a session doing. We watch what is going on, we note (film) critical elements of behaviour and context, and often follow up with a “conversational narrative” (the forms and functions of storytelling in everyday conversation), this being the sort of everyday and nonscripted exchange that goes on between people: it is not a formalised interview. • In reality, the conversation between ethnographer and respondent should seem like the usual conversation between friends, or acquaintances, at least. Asking structured questions, sounding like a “researcher” is not the way to do it, though many clients have asked for very specific questions to be asked – or have asked them themselves while on accompaniment. However, this is not the way it works best.
6. Video ethnography: This is often thought to be “ethnography”, where in fact, it is simply one aspect and one format of it and refers to the video recording of the sample of targets in their natural environment and context, and feeding back footage of practice to clients. Implicit in this is that no analysis or decoding is offered: it is simply recorded footage, with no significant editing, analysis, selectivity or contextual reference made. It is well short of the requirements for a full ethnography.
7. Analysis and Data Collection: Analysis and data collection are not distinct phases, they occur simultaneously. Both are ‘messy’ and involve the use of human beings as the unit of observation. Ethnography relies upon detail to convey the feel as well as the facts of an observed setting. During analysis, we often use some form of measurements, not simply impressionistic reportage, and these could involve:-

  • Symbolism, what something (behaviour, function or artifact) stands for
  • “Nerve centres”
  • Functions – the role or purpose of activities
  • Underlying rules implicit in the observation findings
  • Language, jargon, slang
  • Observing order/process/li>
  • Counts
  • Length of time
  • Measure – weight, distance
  • Interactions with and between others
  • Evident but unspoken feelings and emotions
  • What’s really happened vs. the story of what happened
  • Etc

In summary
But above all, we are looking to see/understand the bigger, more conceptual issues about their culture and environment, using cultural and social theories to make sense of what we see.

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