What is the difference between an interview and ethnography?
At the surface it may seem like ethnography and standard interviewing are similar: a moderator sits with a participant, asks a series of questions and receives a series of answer. Nothing much to it, right? There are several subtle yet incredibly important nuances that separate ethnography from your standard interviews.
First, as an anthropologist, I am trained to identify and understand context. The context can be physical, for example, the difference between fielding research here in the Triangle versus the rural Midwest versus metropolitan Los Angeles, or the context can be something less tangible, such as the participant’s life stage, age, gender, or socioeconomic status.
Understanding the context and how the unique circumstances that surround an individual’s life, their behaviors, and mindset is crucial as it helps us as market researchers understand not just what consumers say they do, but what they actually do, as well as that interesting space in between.
Additional differences lie in how interviews are conducted or questions are asked. Many anthropologists, myself included, came to the field because are fascinated with human difference, something that quite often plays out in research.
Ethnography requires a sense of flexibility and adaptability to understand the context in the moment and reflect it back through your questioning. Being able to adjust language, posture – to truly understand and empathize with the consumer and their life, their context – makes the world of difference between getting a flat, yes or no answer or an authentic, oftentimes vulnerable moment or story and ultimately answer the question of “why” rather than just “what” or “how.”
As ethnographers and anthropologists we are not only able to understand the nuance of context but also leverage it for further discovery. Often we accompany consumers as they go about their daily lives, including shopping or other routine activities. Using our understanding, we can leverage disruption, that is taking consumers out of their routines, to get at some of those more subconscious behaviors and attitudes. We can also do this through analysis of creative exercises such as journals, diaries, and image associations.