The Role of Ethnography in Finding Consumer Insights.
I usually write about advertising on here, but I’d like to jump back to some of my undergraduate studies, because they relate to my current career in the marketing industry — not as a data researcher, but as a creative writer — or rather, not as a positivist, but as an interpretivist.
When a brief lands on our desk, loaded with statistics about our audience, and once in a while even comes with a spreadsheet. As creatives, it’s up to us to come up with ideas based on that data.
I like to find a lot of my insights on the audience through ethnographies on that audience, and a lot of people — particularly those who conducted the research behind the brief — tell me that it’s basically circumventing all the hard data and statistics that went into studying the “target audience,” whom I prefer to refer to as “people.”
An ethnography is essentially a theoretically based narrative approach of human experiences within a certain social system, based on observations by the researcher. It completely relies on qualitative research, which gathers mostly non-numerical data — an interpretivist method. In stark contrast, the statistics and numerical data on the consumer provided in the brief was done so utilizing quantitive data — a positivist method.
So their big question is: what exactly is the practical use of ethnography?
Here’s how many of my opponents will argue it: while the ethnographic approach is a research method on social relations, and though must be based in theory to possess validity, it’s often seen as determined by the standpoint of the researcher. And being particularly centered on diversity, you add the fact that it’s qualitative and for the most part, doesn’t rely on empirical data, you might as well be writing a fairy tale.
This raises debates about how it’s speculative or subjective, rather than a natural science that relies almost entirely on numerical data as a whole. What’s the use in basing your strategy on a story with nothing really measurable behind it?
They’ll argue that it’s speculative or subjective, rather than natural science that relies on data as a whole. They think ethnography is just telling a story with nothing legitimate behind it. But there’s a difference between narrative and ethnography.
Here’s the thing: there are philosophical approaches to understanding reality, how we can know things, and what practices allow us to know those things. Since the data that’s put into the average advertising brief is heavily focused on social and behavioral science, I’m going to break this down into one statement: the majority of social science (in this argument, primarily natural science), is post-positivist, and ethnography is interpretive. We’re just on opposite sides of philosophical and academic paradigms.
We can sum this up as essentially the understanding of human behavior as being social in nature. It’s impossible not to socially interpret our world. Things have meaning beyond the pure action, and that to understand humans is to understand the meaning behind our actions. Even deeper than that — we can’t know all actions — they are social in nature. You can’t go into any environment without having your “social lens” on. Humans are, as far as we currently know, the only living beings on Earth with the ability to imagine, and don’t rely entirely on instinct — meaning someone had to sit down and devise the words and concepts behind ideas.
This is what interpretivism is built on — since everything is socially constructed, the ethnographer puts weight on the subjective experience of their subject. A good ethnographer tries to spend time getting to know their subjects, to gain insight into their subjects’ understanding of their reality. They often approach their research with the intent of letting their subjects teach them how to understand things. Good interpretive research should really involve the participant through each stage, making sure that the participant’s interpretation is represented in a way they agree with — meaning it’s not just a wild fairy tale with a bunch of bias.
This comes down to the age-old questions on the idea of, “what counts as science?” Science is the building of theoretical constructs. These theories are comprised of laws, or law-like statements which include predictions and restrictions that ultimately describe empirical regularities. Good science should constantly be trying to test theories to see whether empirical evidence supports them or not. If the evidence doesn’t support the theory, or a law is refuted, science must go back to the theory and reassess how the empirical results impact their understanding.
In practice, many natural-based social scientists rely on hypothesis testing, usually through statistical tests. It’s essentially a reliance on showing that variance in empirical measurements can be associated with other categorical or quantitative measures to the degree that significant differences and changes in variance are unlikely to be due to chance, and rather reflect empirical regularities.
What it comes down to is how and where we apply it.
What happens when a post-positivist who relies on something like hypothesis-testing finds a study based on interpretivism, like an ethnography? They think, “it’s a gimmick.” For them, there’s just too many empirical irregularities.
That’s essentially why we hate each other. Because I find ethnography is a very useful approach. Natural science is conservative; it relies on regularities — controlling variables and analyzing theoretical constructs that can be used to generalize across individuals.
In stark contrast, ethnography aims at understanding the richness of an individual’s life. Humans experience life subjectively and wholesale. We don’t experience one variable at a time, and we don’t only experience common phenomena. Ethnography is useful in providing insight into the experience.
So yes, ethnography values staggeringly different philosophical considerations than natural science. Ethnography doesn’t always give us generalizable coded data and law-like predictions, but gives us rich descriptions of human experience. I believe both can give predictions in communication. Each has huge insights in their own right, and it’s just an issue of what each approach values.
This is kind of where postpositivism began, realizing that there can be biases in the objectivity of empirical science.
Where I stand.
Empirical-based science often clashes with philosophical paradigms. Positivists will tell you there’s no practical use, that they don’t further any legitimate contributions to their school of thought. Those of us in fields of communication and philosophy disagree — we see the rich value in empirical data, but truly believe our studies provide wonderful insights for thought and new perspectives that go beyond statistics. The human mind is so intricate, we shouldn’t discount theories based on perspective and experience.
With that said, I find ethnography is critically important, because your experience is fundamentally your own. Your interpretation of the world, while socially constructed, is also your own, and you can’t escape it. Your best approach at understanding someone else’s experience is an interpretation of their world — it doesn’t cheapen the quality of empirical research, but rather allows you to see more of the threads within it, enriching the tapestry of our own realities.
I look at it as mind over matter — human experiences, and studies of those experiences, can provide much more valuable insight than just numbers and graphs.
Both have their place and their uses, and when it comes to marketing strategies and how to approach developing a strategy, we shouldn’t only consider quantitative data, we should consider how each individual’s constructed realities can provide even stronger insights. I say, don’t judge philosophical insights by their practicality. That’s the capitalist inside you speaking.
On one last note, I’m going to take a stand and say that empirical-based social sciences are forms of storytelling too — there’s the build-up of a problem in the hypothesis, a climax in the methods, and a resolution in the results.