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“Contradiction between what people say they do and what they actually do”- Application of Ethnographic Research in Consumer Behaviour

Dr. Shampa Nandi- Faculty ISME


Parul, a young Research trainee is assigned a new project. She was given one month half day holiday from her office and visit her friend and families at the evening time, when all the family members are back at home. She has to complete a certain number of visit within this one month.  She is an MBA graduate and recently joined a Market research firm as a Trainee. The client for which she is assigned this project is in entertainment field. She is given the responsibility to find some influencing factors of consumer behaviour in Entertainment area. She is an intelligent, smart lady and a kin observer. But when she has got this assignment to go friends or relatives’ houses, spend and observe for two hours for a period of one month, she was clueless. Though her company has given some preliminary guidelines to follow in her observational study, she became curious on how to make the best use of her observational research. She started searching for the existing literature and to her surprise, she got to know, this is a part of Ethnographic Research, which is a very scientific examination of social and cultural group and a very popular method of research.

Ethnographic research

“Ethno” means people, folk or nation and grapho means “I write”, typically ethnographic research is a systematic study of people and culture. Ethnographic research started as a part of Anthropological study where researcher or Anthropologist or ethnologists used to work with a particular community for a long time and collect information through observations, informal interviews, discussion to explore their culture. But later it has become a very popular method in social science.  It involves qualitative research designs based on intuitive method of analysis.
Ethnographic research does not consider self-reported information but mainly focussed on actual observation of human behaviour in the environment where they live and explores socio cultural elements. Sometimes surveys and interviews are done along with observations.

Ethnographic research, Grounded Theory and Consumer behaviour

Ethnographic research gives an insight into consumers’ consumption. Consumer behaviour is all about what consumer purchase, why, when, how and how often they purchase any product or service. An in-depth understanding of the ways in which consumer buy and use any product can be analysed through ethnographic research. In contrast to the deductive method of research, it often helps to come up with a new theory. Ethnographic researchers combined with Grounded theory work very well in explaining consumer behaviour. Grounded theory is an inductive approach of research where researcher started with a question or simply with qualitative data. Based on analysis of voluminous data, some pattern, repetitive behaviour are observed. After validation of the repetitive behaviour, concepts are developed which often become the basis of new theory. Ethnographic research and grounded theory work in a complementary way to explain the complex and highly diverse consumption behaviour.

Why do ethnographic research gain so much popularity?

Ethnographic research gives an insight into what consumers really like, rather than some misguided information captured from them. Let’s take an example, one survey was done in India to check the percentage of consumers drink Branded tea. According to the survey a very high percentage of consumers was found to drink branded tea where as in reality it was observed that it was very low. With the recent development of Facebook, Twitter and smart phones, people got more used to share what they like, which brand they prefer, where they go and important events of their lives. Mobile ethnography or lifelogging, online ethno
graphy, cyber ethnography are emerging as new research tools using physical filed and digital field sites. Accessing online communities and social media spaces gives the option of getting data in more natural set up and covering wider market in a less cost. A lot of companies are benefitted by using ethnographic research, IKEA the Swedish Furniture manufacturer placed camera in people’s home to understand how they use sofas. German company Miele found out that people who suffer from allergies were very meticulous about vacuuming and they innovated and added a traffic light signal on their vacuum cleaner to indicate when the surface is dust free. Coty, known for its make up brands Rimmel and New York Colour used mobile ethnographic research to come up eye make-up products. In India Glaxo SmithKline, launched the new packaging while introducing Women’s Horlicks after analysing consumers’ latent need through ethnographic research. Xerox used this type of research to reduce its parking traffic congestion in Los Angeles whereas Intel one of largest ethnographer used this study to understand technological need of youngsters. An article by Prof Julian Cayla and Prof Eric Arnould in Journal of Marketing discussed the application of Ethnographic stories in consumer behaviour. In this article, a European Financial company used ethnographic story to understand how consumers used technology for managing their finances. The study showed that that young consumers sleep keeping their mobile by their bed side (well-known fact) and check the mobile phone just after they woke up. But the hidden fact is just after checking the message and SMSs, they also check the bank balance, which was very interesting. It gave an insightful thought to the financial company on how to make best use of mobile phone in influencing consumers.


Ethnographic research has scope in creating powerful explanation to underlying consumer behaviour phenomena, but it is often a costly affair. People criticise ethnographic research because of its design issue, and for its long time affair. Researcher claimed that ethnographic research should be used in exploratory research, not in conclusive research. Often it needs an experienced researcher to analyse the collected data. In India, where marketers often get detached from the mass marketing, perfect combination of ethnographic research with other quantitative and qualitative research can enhance the market learning. Parul, the young research trainee has the opportunity to come up with a good ethnographic story, on what people watch in the family timing, what they eat, drink, which brands do they use. She may come up with some unexpected issue. “Fly on the wall” in consumers’ home, a term often coined to describe ethnographic research has lot of potential in understanding what actually consumer want, rather than what they tell they want.


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