Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative research methods in ethnographical studies are carried out by examining various aspects of a society from within. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the most common qualitative research methods used in ethnography.


The primary task of an ethnographer is to understand and clearly outline the main features of a civilization and their culture. This is done through getting all the relevant information about the various aspects of an event or a process that happens within the society. This includes obtaining first-hand information from people through interviews, surveys, and personal observations as well as informal interaction.

An ethnographer can also deduce the mechanics of various events in a society by studying or researching about the local laws, Government and statutory policies along with historical trends and records. By understanding each and every aspect of a community, it is possible for an ethnographer or a researcher to fine tune their findings and create a precise report on the distinctive differences in opinions and decision making processes that happens within the society.

Most of the time during ethnographical research, an ethnographer is expected to live within the society and co-exist with the subjects or population who are being researched. Hence, contrary to Cultural Anthropology, a lot of field work is involved, and actual personal interaction with people is vital in creating an effective model of the society and its culture. The social status of an ethnographer is irrelevant, as they are required to live among the general populace like an ordinary individual to keep the research real and objective.

Having a good rapport with informants and knowledgeable people within the society is imperative from the researcher’s perspective, as this can ensure a constant stream of good quality information and data throughout the duration of the research. It is customary for ethnographers to be involved in the field work for an extended duration, and at times, spending more than a year or two for comprehensive research is quite possible and essential.

An ethnographer arrives at a conclusive data only after analyzing and researching through several different resources. An ethnographer can choose to use existing data to build up their facts, but their current research materials will function as a base for creating a cultural frame of analysis.

The field work in ethnography is the most important aspect of the research. There is usually a collection of information gathering techniques that can help the researcher understand and record the meaning and intention of social activities and their decisions in the community that naturally occur from the people of the community. This collection of techniques is usually known as the ‘Field’ in ethnography. The ultimate aim of such kind of a research is to present an unbiased opinion of the society without any input from the researcher on their personal point of view.

An ethnographer should be willing to use several information gathering techniques and strategies to nurture successful relationships with the people of a community to achieve detailed characterization of the society and its people. The methods of data collection vary from interviews, surveys, in-depth informant observation and experiencing the culture through first-hand experience. The interview process is supposed to be seamless, and is often taped to be transcribed at a later date.

By recording an interview, it is usually easier for the researcher to keep the flow of information exchange intact without having to break the conversation to take down notes. Interview tapes can also be used for further analysis, reference as well as future research purposes. As part of the overall research process, an ethnographer can also go through various documents and other research materials to validate their research and to gain valuable insights into topics that were left out during their current studies.

Participant observation is the process of settling down at the locality of research on a long term basis for finding out about the society. In ethnographical research, participant observation relates to observing and analyzing the different aspects of a society for a considerable amount of time, and this data forms the basis for further studies and research.

Participant observation is a highly imperative aspect for an ethnographer. To be able to successfully understand the lifestyle or culture of a society, an ethnographer should be able to understand what it is like to live in the setting without any personal attachments. In brief, an ethnographer should experience the life within a society without contributing to it and should be detached from any personal feelings to offer unbiased information on the experience.

An ethnographer is just an observer of life, and will not, under any circumstances, try to change the outcome of the research through personal involvement. However, during the course of research, it is commonplace for ethnographers to form emotional attachment with their subjects, and can be an advocate to the citizens of the community. This is often the result of spending large amounts of time by living amongst the subjects and going through different experiences. But ethnographers are bound to (and should) keep such emotional bonds private and out of the scope of ethnography.

Due to the historical significance and disciplinary aspects of cultures, ethnographers from the early days used to concentrate on different regions outside their nations to practice ethnography. This resulted in ethnographers relatively ignoring the huge possibilities of ethnographical research and studies within their home and locality.

The end result is that the ethnographical research data and information currently available for United States is done by different nationalities. But these days, numerous Cultural Anthropologists and ethnographers are increasingly getting immersed in researching their own society and there are more people are inclined to do fieldwork at their own places of residence or work.

Conducting interviews in person is one of the most basic and effective ways of receiving clear-cut and targeted information by asking flexible questions. As with all other avenues, ethnography also possesses a range of varying interview concepts. But it is up to the ethnographer to choose the interview style that best suits the circumstances.

Qualitative research is entirely different to quantitative research. Quantitative research deals in getting answers from a set of predetermined choices from the most amounts of people in a demographic. This often tends to be representative of the instantaneous choice of the subjects, rather than thoughtful and qualitative information. In a qualitative research, however, the importance is given to the quality of the information, rather than the quantity.

This allows subjects to respond freely and voice their opinion on questions, rather than limiting them to pre-defined choices. Ethnographic interviews tend to be largely similar to a normal everyday conversation, but there are differences that one can spot quite easily. Interviews can be impulsive, casual and instantaneous, as the questions are targeted, and no one can prepare a set of pre-determined questions to understand the specific details of a society.

Various research projects require different sources and types of data, which initiates researchers to find alternate sources for information. In most cases, this information is found through existing research reports, Government documents, magazines and even newspaper articles. These commodities are often representative of the actual happenings and news within a society. It is not essential to consider these artifacts and literature as a primary source for data, but they can be used as a secondary reference when specific research and studies require extensive and relevant information.

The main aspect of ethnography is field work. Gathering data is done through personal interaction, which necessitates the ethnographer to obtain information through various direct approaches. An ethnographer will have to relocate to different localities, and might be required to shift their base to a different country or a community to interact with their research subjects.

Such an interaction and keen observation can help ethnographers gain valuable information on the effects of Government policies and local laws on people’s lives. An ethnographer should obtain data from different sources, and must consider the larger picture, instead of focusing on a single individual. By adopting a holistic approach, the conclusive report can be representative of the entire community, rather than focusing attention on singular examples.

The final report is created after the fieldwork is completed. This is an opportunity for the ethnographer to convey their studies and experiences in a pre-defined format. These reports usually contain a journal of their daily life experiences, lifestyles, social rituals, cultural phenomenon, and details of other activities that form the basis of the society under research.

What is Ethnography

Ethnography in broad terms defines the scientific study and research that is done on human behavior. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at different types and usages of ethnography and finaly define “what is ethnography”


There are distinctive features of a culture and various circumstances that form the basis of every social circle or ethnicity. Ethnography deals in obtaining a range of data on phenomenon using collective qualitative and analytical methods to study these features extensively.

The basic idea behind ethnography is to use research and analysis to arrive at an informed decision about the mechanics of why certain factors affect the outcome of various events that happen within a society. This can be derived using proper exploration of the facts and collective research, which can in turn provide general ideas about a culture to arrive at a plausible hypothesis.

The roots of ethnography can be traced back to socio-cultural anthropology. Sociocultural anthropology is a blend of social and cultural anthropology that deals in finding out the core differences in human behavior under varying social circumstances and in different cultures.

Ethnography is being largely used in social studies to understand the various aspects of different cultures across the world, and is also used to better comprehend the values of historians. History does tend to make use of ethnographical studies to understand the evolution of humans and their culture across generations.

Ethnography is also used in the present day context to improve communications so as to enhance trade ideas between different ethnic groups and cultures. So, we’ve defined the basics of what is ethnography. Let’s dig a little deeper.

In this article:

What is an Ethnographer
Ethnography vs Cultural Anthropology
Ethnography for Business
Online Ethnography, Virtual Ethnography

What is an Ethnographer

An ethnographer is a person who deals in ethnography. In essence, an ethnographer is responsible for collecting and recording data using social references to analyze and arrive at conclusions on human culture and behavior. The research techniques adopted by an ethnographer varies according to the specific study or research that is specific to a society or culture. Ethnography is a broad subject, and there are sub-topics such as Field, Visual and Design Ethnography.

The choice of ethnographical study group is up to the ethnographer, and they decide to adopt a category depending on the specific requirements for studying different models to arrive at a logical reasoning. It is the duty of an ethnographer to clearly understand the problems experienced by a large group of people from varied cultures and living under different backgrounds using ethnography as a basis to find recognizable patterns.

The data represented by ethnographers will depict the point of view of a person within a culture or society that is being based for the ethnographical study. This will help researchers understand the occurrences and cultural phenomenon that happens within a society from an insider’s perspective.

The advantage of these studies is that all amounts of research available to the researcher will help them gain valuable information from ethnographical representation through a “first-hand experience’, rather than deriving them out of existing data and assumptions from outdated socio-cultural models. On other accounts, an ethic perspective can only provide data and information from an analytical and distant point of view, thereby separating the researcher from the actual experience.

Ethnography vs Cultural Anthropology

Ethnography is in broader terms; a field related to and branched from cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology deals with the study on human culture and behavioral aspects of humans in societies.

It is characteristic for people to get confused between ethnography and cultural anthropology. There are even instances where both are used conversely. The matter of the fact is that ethnography is far simpler in terms of research and approach when compared to cultural anthropology.

The research techniques associated with cultural anthropology deals in grouping together data and hypothesis on various occurrences and phenomenon related to the society. On the other hand, ethnography deals in furthering research through building up from the already available empirical data of existing models on societies and human culture.

Ethnography encompasses most of the aspects of cultural anthropology. Ethnography is actually related to finding out about the society or culture through direct interaction with the subjects, while cultural anthropology adopts studying about society and culture as a part of science. Therefore, cultural anthropology is considered as an academic discipline, while ethnography may be considered as a research oriented approach to cultural anthropology.

The fields of expertise for an ethnographer range from education, geography, education, economics, linguistics and social work that forms the basis of a society. While choosing their area of specialty, ethnographers should accumulate data that can be used for the overall welfare of the society, or can in turn be used to aid business ventures or economic ideas. In most cases, the information gathered by ethnographers will be used to improve the living standards of people within the society by understanding their basic needs.

Ethnography finds quite a lot of significance in cultural anthropology, and the information that is accumulated through ethnographical research is often used by various anthropologists to help them better understand and build up on the various aspects of a society.

Ethnography can provide great insights into the basic human behavior, and helps keep track of the changing trends in lifestyle and culture. This is why various advertisement and marketing agencies make use of ethnographical research data to target their advertisements so as to cater to the latest consumer trends and market demands.

An ethnographer’s technique in research on social and cultural values varies greatly from an Anthropologist’s perspective. However, the fundamentals behind the collection of information are embedded in the overall academic discipline of Anthropology.

In many ways, one can consider ethnography to be a qualitative research process that describes the outcome in the form of interpretation of the social behavior and culture of a specific ethnicity or demographic. An ethnographer’s job is not to observe the aspects of a civilization from a distance, but to understand and analyze various events that occur within a civilization or society through first-hand experience.

Ethnography for Business

Multi-national companies and business organizations are increasingly spending a large amount of money and effort on ethnography to understand the demands of the market and to tailor their products or services according to the existing demand. The concept of demand and supply with respect to consumers in the market can be clearly understood using ethnographical research strategies. Ethnography is the basis for all new product or service ideas development.

In other words, business ethnography is a core part of international companies research and development efforts.

Businesses require ethnographers to be true to their research standards by being systematic and complete in their ethnographic methods. All the first-hand and real life experience gained by an ethnographer will be put to good use while designing and developing products. The research data will also help companies understand or tap into any unknown aspirations for products or services that are relatively non-existent in the market.

Unlike normal quantitative research methods, where the data is being generated through word of mouth or controlled opinions from a small set of individuals or focus groups, ethnography deals in qualitative data acquisition, which is the actual real life experiences and scenarios associated with a community.

Hence, by avoiding focus groups and surveys, ethnography can cater to the exact requirements of the public demands, and can help companies with better marketing and advertising to actually sell their products and services to the customers. There might be various cultural and social stigmas associated with several products, and by opting for ethnography, rather than focus groups, it is possible to avoid the perils of ordinary focus group oriented research and data.

Design ethnography is one of the key disciplines that work well with businesses and companies. Design ethnography deals with the study of requirements, desires, impulses and overall demand of people in a community. Design ethnography is highly targeted and oriented towards offering key research data for companies to build products and services to cater to the demands or requirements of the consumers in a demographic.

The key aspect of Design Ethnography is that the research done by design ethnographers can be used by all industries, and there isn’t any need for different types of research or data acquisition. As an example for this kind of ethnographical research, the lack of consistent electrical or power supply in a majority of developing nations has led various companies to design consumer electronic products such as mobile phones to work on alternate sources of energy. This was made possible by directly experiencing the issues faced by the people within that community through ethnography.

Online Ethnography, Virtual Ethnography

Online ethnography is the latest addition to the field of ethnographical research, and its presence or requirement was fueled by the increase in online presence of various social communities and businesses. Online ethnography, or also known as virtual ethnography, is entirely similar to normal ethnography, the difference being that the entire research is based out of online experiences.

The virtual world doesn’t allow actual physical interaction between people, but virtual ethnographers tend to work around the concept of experiencing the social behavior of people and communities through online avenues. Unlike normal communities and societies, social networks bring together a group of people on the basis of their passion, ideas and beliefs, rather than being based out of an actual geographical location.

The basic idea behind virtual social communities is to share ideas and views on different subjects that are of interest to a particular group of people. There are different strategies adopted by online or virtual ethnographers to research and understand such groups. One way to research these communities is to actually join the group as a participant and share ideas to get involved in the group, which will eventually help the ethnographer to gain useful insights about the people involved and the community as a whole.

On the other hand, virtual ethnographers can remain in the background and analyze the community from a distance. This is usually done by being anonymous and invisible to the community that is being researched. While this may prove to be a great way for the ethnographer to remain hidden, the process of researching an online community from a distance is also called “Lurking”. Lurking involves studying or monitoring the actions of a part or all of the components of the community, from a distance, to gain a better understanding of the fundamentals and ideas that contribute to the events that happen within the online community or society.

Business Ethnography as a Key Strategy for International Brands

Business ethnography can be used as a key strategy when an international brand expands into a new market. It is paramount for the business to understand well how its brand can become relevant to the consumers of the country or region. When penetrating new markets, two critical mistakes seem to repeat themselves.

The first mistake involves thinking that because it is already a big and recognizable brand, its potential consumers will be overwhelmingly impressed when the products becomes available in a new market. The second mistake is for the business to think that solely relying on macro-economic data and quantitative research methods will suffice to understand the aspirations and needs of its consumers. Read on to learn more about business ethnography and how to use ethnography for business. (more…)

Nike Football Culture in Latin America

We’ve completed the ethnographic research work for Nike and the result is a beautiful, 400-page book on football culture in Latin America. The research is in large part based upon visual ethnography by Jacob Langvad Nilsson. The book is a study of football culture among teens in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. The research sought to capture how football as a sport greatly influence the daily lives of youngsters in both urban and rural settings, and helped the client strengthen its understanding of and relationship with its consumers.

Nike Football Culture in Latin America by Photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson
Nike Football Culture in Latin America by Photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson
Nike Football Culture in Latin America by Photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson
Nike Football Culture in Latin America by Photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson
Nike Football Culture in Latin America by Photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson
Nike Football Culture in Latin America by Photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson
Nike Football Culture in Latin America by Photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson
Visual Ethnography
Visual Ethnography

The Brazilian Dream: Thiago for Visual Ethnography

Thiago Vinicius is part of the group that created the Community Bank Sampaio Union, at Jardim Maria Sampaio neighborhood, São Paulo, which provides micro-credit and prints its own currency, the “sampaio”. The Brazilian Dream‘ (O Sonho Brasileiro) is a qualitative study of the young generation Brazilians, with focus on their dreams and desires.

The Brazilian Dream: Tahis for Visual Ethnography

‘The Brazilian Dream’ (O Sonho Brasileiro) is a qualitative study of the young generation Brazilians, with focus on their dreams and desires. This is a photograph of The Brazilian Dream: Tahis for Visual Ethnography from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for BOX1824 by photographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson.

'O Sonho Brasileiro' (The Brazilian Dream) - Visual ethnography by Jacob Langvad for BOX1824

Visual Ethnography Examples

Over the last couple of years, I’ve specialized my work into a field of photography called visual ethnography. Visual ethnography is using photography as a tool in qualitative research, also know as participant observation. Through a growing number of qualitative research projects, I’ve documented youth culture and consumer behavior in developing countries.

Typically, I work as part of a small team of field researchers contributing to the project with an engaging visual narrative. Our respondents can be town- or country-dwellers, and we usually cover a variety of economic, social, political and ideological dimensions.

With a background as photojournalist and editorial photographer, I enjoy the fieldwork of meeting and documenting respondents’ everyday life and identifying patterns of development over time. Our findings have proven to be extremely valuable for international brands aspiring for growth opportunities in growth markets.

Collectively, the visual ethnography projects I’m working on are putting a face on a new generation of global consumers and brings to light the differences and similarities across the world’s biggest, and fastest growing emerging markets, who collectively stand poised to be the world’s super-powers of tomorrow.

To sustain and accelerate growth in emerging markets, international brands have to respond well to fragmented regional cultures and sub-cultures by constantly launching new, customized products and service offerings. The three examples below, show how visual ethnography can help international brands tap into their new consumers.

The Brazilian Dream

Brazil has jokingly been called “the country of the future and always will be”. But provided by a decade of economic growth, today it has reached an unprecedented moment in its history: the moment where it stands as a major world player.

O Sonho Brasileiro‘ (The Brazilian Dream) is an extensive, qualitative study of the young Brazilian generation, who is the first to live in a hyper-connected world, and in a period of significant economic growth. The focus for this study is to understand this generation, its values, dreams and desires.

The study is based on 1,200 interviews with 18-24 year old Brazilians across the country and from all social groups. I contributed to the project with visual ethnography from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Porto Alegre. A pivotal part of the commission was a documentation of the 25 case-studies. I followed the respondents over time, and documented their lives in their own environments, including at home and with their families.

SonhoBrasileiro

See more images from the project here

The BRIC Project

The world’s biggest and fastest growing emerging markets are Brazil, Russia, India, and China, collectively known as the BRICs. Based on extensive qualitative research of the burgeoning middle-class in these four countries, the ongoing BRIC Project seeks to identify and understand the young, middle-class consumer.

Ultimately, the project will provide a comprehensive insight and strategic analysis of youth culture and consumer behavior for international brands. Our mission is to provide a long-term, multi-media and digitally empowered platform for delivering business generating insight and understanding.


Visit The BRIC Project here

Nike Football Culture in Latin America

This 400-page report produced for Nike, a sportswear and equipment supplier, focused on football culture among teens across Latin America. The visual ethnography project sought to capture how football as a sport greatly influence the daily lives of teenagers in both urban and rural settings, and helped the client strengthen its understanding of and relationship with its consumers.

The report was commissioned as a unique and unconventional ethnographic study of football obsessed teens in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, to generate findings and insights which improves the way Nike’s marketing team engages with its consumers.

nike_book_jacob_langvad-01

Read more about the Nike football research report here

See more examples of visual ethnography projects here

For more information about Visual Ethnography for International Brands, please contact the studio on this page.