The Enlightening Boringness of Reality

Ethnography is a term that has been somewhat hijacked by qualitative researchers. Its roots lie in academia, wherein ethnographic research involves spending days, weeks, months, or even years immersing oneself in hitherto unexplored cultural environments to make sense of them by observation and interpretation.

It’s fascinating and boring all at the same time. It’s the everyday, in real time. And therein lies its power.

But in a commercial research setting these days, it’s often used to describe any methodology that is not a focus group, and contains some element of direct observation. We’ve heard depth interviews, 2 hour in-home visits, even ethnographic interviews, described as ‘conducting ethnography’.

We suspect the ever-present pressures of cost and time are ultimately behind this fudge. But an hour rummaging around Mrs Miggins’ kitchen with a camera emphatically does not cut it.

The key reason to conduct authentic ethnographic research must be to spontaneous reveal events and behaviours that people are not aware of, and to do so in a carefully unfocused way. Otherwise one could simply ask them directly.

People aren’t aware of such things not because they are unimportant, but because they are unconscious – deeply ingrained habits and rituals – or simply taken for granted as unexceptional; just the way we live.

In a time-urgent world, this leisurely approach to understanding reality can be unbearable to the impatient. Can’t we just cut to the chase? Yet often these seeming boring elements of day-to-day life are the most important things of all.

Shoot first; ask questions later

To capture the fascinating boringness of everyday life, filming is a must. Not least because it allows you to repeat view events and happenings and share them with clients, colleagues or the participants themselves as a prompt.

This is crucial, because a sure way to ruin an ethnographic study is to try to interview the participants as you go. It’s not unlike trying to ask a golfer what’s going through his mind as he raises his club to strike the ball. It’s distracting. It’s disruptive. It’s inauthentic. And it can collapse the whole delicate structure of reality like the wavefunction of Schroedinger’s cat.

Most such studies capture a plethora of mundane, predictable events, which appear, on first viewing, to show nothing new, regardless whether using a mobile app or filming your participants in documentary mode.

But a forensic repeat viewing often reveals many things – for example:

  • The things people say versus the things they do.
  • Random thoughts that aren’t filtered or triggered by questions and probes.
  • What nearly happens or doesn’t happen – it’s tempting to focus on things that do happen. But the absence of a thing happening can be just as important.
  • People’s rituals and routines, and how brands fit inside them.
  • What are they like? Who are they, really, when no one is looking? We wake up and go to bed with our smartphones. Mobile apps mean that participants have a hitherto impossible to obtain degree of intimacy with their researcher.
  • And with mobile apps and self-ethnography, another important layer emerges: understanding the decision to capture an event, as well as the event itself. Immediately we have a window into understanding how people curate themselves, and how they want to be perceived.

Questions are only put to participants later, when the recorded events can be sorted into themes and workshopped to help generate questions and probes.

We can use workshops to, among other things:

  • Generate questions we have never thought of asking before by carefully debating what the events might mean.
  • Engage clients with different research priorities and agendas.
  • Identify and where necessary shift deeply entrenched corporate beliefs about their consumers.

The journey

But ultimately it’s not about questions. There exists a single common denominator among all people, everywhere: we’re all trying to get somewhere. We’re all on a journey of some description. Whether it’s to buy a new car, get a new job, move house, have a baby, find happiness or reduce our mortgage payments. These journeys are not always obvious when conducting research. But they influence everything people do.

Journeys become the rules and codes which influence decisions and choices, emotions and attitudes. And they sometimes won’t reveal themselves unless we take the helicopter view of their subjects and their lives.

Journeys are the true environment for brands in culture. What is it, for example, that makes Lego such a cherished cultural brand icon? Watch a parent playing with their child for a precious hour, and we soon understand that the journey’s the thing.

How real is ‘real’?

Authentic ethnography is not necessarily about animated, chatty, articulate participants. We’re after real people, not theatre, and not everyone’s like that. Real people may be shy; they may be introverts, and not at all comfortable with the idea of a researcher hanging out with them. They may be monosyllabic types who have nothing much to say. That’s fine. It’s reality. Our favourite participants are those who take some persuasion.

Our even more favourite participants are those who are happy to wait until the end before being told what it was that we wanted to understand. Why? Because we want to minimise the risk of influencing their behaviour. If they don’t know what we’re after, they can’t curate.

However, a word of caution. We talked about not butting in with questions. But influence can never be eliminated completely. In the same way that dipping a thermometer will in itself slightly change the temperature of the liquid you’re seeking to measure, a mobile app or a participant observer will also have an impact, no matter how unobtrusive.

The key is to be aware of what’s being influenced and to factor this into the way we seek to understand it. That in itself can prove particularly enlightening.

A participant once confessed that after a few hours spent being ‘ethnographised’, she found it exhausting to keep playing the part of the person she thought she was. And there was still two days worth of research left to do…

Siamack Salari