Nursery Blog

A Qualitative Manifesto: Why we should be using more Ethnography in Market Research

Part 1: For Ethnography in Market Research

As qualitative market researchers, clients come to us wanting to use tried and tested research methods such as focus groups and depth interviews to better understand their customers.

But let’s be honest, when we are conducting qualitative research, probing for opinions and views on a product or brand, we are removing participants from the lived realities of everyday life…

And it is this exact context, the mundane of the everyday, that we find and interact with these products and brands, coming to make them meaningful.

Figure 1: The normal question is- what can these people tell us about our ideas and product?
But should the question be, what is behind these people, that they can teach us about their lives, so we can learn more about our product’s potential to be in their lives too.

It is from this perspective that I make the case for the value of ethnography in market research.
By putting people, not products, at the centre of research, we are better enabled to understand customers, culture and decision making in a deep, contextually rich and ultimately more insightful way.

So what is ethnography?

Ethnography has its origins in the discipline of Anthropology: “anthro” meaning human and “ology” meaning study of. Put simply, Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human on a cultural, social and sometimes even biological level.

One of the forefathers of anthropology, Clifford Geertz, said of humanity: “man is suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”

In life, we create meaning through how we relate: to others, objects and ideas. Likewise as we interact with and relate to things in society, we infer meaning based on previous understanding.

These are the webs of significance which allow us to negotiate our social world.

These are the webs of significance we seek to explore through ethnographic research.

But what does this mean for market research?

One of the big observations in ethnography is that people say one thing and behave quite differently. This is where the power of ethnography lies.

By observing people in their natural habitat, we follow how they think, feel, act and make decisions in daily life.

We see the sources of influence, which consumers fail to recognise or chose to forget.
We don’t just observe, we might participate too, joining in with the activities of another to challenge our own presumptions and better understand their cultural world.

How does this differ to other qualitative approaches in market research?

By placing the individual, not the product, advert or brand, at the centre of observation, we can find out more about the consumer; their lives and the area of life within which the product fits in.

We can unearth beliefs, emotions, assumptions and even unarticulated needs which shape decision making, revealing opportunities and potential to make our product more meaningful in their lives too.

Figure 2: Putting the individual at the centre of research, as opposed to a brand or product, can produce deep insight in to human life, identifying potential for growth, new market opportunities and product placement and innovation.


True ethnographic research is undeniably resource-heavy in comparison to other popular research methods. It requires more time observing participants and analysing qualitative data.

Samples are small and specific; research values studying particular groups in great detail, rather than a shallow understanding of a broad group, as is often the case in other methods of market research.

It is, however, highly rewarding and can offer deep, holistically enriching insight in to culture, market and consumer life. 

Adaptations for MR

Ethnography as a way of looking at the world, as opposed to a strict research method, can inspire depth in market research.

Technology has made it considerably easier for researchers to use adopt ethnographic principles in addressing client challenges.

For example, at The Nursery we use self-ethnography- utilising digital technology to allow participants to self-record and report on daily life- providing us with a time and cost-effective window to observe people as they negotiate everyday activities, such as shopping and cooking.

Very useful when you are researching emerging markets and trends!

Figure 3: Imagine you are a fruit and veg brand. You have always wanted to know what makes consumers buy this or that. Well, why not use self-ethnography to see for yourself how people make decisions and relate to products, (as well as themselves) in everyday life!


If this post did not persuade you to throw away all your old research methods and take up ethnography unequivocally, that is okay. Ethnography was not designed for market research! It was designed to understand the other deeply: on cultural, social, personal and emotional levels.

As anthropology has taught us, it is in seeking to understand the other, that we find out more about ourselves.

So, if you take anything from this post, let it be this: studying the other tells your more about yourself!  Tune in to the next instalment of the Ethnographic Manifesto where we will be examining this principle of relating and “otherness” in more detail, asking how relating and semiotics can shed light on brand identity and meaning.

Florence Harry

Research Executive