Empathy and Ethnography

Those Ol’ College Days

When I was in high school and it came time to select a college to attend, I was completely at sea. How to pick the right one?

With the next phase of my life on the horizon, I set out to research my options and find the best possible school for me. I started out by reading everything I could about each school, but quickly realized that I was never going to truly understand these different schools and their unique cultures without experiencing them for myself. So I embarked upon an ethnographic study, though I didn’t know at the time that it was called that, and began visiting schools. I spent the night on different campuses, talked to students, and came away with observations and artifacts from each visit. When I finally made my selection, I knew my chosen school’s academic merits and benefits but ultimately, it was the true sense of the school I got as a result of my ethnographic research that allowed me to make the right decision.

Do I have to wear a loin cloth?

Beginning in the 1980s, the use of ethnographic research in the business world began to emerge as a new, effective source of consumer insights. By the 1990s, many Fortune 100 companies were even hiring their own corporate ethnographers to help them gain a better understanding of what was happening with their consumers. Ethnography became a key research tool to influence design, innovation, and consumer behavior. But what exactly is ethnography?

In anthropology, ethnography is the first-hand study of human cultures – understanding people in their natural habitats. Traditionally, ethnography elicits images of researchers living in foreign cultures, wearing loin cloths and eating bugs with the locals for years on end…a complete immersion in the culture that they are studying. In the academic setting, this isn’t that far off, but in business, the cultural immersion of ethnography isn’t quite so extreme. The practice of ethnography as a market research tool is focused on understanding the “whats” and “hows” of consumer behavior by spending extended, unobtrusive periods of time immersed in a culture to understand what values are important, how those values take shape in behaviors and what the social norms are.

The “What” of the “Whats”

Ethnography in the consumer research setting is a valuable research tool, however it also poses the opportunity to be under-utilized. While it is valuable to observe and note the “whats” that are happening in the field, if used just for this task, the qualitative nature of the work has the potential to be transformed to a mere list-making exercise. Research that stops at observation will only produce a collection of data points and interesting artifacts without taking it a step further to understand what the “whats” all mean.

Two Kinds of What

Anthropologists use two terms to explain the kinds of data they collect. The first of these is called the “etic” account, which means simply observing a subject’s behavior and forming an outsider’s view. It is a collection of perceived values and behaviors from a person of one community observing another. When used correctly, this data can be very enlightening, but it also has the potential to start blending together and becoming a laundry list devoid of insight.

At Brandtrust, we are especially attuned in our ethnographic research approach to observing and understanding human behavior through the “emic” approach, which is a description of the culture from an insider’s perspective. The emic approach may seem like a near impossible task for a market researcher who is trying to garner quick insights into the lifestyle and culture of their respondents, but this approach speaks more to the mindset with which one observes subjects. Immersion into a culture and observing a subject in their natural habitat are one thing, but it’s making such observations in an empathetic manner that opens the door to deeper, even emic, understanding of why they are doing such things.

You Can’t Spell Ethnography Without Empathy

At Brandtrust, we understand that to conduct a successful ethnographic project, one must enter the study with the mindset of creating empathy for the consumer. We seek to understand the “whats” and “hows” of their behavior by stepping into their shoes and looking at the world from their perspective. By taking the observations we see in the “field,” and then closely analyzing them in the “lab” – we’re able to identify the most relevant behaviors that we’re observing and piece together the significance of these behaviors. When paired with our Emotional Inquiry® methodology, we are able to take that empathy one step further and create a full picture of the real world behaviors, feelings, and motivations that drive consumer behavior.

For more background on Brandtrust’s approaches to ethnographic research, click here.


Timothy De Waal Malefyt. “Understanding the Rise of Consumer Ethnography: Branding Technomethodologies in the New Economy.”

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