This is an edited extract of my PhD methodology chapter covering ethnography and ethnographic methods. I hope this will be useful for wider audience, especially students who seek to understand the basic tenants of the approach. Full references are listed at the end of the entry.
Ethnography has its origins in anthropology and sociology (Carson et al., 2001; Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007) and has been adapted to become one of the indispensable methodologies of interpretive consumer research (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994; Schouten and McAlexander, 1995; Belk and Costa, 1998; Hill 1991; Hein et al. 2011). It has been discussed as a research methodology which takes a collaborative approach with research informants to co-construct an understanding of their culturally infused meanings (Schembri and Boyle, 2013). Further, as Arnould and Wallendorf (1994, p.485) explained it is not just a form of data collection, but also a methodology that aims to understand the ways in which culture is simultaneously constructed by peoples’ behaviours and experiences. It is a creative process which enables experiencing, interpreting, and representing culture and society (Schembri and Boyle, 2012). The emic (subjective significance of experience) and etic (the researcher constructed, comparative, and interpreted significance of experience) nature of ethnography (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994) is essential in understanding what people do in their everyday, mundane, cultural and sub-cultural contexts (Stebbins, 1997), understandings beyond what people say (Goulding, 2005), and interpreting their multiple and subjective realities (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994).
In consumer culture research, ethnography has become a particularly useful approach when seeking to understand socio-cultural and situational meanings that underpin consumption behaviour (Mariampolski, 2006; Arnould and Price, 2006). When conducted appropriately ethnographic research methods have produced holistic insights into consumption practices in exclusive subcultures (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995), undesirable life circumstances (Hill, 1991), everyday lived experiences (Hein et al., 2011; Daly, 2001), and private family celebrations (Wallendorf and Arnould, 1991). In addition, ethnographic research design is flexible in adapting to understand personal and sensitive emotions entangled in everyday social interactions (Gumperz, 1981) and also especially useful in understanding meanings in everyday and mundane consumption practices (Cappellini and Parsons, 2012) because of their capability to observe informants in their natural setting over long periods of time while informants carry out their everyday tasks. However, negotiating access to the research contexts to explore their intricate consumption practices has always been a challenge for ethnographic researchers (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007). In addition, gaining access is also important in terms of longitudinal immersion in ethnographic research (Hein et al., 2011), which enable the ethnographic researchers to understand changing consumer meanings over a long period of time. This adaptive and flexible approach facilitates trust in the informant-researcher relationship and makes informants feels more comfortable in the researcher presence.
There is no universal framework for conducting ethnographic research (Hammersley and Atkinson 2007). Instead, the composition of the approach should be decided on by the nature of the research phenomenon such as its complexity, frequency, and duration and also on the researcher’s prior experience and his understanding of the methods (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007). As depicted in literature (Wallendorf and Arnould 1991; Belk and Costa, 1998), each ethnographic approach can integrate a unique blend of different research methods and still retain its capacity to produce rich data from multiple methods into useful etic interpretations. Especially as it embraces disjunctures of perspectives (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994), adopting multiple methods furnishes rich interpretations of cultural meanings in complex research topics.
Conventionally, ethnographic researchers have integrated various observational methods (Wallendorf and Arnould, 1991), different forms of interviews (Belk et al., 1989; Hogg et al., 2004), and elicitation techniques (Heisley and Levy, 1991). For example, ethnographic observations help overcome self-censorship, social desirability, and biases of acquiescence (Arnould, 1998, p.93) by focusing on perspectives in action (Belk and Kozinets, 2005). Ethnographic interviews bring ‘reflexive or prospective’ accounts (perspectives of action) of meanings that relate to informants’ past behaviours and future expectations (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). However, much of the richest forms of ethnographic data are generated from informal conversations, which takes place during a range of everyday experiences, predominantly, because of its spontaneous and informant-driven nature (Elliott and Jankel-Elliott, 2003).
In addition to these traditional methods of data collection (Carson et al., 2001), researchers have also adopted various methods such as pictures (Holbrook, 2005; 2006), video (Belk and Kozinets, 2005; Basil, 2011), performative techniques (Foster, 2012), and various online methods (Kozinets, 2010; 2015). Virtual (Hine, 2000) and social media ethnography (Postill and Pink, 2012) have also contributed towards extending the flexibility and adaptability of ethnographic research. For example, using Facebook (Baker, 2013) and other internet and social networks (Jackson, 2012) in ethnographic research has enabled ethnographic researchers to explore sensitive emotions and understand complex social issues in more practical and less obtrusive ways (Langer and Beckman, 2005).
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