Ethnographic research is a method conceived in the 19th century as a branch of anthropology based on the “participant observation”.
At the beginning, this tool implied that the investigating anthropologist became part of the community under examination, so as to understand the internal mechanisms and dynamics and try and enter “people’s mind” to understand their behaviours.

The application of these techniques to market research aims at achieving the same goal: going into “consumers’ head” to explain their behaviour, or the reasons for choosing when shopping, for example.

What is ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research is a research technique based on the analysis of the symbolic and relational dynamics observed in specific usage contexts.


The analytical observation of consumption and the ways of using products in – bigger or smaller, more or less organized – groups or communities can provide companies with important qualitative data, useful to improve, change or best advertise their products.


This kind of observation, which borrows the adjective “participant” from anthropology, needs the researcher to immerse in the context, become familiar with it and part of it so that the data can be gathered in a more natural and spontaneous way, more faithful to reality.

Where, when and how

The settings where the researcher can immerse to are several: from a mono-brand store to a big supermarket, to a street in the city centre.
Any occasion where consumers can be observed “in action” will be suitable for this kind of research.

The observation can be supported by technology: cameras and video-cameras can make the data collection process more careful and precise.
The results of these studies are often integrated with data from other research methodologies.


In terms of duration too studies can be extremely variable: it definitely depends on the complexity of the data to be collected and the number of variables to be taken into account during the qualitative analysis of the collected testimonies.


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by Pierluigi Salzano