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Are You An Ethnographer, Or Just Plain Nosey?

NZ Marketing Magazine - May 2001

By Theo Muller


Ethnography - the study of observed behaviour in a natural context isn't really a new research technique. Nissan Motor Co. redesigned its Infinity car in the early nineties after anthropologists helped the company recognize that Japanese notions of luxury-as-simplicity were very different from American yen for visible opulence. A few years later Volkswagen used the technique to reposition the brand toward active users with its "Drivers Wanted" campaign.

But here in New Zealand, ethnography is not widely used in qualitative research, largely because researchers in this country are unfamiliar with the technique. Given the number of participants in a recent seminar on ethnography in Wellington, I am not convinced that this is going to change in a hurry.

At the seminar, Dr Hy Mariampolski from New York, an acknowledged expert in this field, defined ethnography as "a qualitative research technique by using direct observation in the natural environment".

The best way to appreciate Ethnography is by comparing it with Focus Groups - both legitimate qualitative research techniques used in different situations. One is not a substitute for the other.



As a qualitative research technique, focus group work has earned a firm place for itself in New Zealand market, social and political research. Its most successful use is in conjunction with a quantitative study either pre- or post survey, with the aim of delving deeper into the background of issues to be researched or issues that were uncovered in a survey.

It's my bet that ethnographic research techniques will be used more often in the future. New Zealanders are traditionally early adopters of everything new. So why weren't there more researchers at the ethnography seminar? Hmmm.

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