Ethnographic research is a qualitative research approach that involves observing variables in their natural environments or habitats in order to arrive at objective research outcomes. As the name suggests, ethnographic research has its roots in ethnography which is the in-depth study of people, cultures, habits and mutual differences. 

This type of systematic investigation interacts continuously with the variables and depends, almost entirely, on the data gathered from the observation of the research variables. Ethnographic research is sometimes referred to as a thick description because of its in-depth observation and description of the subjects.

In recent times, ethnography has been adopted to the internet in the form of netnography. This means that researchers can now study how online communities interact in order to identify social communication patterns. 

What is Netnography?

Simply put, netnography is online ethnography research, that is, it is the conducting of ethnography research via the internet. Netnography adapts the ethnographic research methodology to the study of online communities in order to discover the natural behavioral patterns of internet users. 

As a modern model of ethnographic investigation, netnography uses the data gathered through digital communications in varying online communities to trace and analyze patterns of social interaction. Just like ethnography research, netnography also requires close observation of interactional patterns in order to arrive at the most objective conclusions. 

Types of Ethnographic Research  

There are several types of ethnographic research, namely; business, educational and medical ethnographic research. All based on different fields of human endeavor and each type is defined by specific characteristics. Ethnographic research is a multi-dimensional research design that can be adapted to different fields including business, medicine, education, and psychology. 

Business Ethnographic Research

Business ethnographic research is a research design that involves observing consumer habits and target markets in order to discover true market needs and the overall disposition to your product or service. It is an extremely beneficial research tool that can help your organization identify its customers’ needs and satisfy market demands. 

This research method combines different techniques including fieldwork, physical interviews and online surveys in order to gather useful data on the consumer habits of target markets. Business ethnographers use these techniques to analyze how clients interact with an organization’s services and come up with useful conclusions that can be used to develop effective market strategies. 

In carrying out a business ethnographic research, it is necessary to work with a customer or client-oriented framework that focuses on target markets rather than the business. The aim of this research design is to discover recurring client behavioral patterns that can serve as key market insights.

In order to gather useful data, the researcher must ask the right questions. Some question samples for business ethnographic research include the following:

  • What do you enjoy about this product or service?
  • Why do you use this product?
  • What specific needs does the product meet for you?
  • What specific needs does the product fail to meet?
  • Does the pricing of the product equate its value?

Educational Ethnographic Research 

Educational ethnographic research is a research design that involves observing teaching and learning methods and how these affect classroom behaviors. This research model pays attention to pedagogy, its effects on learning outcomes and overall engagements by stakeholders within the classroom environment. 

Typically, educational ethnographic research studies students’ attitudes, academic motivations, and dispositions to learning. To do this, the researcher combines non-participant observation methods with direct participant observation techniques in order to gather the most relevant and objective data. 

Question samples for educational ethnography research include:

  • Do you enjoy this teaching method?
  • Does the teacher allow for feedback in his or her classes?
  • Does the teaching method communicate objectives clearly?
  • What is the student’s attitude toward learning?

What is Pedagogy: Definition, Principles & Application

Medical Ethnographic Research 

Medical ethnographic research is a type of ethnographic research used for qualitative investigations in healthcare. This research design helps medical practitioners to understand the dispositions of patients ranging from the simplest to the most complex behavioral patterns. 

Medical ethnographic research enables the healthcare provider to have access to a wealth of information that will prove useful for improving a patient’s overall experience. For example, through ethnographic research, a healthcare product manufacturer is able to understand the needs of the target market and this will, in turn, influence the product’s design. 

In addition, medical ethnographic research exposes healthcare professionals to insights on the complex needs of patients, their reaction to prescriptions and treatment methods plus recommendations for improvement. Here are a few questions that can be used for medical ethnographic research:

  • For how long have you used this drug?
  • For how long have you been on this treatment?
  • What positive changes have you noticed so far?
  • Have you noticed any side effects so far?
  • Does this medication or treatment meet your needs?


Method of Ethnographic Research 

Typically, there are 5 basic methods of ethnographic research which are naturalism, participant observation, interviews, surveys, and archival research. Carrying out ethnographic research will involve one or more research techniques depending on the field, sample size, and purpose of the research

  • Live and work

Also known as naturalism, live and work is an ethnography research technique in which the researcher observes the research variables in their natural environment in order to identify and record behavioral patterns. It may involve living in the natural environment of the group or individuals being researched for a period of time in order to record their activities. 

Naturalism is the oldest method of ethnographic research and it may create some degree of rapport between the ethnographer and the research variables. When using this method, the researcher must ensure that he or she limits interference with the subjects to the barest minimum in order to arrive at the most objective research outcomes. 

Naturalistic observation can be disguised or undisguised. Disguised naturalistic observation involves recording the subjects in such a way that they are unaware of being studied while in undisguised naturalistic observation, the research subjects are aware of the fact that they are being understudied. 

The live and work method allows the researcher to gather the most accurate and most relevant data as a result of observing the research subjects in their natural environment. However, this technique is not favored by modern ethnographers, especially in fields like medicine and education, because it is expensive and it takes a lot of time. 

  • Participant Observation

Participant observation is a data collection method in ethnography research where the ethnographer gathers information by participating actively and interacting with the research subjects. This method is quite similar to life and work techniques. 

The major difference between participant observation and live and naturalism is that in the former, the ethnographer becomes an active member of the group being observed. This gives the researcher access to information that can only be made available to members of the group. 

There are 2 types of participant observation which are, disguised participant observation and undisguised participant observation. In the former, the ethnographer pretends to be a part of the research subjects while hiding his or her true identity of being a researcher. 

In undisguised participant observation, the ethnographer becomes a part of the group being observed and reveals his or her identity as a researcher to the group. This technique is more prone to reactivity, unlike disguised participant observation. 

The primary advantage of participant observation as a research technique is that the ethnographer is exposed to more information. He or she is better able to understand the experiences and habits of the research subjects from the participant’s point of view. 

There are a number of limitations associated with this research technique. First, the presence of the researcher can affect the behaviors of the research subjects; especially with undisguised participant observation, and this can affect the authenticity of the result. 

In addition, there can be the issue of biased research outcomes. As a result of the relationship between the researcher and the group, the ethnographer may become less objective and this can lead to experimental bias which affects the research outcomes. 

  • Interview

An ethnographic interview is a qualitative research method that merges immersive observation with one-on-one discussions in order to arrive at the most authentic research outcomes. In this research design, the ethnographer converses with members of the research group as they engage in different activities related to the research context. 

During this contextual inquiry, the researcher gathers relevant data related to the goals and behaviors of the members of the research group. As the ethnographer observes the research subject in its natural environment, he or she has the opportunity to ask questions that reveal more information about the research group.

An ethnographic interview is usually informal and spontaneous, and it typically stems from the relationship between the researcher and the subjects. The ethnographic interview often results from the participant observation method where the ethnographer actively engages with the members of the research group in order to find out more about their lives. 

As a two-way research method, an ethnographic interview allows the researcher to gather the most relevant and authentic information from the research group. However, it can also be affected by experimental bias as a result of the relationship between the ethnographer and the subjects. 

  • Surveys

 An ethnography survey is an inductive research method that is used to gather information about the research subject. This research design is also referred to as analytic induction and it involves outlining hypotheses in the form of survey questions and administering these questions in the research environment. 

Administering a survey will help the ethnographer gather relevant data, analyze this data and arrive at objective findings. The aim of carrying out an analytic induction is to discover the causative factors of certain habits of the research group and come up with accurate explanations for these behaviors. 

In order to gather the most relevant responses using this, it is best to include different question types in your survey. Likert scale questions, open-ended questions, multiple-choice questions, and close-ended questions are common types of ethnography survey questions. 

To make your ethnography survey even more effective, you can create and administer it online using data-collection tools like Formplus. Formplus allows you to build your ethnography survey form in minutes using the Formplus builder and you can easily share your survey with respondents via available multiple sharing options.

High survey drop-out rates and survey response bias are some of the major limitations of this research method. However, this method is fast and cost-effective especially when carried out online and if done right, it can reveal useful insights about a research group. 

  • Archival Research

Archival research is a qualitative approach to ethnographic research in which the researcher analyzes existing research, documents and other sources of information about the research group in order to discover relevant information. This method can also be referred to as understanding.

Archival research adopts ethnography to a collection of related documents from the past which substitute for actual physical presence in the research environment. It pays absolute attention to every piece of information about the research variables. 

As a method of data collection in ethnography, archival research reduces the chances of experimental biases since the researcher does not directly interact with the subjects. Also, it allows the ethnographer to have access to a large repository of research data that results in more accurate findings. 

However, because archival research is often subject to randomization, its findings may not accurately reflect the research group. Also, archival data is not full-proof as there may be biases when the data is recorded and this will affect the research outcomes. 

When to Use Ethnography Research

Ethnographic research should be used in the early stages of user-focused systematic investigations. This is because ethnography research helps you to gather useful information about the dispositions, goals, and habits of the research variables in specific contexts. 

Ethnography research is most suitable for complex research processes especially in markets and customer settings. In market research, ethnography allows organizations to gain insights into consumer habits and receive first-hand feedback on the extent to which their product or service meets the needs of target markets.

This research design is also useful for examining social behaviors and interactions. It is extremely beneficial in the study employees’ disposition to organizational work culture and policies. 

While ethnographic research helps businesses bridge product gaps and improve consumers’ experience, there are certain situations where this research design is counter-productive. Ethnographic research should not be used in processes that require statistically valid analysis, test-runs or group comparisons. 

How to Conduct Ethnographic Research with Online Surveys 

Formplus is a data-gathering tool that allows you to create and administer online surveys for ethnography research easily while saving time and cost, and improving your research sample size. 

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to conduct ethnographic research with online surveys using Formplus: 

Access Formplus Builder

In the Formplus builder, you can easily create your ethnography survey form by dragging and dropping preferred fields into your form. To access the Formplus builder, you will need to create an account on Formplus

Once you do this, sign in to your account and click on “Create Form ” to begin. 


Edit Form Title

  • Click on the field provided to input your form title, for example, “ETHNOGRAPHIC SURVEY”.


Edit Form 

  • Click on the edit button to edit the form.
  • Add Fields: Drag and drop preferred form fields into your form in the Formplus builder inputs column. There are several field input options for survey forms in the Formplus builder.
  • Edit fields
  • Click on “Save”
  • Preview form.


Customize Form

Formplus allows you to add unique features to your ethnographic survey form. You can personalize your form using various customization options in the builder. Here, you can add background images, your organization’s logo, and other features. You can also change the display theme of your form. 


Save your ethnographic survey form and share the link with respondents. 

Advantages of Ethnographic Research 

  • Ethnographic research allows you to have access to a wider and more accurate data scope than other research designs. This qualitative research approach collects first-hand information about the research variables and gives the ethnographer a wider range of data to work with thereby resulting in more objective research outcomes.
  • Ethnography research enables the researcher to partake in the experiences of the research variables in their natural environment.
  • Ethnography research accounts for complex group behavioral patterns and highlights interrelationships among research variables.
  • It helps researchers understand the scope, reason(s) and context of the habits of research variables.

Disadvantages of Ethnographic Research

  • Ethnographic research requires expertise and it is time-consuming. It takes time to observe research variables in order to arrive at cogent findings.
  • Ethnographic research is capital-intensive too.
  • It is subject to experimental biases stemming from the relationship between the subjects and the researcher.
  • Issues of data sample size can also arise with ethnographic research. This is because small data samples can suggest false assumptions about the disposition of the research group while large quantities of data may not be processed effectively.

Risks Associated with Ethnographic Research

Unlike other research methods, ethnographic research tends to be sporadic and extends for a long period of time. And although respondents can stop participating in the research process at any time, there are still a few risks they are likely to encounter during this research

1. Psychological Risks

During uncomfortable topics, respondents may feel psychological triggers like guilt, fear, sadness, etc This can cause them to lose interest in the research or pull out from participating. In some cases, research participants may need constant reassurance to encourage them.

2. Social Risks

Depending on the research subject, there are social risks that are posed to a respondent during ethnographic research. These risks include stigmatization or condemnation from their community particularly if confidential information is shared and friction in personal relationships. This can further lead to a psychological risk. 

3. Physical and Economical Risks

Although these risks are uncommon in ethnographic research, it is imperative that you prepare for them as a researcher. In politically volatile communities, or research that involves tedious physical activity, physical risks are on the high side.

Economic risks can arise when research participants are removed from their jobs or limited from carrying out profitable ventures.

During your study, ensure that you disclose the possible risks to your research participants and elaborate on how you intend to mitigate these risks. 

FAQ’s on Ethnographic Research

  • Does Ethnographic research come before or after a survey?

Most research uses data collected from various studies to validate a hypothesis or seek better clarity. So it is often conducted after a large-scale survey or quantitative segmentation study. However, it all largely depends on what the goal of the research is.

  • Is ethnographic research qualitative or quantitative?

Ethnographic research is a qualitative research method where researchers study their respondents in their own environment

  • How long does an ethnographic research project take?

The duration of your ethnographic research completely depends on the scope of your study. However, they usually last for a couple of months.

  • Do ethnographers use field guides?

Yes. In ethnographic research, there are field guides to help guide the research process. However, it’s just a tool, and most times, it isn’t followed verbatim on the field. 

  • How do I create a database for comparative analysis during Ethnographic?

You can compile your data using the Formplus PDF Builder to create PDFs of your analysis or create forms for documentation and save them using the secure Formplus storage.


Ethnographic research helps individuals and organizations to gain useful insights into users’ behaviors as influenced by their natural environment. This form of systematic investigation bridges the gap between the ethnographer and the research variables because the researcher has the opportunity to be a part of their experiences. 

Administering online surveys for ethnographic research will speed up your data collection process and would allow you to save costs and have more control over your sample size. You can use Formplus to create and administer online ethnographic research surveys easily. 

  • busayo.longe
  • on 14 min read


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