Ethnography; The Anxiety, The Empathy, The Art

The team here at Boxclever are no strangers to getting out and immersing in people’s lives, whether that be spending time deeply ingrained in family homes for in home ‘cook-a-longs’, spending hours upon hours observing behaviours and social norms in supermarkets, boutique fitness spaces or travelling to the Middle East to immerse in coffee culture and the rituals and routines around it for Costa. Like all bright-eyed researchers who are passionate about understanding people this work inspires us, so I was delighted to recently attend the AQR’s ‘Ethnography Unveiled’ seminar which offered an exploration into ethnography beyond a ‘why, when, where and how’ approach.

Three sessions, brilliantly led by Oli Sweet (Head of Ethnography at Ipsos), Mark Hadfield (Founder of Meet The 85%) and Joe Bonnell (Ethnographer, Qualitative Research and Visual Anthropologist) deepened and stretched my thinking around ethnography and how to be more intentional when working with it. Here are my three key reflections I took away from the day:


Most people in the insight industry will have at some point in their career touched on the origins of ethnography and it’s rich history where academics watched, listened, and observed people in their natural environments. I would guess that many of us found the idea of this so compelling we were nudged to explore the research industry as a career, but few of us have had the opportunity to do ‘ethnography’ in the way we thought we might a la Margaret Mead.

So, what makes an ethnographer?

In his insightful session Joe introduced the concept of his own ‘ethno-anxiety’. I took this to mean the self-questioning around who and what makes an ethnographer. What constitutes ‘real’ ethno and how many hours of boots on the ground, and camera on the shoulder in lands near or far is enough to feel you are doing it right? Well, the answer is, there is no answer!

Of course, study and years of experience help – which the speakers and our team here have in spades, but I left reassured that ethnography, like all of the disciplines we touch in research is deemed a ‘lifelong’ practice. With the fundamental learnings and skills acquired through qualitative practice, we all can lean closer into ethnography and sharpen our skills in observation, active listening, and insight.

But there is of course more to being a good ethnographer than practical skill, which leads me to my next learning…


Ethnography lends itself to certain project types; it best delivers for clients in discovering the unknowns, in spotting white spaces for innovation and in immersing into communities and cultures beyond our classic research boundaries. But these project types require thinking and feeling beyond the traditional question-answer dynamic.

When truly looking deeper into people’s lives, behaviours and experiences, we need to tap into arguably the most important skill in our research toolkit, our emotions. And, most crucially, our empathy. In my experience qualitative researchers tend to be empathetic creatures when we need to be, but it can be easy when focusing on a clear commercial focus to keep eyes on the end goal, the insights, the recommendations, the output for the client and their stakeholders. But ethnography requires a different mindset and a different process, one with more pauses and patience throughout the research journey itself. While we still need to deliver for our clients, wearing our hats as ‘business anthropologists’ in ethnography.

we need to work harder to connect the human elements to the business strategy

Ethnography as such requires more time, more silences, more conflicting feelings and experiences for us as researchers to get to the crux of what we are seeing and hearing while building our understanding of how context is shaping people’s stories. This latter point is key, in not only the insights we take from these projects, but how we tell the story. In ethnography, perhaps more so than in other methodologies, we owe it to the people to not only respect them (this is a given) but to represent them with ultimate empathy, with respect to their truths and with recognition that while their lives and experiences might in some cases look very different to ours or our clients’, this showcasing of reality through an empathetic lens is ultimately what makes ethnography special.

Mark Hadfield, founder of ‘Meet The 85%’ built on these concepts shared by Ollie (Ipsos) in his session around a similar theme of representation beyond the cultural norms that generally shape our media. Championing for this type of work, these types of messages and this type of representation to be more present in the world of creative and advertising, Mark is using ethnography as a tool to bring clients closer to the realities of modern Britain outside of the London metropolis. So, while the outcomes of ethnography might not necessarily mirror the lived experiences of those commissioning it, seeing it, sharing it and feeling it is what can drive change and better business outcomes for those brave enough to watch. And this leads me to my final reflection…


When exploring ethnography, definitions vary but these sessions reinforced the notion that this discipline is both a noun and a verb. It’s a methodological research approach that we understand, can propose, can deliver, but it also should be a living creative ‘output’; a piece of ethnography that tells a story, that can be seen, heard and felt by the audience for whom it is intended to create change in some form.

Using a more creative conversation map as the input, (as opposed to a linear ‘guide’) in ethnography allows the space and freedom to be participant led, working towards the core topic of conversation and giving time to get there naturally amongst a wider set of areas that can all be influencing the topic but without directly leading to it. This reflects the journey I alluded to earlier; the fluidity, the empathy, the time investment to explore truths without being as structured as often can be the case in other research approaches.

This level of creativity around the input can lead to better insights for the output

Of course, for most of our work when it comes to outputs, film is paramount. We were reminded of the importance of capturing everything, keeping the film rolling across all touchpoints and conversations with people and, imperatively, spending as much time, if not more in reviewing and re- the footage afterwards to tease out the truths, the stories and the moments that will best communicate the findings. There is an art to this and we need to be mindful of this to do it well.

Finally, I left inspired to think beyond film alone as a creative medium for capturing and communication ethnographic work; sounds, imagery, photographs and physical items, much like we often use in our Boxclever workshops, were all demonstrated as ways to further bring rich stores and experiences to life, which leaves us with some brilliant inspiration for how we can create memorable moments in delivering these stories.

Overall, this session was a fabulous reminder of why and how ethnography is so special and why we as researchers are lucky to have the opportunity to experience it. If you would like to know more about how we can help you with your challenges around understanding people and culture, get in touch, we’d love to hear more.

For more information about our work in the Middle East, check out our experiences here.

To know more about upcoming courses with the AQR contact Lucy Hobbs and follow the AQR on LinkedIn.