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Term of the Week: Ethnography

What is it?

A systematic method used to perform qualitative research aimed at understanding cultures, groups, and organizations.

Why is it important?

Ethnography has evolved, spanning across several anthropology specialties, and ethnographers have joined forces with communication science and market research practitioners. The discipline has moved away from rigorous academia toward a more pragmatic and fast-paced approach. Some large corporations use ethnographers for market research, but the potential of ethnography is still largely overlooked[Ladner 2012].

Why does a technical communicator need to know this?

Ethnography provides a structured methodology for understanding and interpreting the cultural constructs in which people live.

In corporate environments, ethnography can inform market research, user experience design, global usability testing, persona development, and audience analysis. In these cases, companies look for contradictions between what their customers declare they do and how they really act, so they can identify their customers’ hidden needs. What people say, what people do, and what people say they do don’t always align, and this misalignment can expose needs or barriers that a product or service could resolve.

In addition, cultural differences can cause people to perceive or interact with a product or service differently than expected. In his work for IBM on cultural dimensions, Geert Hofstede attempted to define and model these behaviors[Hofstede]. Others have since built on this work[Burrow 2008][Anderson 2009].

Despite concerns that corporate ethnographic research lacks rigor, such research can inform not only the design and development of new products and services, but also allow the discovery and investigation of new markets. Companies such as Intel have interpreted their customers’ needs and adjusted their strategies accordingly, for instance, by creating new business units.

Ethnography can provide these insights:

  • Ensure that content resonates with the audience and translates well.
  • Avoid cultural blunders[Brooks 2013].
  • Adjust culture-bound metaphors and images.
  • Choose whether or not to translate product names, slogans, ads, etc.
  • Avoid costly errors or unnecessary rebranding.

Used well, ethnography can improve a company’s globalization efforts and give it an advantage in the global market[LaVecchia 2016][Heath 1999].


About Laura Di Tullio

Photo of Laura Di Tullio

Laura Di Tullio has worked in Italy, France, Belgium, and the U.S., gaining international experience and acquiring knowledge of different cultures. She currently works in cross-cultural training and terminology management for clients, including large multinational corporations. She holds Master's degrees in Terminology Management and in Translation and a BA in Applied Foreign Languages. She presents at various conferences on the topics of effective communication across cultures and of terminology management.

Term: Ethnography