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Breaking the Rules of Ethnography: From Observer to Intruder

A challenge for qualitative researchers to adopt a more challenging, confrontational model of ethnography. Sounds uncomfortable? It’s supposed to be.

This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Natalie Swanson will be speaking at IIeX Europe 2019 in Amsterdam. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX Europe. Click here to learn more.

Can ethnography expose emotional truths?

Traditionally, ethnographers observe. They try to avoid having any impact on natural behaviour, so they keep questions to a minimum. The aim is to understand how real people go about their real lives in real environments. It gets us past the artificial and pressured environment of the focus group where, as we know, people lie.

At home, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s so much harder to pretend you only ever feed your kids homemade organic food when your six-year old barges in and plucks a Cheestring from the fridge. So, we get closer to the truth.

This style of unobtrusive ethnography is great in lots of ways. It’s especially good at highlighting practical unmet needs that can inspire product innovation. But what about exposing emotional needs? You could watch me clean my house and wonder, why does this woman use Method on her kitchen surfaces and industrial strength, highly toxic drain cleaner down her plughole? If you asked me, I’d probably tell you that where I can I try to be kind to the planet and where I worry about germs I compromise on those standards. If I really reflect on it, the truth is I just like the pretty lilac Method bottle with its fragrant mist and when it comes to my plugs I worry about fatbergs and rotting hairballs lurking unseen that need attacking, violently. We can still lie at home, but these are more likely to be lies we also tell ourselves.

Exposing emotional truth is a lot harder – for researchers and consumers. Ethnography can paint a more realistic picture of day-to-day life, but can it uncover those sought-after human insights that inspire great brand positionings?

We need to be a little more intrusive

Don’t worry – I’m not suggesting we storm in unannounced and strap our respondent to a lie detector machine. I’m talking about creating a more challenging model for ethnography. One that helps consumers themselves get closer to the truth. Using a range of disruptive tools and tasks we can get past some of those ‘lies’ to expose deeper unmet needs and motivations.

This makes it possible to reveal the often dark, uncomfortable anxieties that brands could address more effectively and sensitively. Want to redesign a beauty hall that gets shoppers off their smartphones and back to the high street? You need to understand their deepest personal hang ups to know how to create a helpful, empowering environment. Want to effectively position a new non-toxic cleaning brand? You need to uncover the myths people create to justify their daily reliance on chemicals.

How do we do this?

Alongside a core element of genuine observation, there is a range of disruptive tools that can elicit more useful insight – here are a few:


Most daily routines are done on autopilot. We have limited awareness of what’s driving us or even what our frustrations are: we’ve normalised them. To get past this, we disrupt that routine. In advance of the ethnographic encounter, we set a task: deprive them of an essential routine for a few days or get them to do it differently. This heightens awareness of behaviour and motivation, fuelling a more productive, less ‘surface’ conversation.


Behaviour is shaped by social norms. Bringing a collective dimension to ethnography might seem contrived – and sometimes it is – but it’s certainly revealing. Involving inter-generational, family or friendship dynamics creates debate – sometimes even conflict. Observing this, in the comfort of the home environment, gently exposes personal and interpersonal inconsistencies that give us a deeper understanding of behaviour.


It’s hard to understand, let alone articulate, certain beliefs and fears. When respondents are having trouble verbalising what they are doing or imagining we can let them draw it or give it a persona. These kinds projective exercises are not uncommon in focus groups but work equally well in ethnography.


To be a disruptive ethnographer you’ve got to be able to ask uncomfortable questions and challenge what you are being told by pointing out inconsistencies. Done sensitively and in a friendly manner, this encourages reflection and sharper awareness of what is really going on. Claim to be a health-obsessed foodie and we discover a freezer bulging with ready meals and we’ll pull you up on it!

In my talk on Tuesday 19th at 2pm I’ll discuss the role of disruptive ethnography in revealing the consumer tension that inspired a new cleaning brand. Hope to see you there!

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Natalie Swanson

Natalie Swanson

Founding Director, Folk Research