Ethnography and Field Studies

Ethnography and field studies are user research methods that draw from anthropology to study how users behave in context. These methods observe behavior in a natural setting and often occur over time, offering more long-term or continuous insight into participant behavior.

Techniques

Common ethnography techniques in user research include:

  • Field studies: Field studies refer to any studies conducted in the participant’s natural context or location.
  • Contextual inquiry: Researchers conduct an interview in context as participants complete tasks.
  • Digital ethnography: Researchers observe an online community or space.
  • Auto-ethnography: The researcher is the subject of their own study, and examines their own behavior.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things.” Behavioral research methods like ethnography and field studies offer insight into what people do in practice, alongside attitudinal research methods that focus on what people say.

Role of the Researcher

In ethnographic research, the researcher may navigate the group being studied as a participant, observer, or somewhere in between. In some longitudinal ethnographic studies, researchers who begin as observers may become more involved in the communities they are studying as a participant over time.

Researchers should also consider the ethics of whether to disclose their identity as a researcher to the study group (overt) vs. whether to conceal their identity (covert), and how knowledge of the researcher’s presence might influence the behavior of those being studied (the Hawthorne effect).

Resources

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