When ethnography becomes a joke

For a number of years, we have witnessed a diminishing appetite for ethnographic work among commercial clients, writes Patricia Sunderland, PhD and founder of Cultural Research and Analysis, on the site of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA).

Competition and challenges from new methodologies are understandable and to be expected. Yet an undercurrent of ‘we do not want to do ethnography because we tried it and we did not get anything out of it’ has been unsettling. More troubling, a few months ago a client put it more bluntly: ‘No. Ethnography no way. It’s a joke around here when you mention it.’

How could the methodology that I learned as an anthropologist and built my career around in the world of qualitative research have become a joke. And even more importantly, what must we do to retrieve ethnography from that dustbin of bad jokes?

She argues that we need to go back and ensure that we always deliver on the basics of solid ethnographic work:

“Ethnographic work seems to have been undergoing a process of lightening in which observation alone, a person alone, or even the word alone will suffice. […] In much current commercial ethnography, it is almost as if the importance of the analysis has been forgotten.”