Qualitative research & evaluation methods:

Ethnography / observation

An anthropological method that has been migrating from the social sciences to marketing and social-sector research, ethnography is the observation of particular cultures, contexts, practices, or processes by outside researchers.

Commercial ethnographers might study how teenagers use their cell phones by hanging out with kids in their basements and going with them to the mall. In our line of work, the “cultures” in question might be families attending an art exhibition.

Ethnography’s growing popularity has to do with the realization that consumers—including cultural and education consumers—aren’t always fully conscious of the thoughts, feelings, and values that animate their behaviors. So, in addition to listening to what they say in interviews or focus groups, it can be revealing to watch what they do. Your organization can learn a great deal about how audiences use and interact with your programming, services, staff, and physical environments. You can also observe them (with their permission, of course) before and after their interaction with your organization, helping you see how the experiences you offer fit into their lives...and how they could fit even better.

Ethnography is often used in conjunction with other research methods, such as in-context interviews or intercept surveys, to create a multi-dimensional picture of the program or target audience. It’s a powerful tool in formative and summative evaluation of, for example, museum exhibits (especially for curators who are ready to go beyond the “tracking & timing” studies of years past) and other informal learning programs. And there’s nothing like ethnography for illuminating how underserved audiences and other newcomers experience cultural organizations when they do attend.

Our ethnographic research projects are led by trained social scientists. Based on research objectives and questions defined in partnership with your organization, we develop an ethnography protocol and semi-structured interview guide. Whether the research takes us out to city streets or into concert halls, we take careful field notes and document our observations with photos, video, or audio recordings for later analysis.

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March 14, 2014 | Nicole Baltazar

Multiculturalism is key for creating inclusive arts experiences


Last month, Coca-Cola aired its now-famous Super Bowl ad depicting people from various racial, ethnic, and cultural groups singing “America the Beautiful” together in different languages. Among the instant outpouring of polarized reactions to this ad rang much praise for its depiction of a multicultural America. Yet the ad provoked a slew of negative responses as well. Many of the ad’s detractors questioned whether this multicultural America could ever feel as cohesive as an America whose citizens speak a common language, and therefore have taken great strides toward assimilating into a common culture.

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In practice...

Ethnography and its close cousin, in-context interviewing, are useful in a wide range of research and evaluation contexts. For example...

  • understanding how art-making fits into the lives of immigrant populations living near a community art school
  • learning how classical music subscribers use the concert as part of a whole “evening out”
  • seeing how history museum visitors learn from an exhibit...and from each other
  • observing how college applicants interact with campuses on their college visits

...and many other functions in the worlds of culture and higher education.