Rethinking virtual ethnography

The author shares four ways virtual ethnography can bring new value to research, while discussing how it may evolve in the future.

At its core, ethnography is rooted in our ability to observe human behavior and the interaction of humans as social beings. As practitioners, ethnography calls for us to be both insightful researchers and powerful storytellers. 

Since this discipline emerged as a branch of anthropology (initially used to understand remote, native tribes and cultures), ethnographic work has been primarily seen as an in-person exercise, with physical presence recognized as the ideal way of obtaining a holistic understanding of the people under study.   

And, even as virtual ethnography has emerged as an approach for understanding the behaviors of humans in their physical worlds via digital means, the primary application of ethnography among insights professionals has continued to lean heavily into being in-home or in-store with consumers.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the imperative for virtual approaches to take center stage as the only way of connecting with and learning from consumers. Like so many other adjustments swiftly forced upon us, shifting from a physical to virtual approach has uncovered unexpected possibilities that would have gone unrealized otherwise. This pivot is proving more than just a stopgap in that it has the potential to create unique value to ethnography that in-person can’t. And it does so without neglecting the core tenets of the discipline. 

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