The Basic Idea
Ethnography is a way to tell stories about people’s lives. More specifically, it takes a first-person perspective, diving into their lives without influence from the observer.
Originally stemming from anthropology, this method of first-hand observation and interviews has permeated almost every field of social science research and the world of business. Whether it be a product’s user experience or a remote population, ethnographic studies have several upsides: they’re cheap, can be done in small teams, and allow you to observe changes over time.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Like many aspects of anthropology, ethnography has its share of problematic origins. Ethnographic research was originally used by colonial ‘anthropologists’ who used ethnographic techniques to ‘other’ non-Europeans, which they then used to justify racist belief systems.1
Today, however, the techniques have significantly developed, and researchers have used these techniques for a variety of purposes.
For example, ethnographic research can be used in the business world to uncover new market trends or product positioning. By holistically looking at how users interact with the world around them, businesses can better position themselves to solve users’ problems.
The Behavioral Science
A technique from anthropology may seem at odds with insights from neuroscience, sociology, and psychology - but ethnographic research can be used to complement behavioral science.
How? Behavioral science can suffer from a lack of qualitative data.2
Think about it like this: the point of psychology and sociology (the basis of behavioral science) is designed to draw generalizable conclusions about people and their societies. From this, we make lists of biases or behaviors we see replicated and we quantify them. This allows us to generate interventions and solutions for these general problems.
But not every experience can be generalized. While we can ignore the quirks and marginalize them to redundant variables, their effects may overwhelm our rigorous scientific data. Ethnographic studies can help us understand potential confounding variables, strengthening behavioral science research by ensuring its strength.
At the same time, ethnography can benefit from behavioral science. We are subject to many cognitive biases, and even the most unbiased anthropologist may make heuristic judgments about their findings.
This can be disastrous for research and businesses, as we often don’t even detect our failings in logical reasoning. By keeping behavioral science in your back pocket, you can ensure that decisions are data-driven, unbiased, and deeply understanding of real-life human behavior.
Ethnographic studies can bring you to some remote locations – they once brought us to the mouth of the Brazilian Amazon.
Currently, the Amazon is being rapidly deforested. The top culprit is agriculture - 70% of deforestation is cut to make space for cows. Unfortunately, sustainable practices aren’t being implemented due to a lack of proper incentives – it’s more expensive and less profitable.
As the earth's lungs, the Amazon's health is critical for our planet's environmental well-being. Working with the international non-profit Solidaridad, TDL was tasked with nudging the farming practices of Brazilian farmers to methods that were more sustainable - preserving these critical forests and reinventing the supply chain. But the task didn’t stop there: we had to make the framework flexible enough to meet the needs of farmers across the globe.
Mixing ethnographic research and behavioral science, The Decision Lab interviewed farmers, poured over the literature, and designed a nudge program based on our findings. Using our methodology, the food-production process has been revolutionized in 41 countries, as sustainable agriculture is slowly becoming the norm.
- University of Pennsylvania. (n.d.). Department of anthropology. Statement on Anthropology, Colonialism, and Racism | Department of Anthropology. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://anthropology.sas.upenn.edu/news/2021/04/28/statement-anthropology-colonialism-and-racism
- Marcén, C., Gimeno, F., Gutiérrez, H., Sáenz, A., & Sánchez, M. E. (2013). Ethnography as a linking method between psychology and sociology: Research design. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 82, 760–763. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.06.344