How can digital ethnography enrich and inform mobile ethnography? Showing the advantage of multi-sited ethnography
Since the mid-1990s, researchers have increasingly sought to better understand a world characterized by increasing globalization through what anthropologist George Marcus has termed “multi-sited ethnography”. According to Marcus, multi-sited ethnography moves beyond conventional ethnography by exploring connections between multiple field sites, rather than restricting research to a single site.
There are also new dimensions of social life to be explored using ethnography, and new tools we can use to explore conventional field sites.
For instance, digital spaces have been conceived as new sites of social interaction to be explored using ethnographic methods. This approach – known as “digital ethnography” or “online anthropology” – is most useful as a form of exploratory research. Digital ethnography allows us to become familiar with specific groups of people and identify analytical themes of interest that can inform subsequent research – such as (but not limited to) mobile ethnography.
Mobile ethnography uses conventional field sites (e.g. homes or grocery stores), but relies on mobile methods to collect the “thick description” required for ethnographic analysis (read more here). Mobile ethnography provides a glimpse into the everyday lives of respondents with minimal interference and provides researchers with rapid access to multiple field sites.
A recent study MDRG conducted in two phases to explore the role of food – specifically meat – in the lives of consumers illustrates the valuable contextualization of multi-sited ethnography. Specifically, what digital ethnography can provide for a mobile ethnography project, showing two ethnography examples.
In the first phase of this project, we used digital ethnography to develop an understanding of cultural norms and expectations shaping food consumption behavior. We collected ethnographic material from digital field sites – social media platforms, discussion forums, and other sources. Themes of interest were identified through content and discourse analysis – exploring what and how people converse when it comes to food, and food purchases.
From this initial phase, we learned that many consumers want to purchase healthy, good tasting, and ethically sourced food, but sometimes find this inconvenient or unaffordable. Conflicting definitions of what it means to eat healthily or ethically often also complicate or intensify purchase dilemmas.
Dominant discourse defines healthy and ethical food as organic – but not everyone accepts this definition. Defining healthy as “organic” is a privilege the wealthy can afford, but others reject this definition and see organic products as a foolish waste of money.
Many of our client’s target consumers straddled the boundary between these two groups, and sometimes felt torn between conflicting priorities. At the end the day, they had to buy something – so they moved beyond indecision by negotiating their priorities and redefining in their own terms what it means to eat healthy, good tasting, and ethically sourced food.
For some, this meant buying organic produce, but not necessarily organic meat. Or, it meant redefining healthy eating as time spent with family, instead of worrying over food production practices.
These insights informed the second phase of the project. We used mobile ethnography to further explore cultural norms and behaviors as they were enacted by consumers in key markets and segments. Specifically, we explored how these types of consumers negotiate their food-related priorities and the cultural forces influencing their behavior.
We found some consumers in one segment found organic food attractive because it communicates a message of status. However, many more affordable and trendy organic products are readily available and fulfill this function.
For another segment, organic food serves to communicate that they are good parents. However, this message can also be communicated by purchasing other kinds of organic products or providing well-rounded meals, and “family time”.
A third segment was more concerned with the supplementary products they use with meat – sauces, spices, and other condiments – rather than the quality of the meat itself. They considered meat a vehicle for flavor and texture, rather than an inherently attractive food.
Many amongst these three groups were also satisfied by products with the label “natural,” which evokes many of the same associations they have with “organic”. However, these labels play off and reinforce widespread discomfort with industrial meat production. Unfortunately, our client’s efforts to make consumers more aware and accepting of certain industrial practices were partially circumvented by the culturally informed associations that were evoked and reinforced by their use of the label “natural”.
The insights gained in the first phase provided contextualization that allowed us to better understand the world target consumers must navigate. Knowing that our respondents might feel conflicted about their purchases, or that “organic” and “natural” are terms heavy with culturally-specific meaning, allowed us to better design the mobile ethnography to capture relevant details.
Furthermore, the findings from the digital ethnography were useful in the process of analyzing material collected in the mobile ethnography. Phase I insights allowed us to situate our respondents within the cultural matrix both shaping and being shaped by consumer behavior. Though the mobile ethnography still would have produced significant findings in the absence of a preliminary phase, the digital ethnography ultimately significantly enriched and enhanced MDRG’s research insights.
For more ethnography insights or ethnography examples from MDRG, please fill out the following form: