Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Yes, Virginia, We “Do Ethnography” in Business Schools


HEC Montréal

One of the most common questions I get at EPIC is, “You do ethnography in business schools?” So ken anderson invited me to write a response to this recurring question. I’ll break the response into three topic areas: (1) the use of ethnography and its status vis-à-vis research on management; (2) where, why, and how we teach ethnography in the classroom; and (3) some of the challenges and opportunities of ethnography in management research and business school education.

Ethnography and Research on Management

First let’s consider some history. Oxford University was founded in 1096. Harvard University—the first university in North America—was founded in 1636. Yet Harvard Business School was the first to offer an MBA and it was founded in 1908. Business schools as training grounds for general and strategic management are a relatively recent phenomenon.

Then, beginning in the late 1950s, there was a major movement to make business schools more academic and rigorous as a result of a series of critical reports by the Ford and Carnegie foundations. The reports severely criticized business school education as being too anecdotal, trade-school-like and lacking theory. Often professors were merely business people who taught part-time or had retired from industry.

As a result of these criticisms, business schools tried to become much more science-like in the 1960s and ’70s, principally by recruiting academics trained in the more traditional (and respected) disciplines, such as economics, psychology, sociology and anthropology. In tandem, there was a focus on business schools producing much more research in the tradition of other academic disciplines, with an emphasis on peer-reviewed journal articles over books.

Given the recent ascendancy of business school research vis-à-vis other disciplines, ethnographic methods have had a fairly consistent presence and, at least in management and marketing, seem to be growing in representation. Early examples include Henry Mintzberg’s The Nature of Managerial Work (1973), based on observing five managers for a week each and noting what they really did versus what we teach and talk about in business schools, and the work of John Van Maanen, another early advocate of ethnographic methods in business research (1979). Since then, the use of ethnography has continued to grow, including the work of Kathleen Eisenhardt on strategy, innovation and product development; Steve Barley on organizational processes, and my HEC Montréal colleague, Anne Langley, on Strategy as Practice, which has now become a recognized sub-field of research within the Academy of Management.

Within the domains of marketing and consumer research, ethnography also has a significant and increasingly prominent role. Early contributions include John F. Sherry, Jr’s “Gift Giving in Anthropological Perspective” (1983) and Grant McCracken’s “Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods” (1986) (both Sherry and McCracken were trained as cultural anthropologists and subsequently worked in marketing and consumer studies departments of business schools). The use of ethnography within marketing and consumer behaviour significantly grew in use and acceptance following the Marketing Science Institute–sponsored “Consumer Odyssey” in the summer of 1987, when Russ Belk, Melanie Wallendorf and a group of other like-minded researchers toured America in a large van jointly studying consumption behaviours.

The number and variety of stops [was] breathtaking, and included swap meets, art shows, private homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, hotels, riverboat cruises, and many more. The researchers entered these environments with open eyes, making the ‘familiar strange’ and employing methods, including participant observation, that few researchers had used previously in the discipline. (Hill, 1992)

The use and acceptance of ethnographic methods has continued to grow. This summer will mark the tenth annual Consumer Culture Theory conference in which consumer researchers—primarily from business schools—share their work.

In addition to research on consumer behaviour is the growth of ethnographic methods in the study of “how managers do marketing” and societal-level issues. Some examples include my work on “Creating a Market Orientation: A Longitudinal, Multifirm, Grounded Analysis of Cultural Transformation” (Gebhardt, Carpenter, & Sherry, 2006), Julien Cayla and Eric Arnould’s work on “Ethnographic Stories for Market Learning” (2013), Julien Cayla and Lisa Peñaloza’s work on “Mapping the Play of Organizational Identity in Foreign Market Adaptation” (2012), and Melea Press and colleagues’ “Ideological Challenges to Changing Strategic Orientation in Commodity Agriculture” (Press, Arnould, Murray, & Strand, 2014).

Teaching Ethnography in Business Schools

At the PhD level, ethnography exists in business schools as a research method. However, in North American business schools, ethnography is rarely required as a “foundational method” as are economic methods and theory (game theory, microeconomic theory, econometrics) and psychological methods and theory (social psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, behavioural decision theory, and psychometrics). At schools with a concentration of qualitative researchers, methods and general survey courses that include readings from anthropology and ethnographic methods are more common, although as more and more research professors come from business schools—as opposed to anthropology or sociology—the research method courses tend to rely more and more on business school–generated literature using ethnography.

At the MBA level, ethnography is rarely taught explicitly as Ethnography with a capital E, but many of the tools of ethnography are presented in classes on market research, product and service development, design thinking, and user experience. For example, market research classes will often refer to qualitative methods of observation, customer visits, depth interviews, and video ethnography—but without the terminology with which one would find them taught in an anthropology or sociology department. This is changing too, particularly as more and more faculty are trained in these methods and as more and more research is being published using such methods. Perhaps most importantly, as more and more practitioners use ethnographic methods, we are finding ourselves having to explain these methods to our students so that they understand their strengths and weaknesses when they go out into the workforce.

Masters of Science (MSc) programs are growing in business schools, largely led by European schools, but quickly taking hold in North America as well. The notion of MSc programs is that they offer much more training for a specific area than does an MBA, which is designed to train general managers. MSc programs historically fed doctoral programs, but currently, the vast majority of MSc graduates go into business as technical or area specialists. Hence, the heterogeneity of training among specializations is much more significant, but there are also MSc graduates from marketing and management who are incredibly well trained in ethnography, anthropology and other social sciences as they are applied to business and markets. Much of that training depends on a business school’s faculty. At HEC Montréal, where we have one of the largest concentrations of qualitative researchers in North America, our MSc programs offer exceptional training in ethnographic methods and a variety of social theories.

Challenges and Opportunities

As part of the movement over the past 50 years to become more like our colleagues in more traditional academic disciplines, many management scholars believe that we may have gone too far on the “science” continuum to the point where real people (consumers or managers) have gotten lost in our research and, hence, our research has become less relevant to what we teach. In many ways, we suffer from “science envy”: we want to have the respect and status that so many of our colleagues in the “hard sciences” have. More tellingly, there is a general envy of economic research: over the past 100 years economists have taken a social science and applied mathematical methods to such an extent that it appears more like physics when you (try) to read it.

The applicants most likely to be admitted to the top doctoral programs in economics have masters degrees in math or physics rather than business or the social sciences. Sadly, that is increasingly true for business schools as well: applicants with a masters degree in economics, math, engineering, or psychology are more likely to be admitted to our doctoral programs than MBAs with business experience.

Regarding status, qualitative research (including ethnography) is still generally looked down upon in the academy by our economics or psychology-oriented colleagues. The hottest research streams that marketing departments are currently recruiting for are neuromarketing, big data, economic field experiments and Bayesian statistics. This highlights the ongoing science fetish of business schools. (What we learn from stuffing someone into an MRI machine and seeing how they react to artificial stimuli without social or cultural context is beyond me, but whatever. It’s very hot and some well-funded business schools have invested enormous amounts of money into buying their own MRI machines.)

Highlighting the growing gap between the practice of business and what we teach, I was astounded a few years ago to realize that no general marketing research book for MBAs (or undergraduates) adequately explained the strengths and weaknesses of ethnographic and other qualitative methods. Most often, qualitative approaches are ghettoized in a short chapter up front, with an absurd amount of copy dedicated to focus groups and almost no text explaining the weaknesses of focus groups or exploring all of the other qualitative methods that one could use to gather market insights. Primarily, qualitative methods are discussed as a pre-cursor to doing “real research” with surveys or experiments. The vast majority of market research textbooks focus on the math related to hypothesis testing, how to run behavioural experiments, how to construct surveys and how to run various types of regression and choice models. This bias is not a surprise. Most market research courses are taught by the most quantitative faculty (econometricians and psychometricians). Those are the same people who write market research textbooks. That said, I have become so aggravated with the lack of managerially relevant textbooks that I refuse to use any of them and, instead, created a course using only journal readings. I dedicate 20% of the course to understanding qualitative methods (primarily field work and depth interviews), 20% to surveys, 20% to market testing, 20% to econometric models and 20% to internet, big data and secondary data models. This balance of topics better mimics what our students will see in the “real world.”

One reason for the challenges of using ethnography in business schools is that we often avoid the “fancy talk” of ethnography to make the methods easier for our students and colleagues to understand. For our research we sometimes avoid explaining the nuance of the methods so that we can get to the good part of the research and results—which often speak for themselves. We’ve been taking these shortcuts for as long as we have used ethnography in business schools. For example, when Karl Weick reviewed Henry Mintzberg’s Nature of Managerial Work—which relied on the ethnographic observation of managers for its data and groundbreaking findings—Weick observed that the research was presented “In the space of seven chapters, mercifully stripped of methodology—which is summarized in three appendices…”(Weick, 1974).

Similarly, our work on how managers can make their firms more market-oriented (Carpenter, Gebhardt, & Sherry, 2014; Gebhardt et al., 2006) found that the use of ethnographic methods by organization members played a significant and crucial role in the process of change. However, when explaining that finding, we used the terms that the participants and informants used: field visits, customer visits, interviews, hanging out, and video-ethnography. I believe that by avoiding too much “fancy talk” about how the methods employed were really ethnographic methods, we made the research more understandable and accessible for both academics and practitioners. However, the decision to write in plain language regarding ethnographic methods we used and our informants used also means that these methods are somewhat incognito in business schools and management research. People read the research and appreciate it, but typically don’t realize that the methods are borrowed from anthropology and sociology. (We expanded this award-winning work in our recent book Resurgence: The Four Stages of Market-Focused Reinvention.)

When I teach, I explain to MBA, EMBA and MSc students how to use and talk about ethnographic methods. I advise them to make sure they are understood rather than try to impress people. Great managers and leaders are great communicators. To truly have an impact requires that the people with whom we work are easily able to understand what we’re doing and see the value. In line with that thinking, when I present the concepts of ethnography to MBA, EMBA, and MSc students, the most technical I ever get is in the introduction: “ethnographic methods, like anthropologists use to study other cultures.” After that, it’s all “customer visits,” “field visits,” “interviews,” and “video-ethnography.” Students get it and immediately see the value. When I’ve had ken anderson or Tracy Johnson talk to our McGill-HEC Montréal EMBA classes on innovation, they’re rock stars. When I teach business-to-business marketing, I recommend Edward McQuarrie’s Customer Visits: Building a Better Market Focus, (2008) and people are amazed. When I show Bruno Moynié’s Boeing Video-Ethnography, with a physically challenged passenger in an airplane, I end up with a room full of crying MBAs. People get it. Business people get it. Sometimes they question whether it would work for their markets, but after quick reflection realize it would provide insights for every market. But, again, neither I nor my students use the same terms with the same sophistication that one would find at EPIC. It’s ethnography, but not Ethnography with a capital E.

So, Yes, Virginia, We “Do Ethnography” in Business Schools

Amidst all of the challenges, ethnographic methods are on the rise in management research and increasingly are taught in our classrooms. As more and more businesses, advertising agencies and consulting firms use ethnographic methods, the number of students trained in these methods will continue to rise to meet the expectations of the labor market.

If you would like to help spread the word about the awesomeness of ethnographic methods and how you use them in business, consider contacting the faculty at your local business school. Those in charge of market research, product development and design thinking would love to have you come visit and tell our students about the work you do. It’s probably the best kind of marketing you can do for EPIC and ethnography!


Surfing a Wave, Passing it Forward: Marketing & Management at SDU, Eric J. Arnold

Ethnography to the Rescue of Change Management, Melanie Redman & Tanushree Bhat

Practice, Products and the Future of Ethnographic Work, Maria Bezaitis

Enabling Our Voices to Be Heard, Rich Radka


Carpenter, G. S., Gebhardt, G. F., & Sherry, J. F. 2014. Resurgence: The Four Stages of Market-Focused Reinvention. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cayla, J., & Arnould, E. 2013. Ethnographic Stories for Market Learning. Journal of Marketing, 77(4): 1-16.

Cayla, J., & Peñaloza, L. 2012. Mapping the Play of Organizational Identity in Foreign Market Adaptation. Journal of Marketing, 76(6): 38-54.

Gebhardt, G. F., Carpenter, G. S., & Sherry, J. F., Jr. 2006. Creating a Market Orientation: A Longitudinal, Multifirm, Grounded Analysis of Cultural Transformation. Journal of Marketing, 70(4): 37-54.

Hill, R. P. 1992. Reviewed Work: Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey by Russell W. Belk. Journal of Marketing, 56(3): 121-123.

McCracken, G. 1986. Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods. Journal of Consumer Research, 13(1): 71-84.

McQuarrie, E. F. (2008). Customer Visits: Building a Better Market Focus. 3rd edition, Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe.

Mintzberg, H. 1973. The Nature of Managerial Work. New York: Harper & Row.
Press, M., Arnould, E. J., Murray, J. B., & Strand, K. 2014. Ideological Challenges to Changing Strategic Orientation in Commodity Agriculture. Journal of Marketing, 78(6): 103-119.

Sherry, J. F., Jr. 1983. Gift Giving in Anthropological Perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10(2): 157-168.

Van Maanen, J. 1979. Reclaiming Qualitative Methods for Organizational Research: A Preface. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24(4): 520-526.

Weick, K. E. 1974. Review: The Nature of Managerial Work by Henry Mintzberg. Administrative Science Quarterly, 19(1): 111-118.



Gary F. Gebhardt, HEC Montréal; co-chair of EPIC2017

Gary F. Gebhardt, CPA, MBA and PhD, is Associate Professor of Marketing at HEC Montréal. He teaches marketing strategy, market-focused innovation, product management, B2B and channel marketing in the MBA, MSc, and McGill-HEC Montréal EMBA programs. He worked as a consultant and executive in industry for thirteen years before earning his PhD in Marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. He is co-author (with Gregory S. Carpenter and John F. Sherry, Jr) of Resurgence: The Four Stages of Market-Focused Reinvention (2014).