Ethnographic Study in Strategic Communication

Ethnographic Study in Strategic Communication

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Ethnographic Study in Strategic Communication

Strategic communication has become very popular over the last 20 years, and it generally refers to the fusing of communication efforts with a master plan and an agenda. The master plan entails promoting the products of an organization, urging consumers to carry out specific acts, or to advocate for particular legislations. Actually, the field of communication is wide, incorporating professionals who formulate news or want to push information to members of the public, people who pass news and media content to the public such as public speakers, journalists, and educators, and individuals who look into the interplay of society and media (Scott & Lewis, 2017). Strategic communications try to bring together the pushing and delivering of particular information, and seek to convey message through the appropriate channels, aligned with well-set communication and organizational-specific goals. Usually, strategic communication (SC) usually requires some research to achieve effective results. Unlike communication, which is a more general term, strategic communication needs concrete knowledge and definition of the target audience, the intended objectives of the communication process, the format, and the outcomes one aspires to attain through the communication (Scott & Lewis, 2017). Unless one develops a clear understanding of the highlighted components it may be difficult to conduct effective SC research.

Identification of a Methodological Approach

Any individual or group aspiring to carry out SC research should settle on the most effective methodological approach that would enlighten the investigators on what they might present when communicating their idea. Based on the nature of the study, the qualitative research methodology proves to be the most effective. Usually, the investigator has to be very keen when choosing a research methodological approach to settle on one, which is compatible to their study and research questions or the matter under investigation. An investigator may choose to work quantitative research approach, which is primarily utilized to quantify the issue by way of generating data, mostly numerical data that can be changed into appropriate statistics (Apuke, 2017). Quantitative approach is suitable when the researcher seeks to quantify the subjects’ behaviors, opinions, attitudes, as well as other required variables – and generalize the outcome from a considerably big sample population (Apuke, 2017). Usually, quantitative research approach utilizes measurable data to form facts and uncover certain patterns in research, and data is habitually generated in more structured ways through a number of approaches such as surveys (statistical analysis or questionnaires) and experiments (Apuke, 2017). The researcher in this case relies on a hypothesis that would lead to the desired outcome.

The qualitative research approach, on the other hand, is largely a exploratory research used to gain insight on the underlying aspirations, opinions, and reasons behind something, mostly the matter under investigation. The qualitative approach offers insight into the issue and helps to build ideas or a hypothesis for projected quantitative study (Crescentini & Mainardi, 2009). The qualitative approach is effective in uncovering trends in opinions and thoughts, and dig deeper into the matter and the investigator may choose to employ either the semi-structured or unstructured technique to gather data (Crescentini & Mainardi, 2009). The researcher in this instance may choose to employ a number of techniques to gather data including conducting interviews among focus groups, or through analyzing case studies, documents, or an ethnographic study (Crescentini & Mainardi, 2009).

Based on the description of the two approaches, this analysis settles on the latter design (qualitative) taking into account some of the features it presents, and which could be applicable in carrying out a SC research. The fact that the qualitative approach permits the investigator to uncover ongoing trends in thoughts and opinions make the style more suitable as it would provide the chance to understand what the target audience prefers, or would want to hear. Specifically, the report settles on ethnographic study as the most suitable methodological approach that can be used to address the SC research inquiries. Even though other methodological approaches exist under qualitative research design that could offer substantial guidance in carrying out a SC research such as carrying out interviews and dealing with focus groups, using documents, and paying attention on case studies, ethnography is so appealing because of numerous avenues it presents to interact with subjects.

Addressing some of the SC research questions mentioned in the introductory section (tangible awareness and definition of the target audience, the intended goals of the communication procedure, the format, and the results one hopes to get through the communication) would be easier when the investigator spends more time with the sample. Ethnographic research, therefore, presents a good avenue as serves as it offers the avenue for researchers to observe and interact with the subject or study participants in their environment (Nurani, 2008). Even though ethnography was initially popularized by anthropologists systematically to study people and their cultures, the approach is now widely utilized in a number of social sciences (Nurani, 2008). Reeves, Kuper and Hodges (2008) describe ethnography as the study of social behaviors, interactions, and perceptions within organizations, communities, teams, and groups, and further state that it traces its origin to anthropological studies of small and remote societies that were carried out in the beginning of 1900s, when scholars such as Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski engaged with the societies over a long period and documented their belief systems and social arrangements. The methodology was later embraced by affiliates of the Chicago School of Sociology such as Robert Park, Everett Hughes, and Louis Wirth, and was applied to a number of urban settings in their investigations on social life.

The primary objective of ethnographic study is to offer a holistic and rich insight into people’s actions and views, as well as on the nature, including sounds and sights) of the location or environment they inhabit, through the gathering of detailed interviews and observations. Reeves, Kuper and Hodges (2008) even mention in their article that the primary task of ethnographers is to document the culture’s practices and beliefs, and to aim at getting inside the way each person perceives the world. Ethnographic research presents some of the key features that would allow investigators of a SC research to understand the most basic requirements the audience would want to hear or get because the approach presents much emphasis on looking into the nature of a given social phenomenon instead of relying on a particular hypothesis (Reeves, Kuper & Hodges, 2008). It is easier to apply ethnography to understand the subjects or even the outcomes and the effects of the communications because the approach primarily employs unstructured data or data that is coded at the time of collection using particular analytical categories, and because the approach allows for the investigation of small number of groups, perhaps a group of people or a single setting, thus making the process manageable, less costly, and to boost in-depth study (Reeves, Kuper & Hodges, 2008). It is also easier to gather information that a group, such a company or organization for that matter, would use to communicate to a target audience using ethnographic approach because the researcher gets the opportunity to explore the cultural phenomena while observing the society from the subject’s point of view.

Other features associated with ethnography make the approach the most suitable in carrying out SC research. The approach permits for the analysis of data through the interpretation of the functions, outcomes, and meanings of institutional practices and human actions, and how these are implicated in local and wider contexts (Nurani, 2008). Ethnography works in such a way that what is produced in many scenarios are verbal expectations, theories, and descriptions, while statistical analysis and quantification play subordinate roles at most. The dedication the approach accords to interpreting and understanding human actions makes it easy for the group conducting the study to acquire much insight on how communicating in a particular manner would either promote or harm the realization of the desired objectives (Nurani, 2008). The outcomes of the study, which are usually verbal as indicated here, give the investigators a better chance to understand how the audience would respond or react to given information, and what attitude they are likely to generate towards the information.  

Application of Ethnographic Research

Already, ethnographic research has yielded positive outcome in numerous instances where investigators have yearned to acquire essential information first before getting back to the target audience that really needs to learn or understand something. Tumilowicz, Neufeld and Pelto (2015) give several examples of situations where ethnography has facilitated the acquisition of valuable data that would be used in SC, regarding how to improve nutrition among impoverished communities. Ethnographic researchers in socio-cultural anthropology have looked into and drawn much focus to the misconnection in the way health and nutrition interventions are issued and how they are viewed and used by beneficiaries. The information gathered have helped to write books of case studies, many of which document the problems in both the acceptance and delivery of public health intervention. Ethnographic research in Zimbabwe looking into how food insecurity and local perceptions and beliefs affect nutrition also documented by Tumilowicz, Neufeld and Pelto (2015) discover that the inadequate energy density of the young children and infant diet was as a result of the scarcity of two vital foods that were culturally perceived as enhancing complementary foods; peanuts and cooking oil. The Zimbabwean study further showed many mothers believe infants cannot swallow semi-solid foods or thick porridge, thus restraining many caregivers from feeding their children with meat, vegetables, and other solid foods because they were afraid their offspring could choke (Tumilowicz, Neufeld & Pelto, 2015). It also emerged in the study that mothers had little insight on how to process foods so that infants could swallow them before they start developing teeth.

Another ethnographic research in Pemba showed the adults’ dietary pattern in the household served a significant part in the dietary pattern of young children and infants. Following the practice of eating light meals in the mornings and evenings, both comprising of tea and bread, young ones were not offered adequate amounts of nutrient-sufficient foods throughout the day (Tumilowicz, Neufeld & Pelto, 2015). Adding to the problem, as it comes out in the study was the widespread perception among parents and caregivers that fish, which is the main diet in Pemba, was not suitable for developing children because it could cause worms or tooth decay (Tumilowicz, Neufeld & Pelto, 2015). The investigators who learned of such factors after spending a lot of time developed worthy works that improved nutrition awareness in the areas where the studies occurred, thus demonstrate the essence of employing ethnography in SC research.

Furthermore, the use of ethnography in medical education has generated a number of enlightening facts and insights into the roles, functions, and constraints in the preparation of medical learners for clinical practices. An EMEE Guide by Reeves et al. (2013) does not only provide an extensive insight into how ethnographic research works, but also offer accounts on how its application in medical education has yielded much awareness on what trainees and practitioners ought to do to achieve the best outcome. Reeves et al. (2013) who acknowledge that the use of qualitative methods have became increasingly applicable in the medical field over the past decade inform that many investigators have applied ethnographic approaches to offer a wide range of insights into the nature of learners’ perceptions and behaviors in medical schools while addressing trainee culture and the curriculum through their engagement with the profession for many years (Reeves et al., 2013). Arguably, the outcomes from the ethnographic works have impacted medical education, in first identifying the effects of issues such as hidden curriculum, as well as producing responses to attempts to improve their impacts through policy reforms and curricula modernization.

Reeves et al. (2013) focus on ethnography by a panel of sociologists based in Chicago school of sociology of a Kansas-based medical school, stemming from a general desire to study professional education and groups. Whereas the study targeted social scientists, it had significant insight and effects on medical education. The study paid attention on students’ experiences and perceptions of their faculty, enrolled programs, as well as on their future with medical practice, and the investigators gather data through the use of in-depth interviews and participant observation (Reeves et al., 2013). Essentially, the study produced some insightful outcomes encompassing the learners’ efforts to find out what instructors expected from them in exercises and exams, their ability to handle the complexities of a clinic or hospital, and their absorption of medical values through socialization and peer pressure (Reeves et al., 2013). The results have helped to develop literacy works targeting different groups such as researchers, administrators, instructors, and policy makers that would help to improve the general process of medical education (Reeves et al., 2013), thus proving once again that ethnographic research yields effective results when carrying out a SC research.

Marketers find ethnography a suitable approach in their day to day activities because of the many privileges they gain by employing the mechanism. Moisander and Valtonen (2012) assert that besides the basic features of ethnographic research, the approach may entail employing a number of visual research styles, such as video recording and taking photos, and acquiring material cultural artifacts such as business cards, flyers, brochures, newspapers, or newsletters to acquire detailed information about a target market or any other setting from multiple views. The study of visual creations and qualities that appeal to the eye is vital because visual representation is not only vital because it is a feature of the current Western consumers, but also because visual arrangements and visible objects of all forms carry significant meanings in the marketplace. Moisander and Valtonen (2012) also mention that buyers always acquire lessons and meanings from these visible objects when they engage and interact with them on regular basis. For marketers, therefore, it is essential to understand visual representations and their meanings that can be appealing to consumers such as brand logos and package designs by the potential buyers of the business’ target markets. Other that production of new products, ethnography and its approaches provide valuable insight about brand meaning. Moisander and Valtonen (2012) argue that ethnographic approaches are appropriate for discovering how people utilize brand meaning not only to establish their identities, but also to formulate communities such as The Harley Owners Group and the Holiday Rambler Recreational Vehicle Club among others. Ultimately, marketers develop products and services that would suit the buyers without speculating about their needs and desires. The success many companies have witnessed in their application of ethnography is motivational and enough proof that the methodological approach can be suited to answer SC research questions.


Even though ethnographic research appears to be a suitable tool for acquiring insight that would help improve SC, users must be keen on the possible limitations that could derail their effort to achieve the desired outcomes. One of the demerits associated with ethnographic research is it requires a lot of time and require the intervention of a well-trained researcher. Usually the investigator must spend a lot of time building trust with informants to establish a honest and sincere discourse, which make it difficult to carry out short-term studies because of the time constraints (Nurani, 2008). The other problem associated with ethnographic study in addressing strategic communication research questions is biasness on the part of the researcher, which can tamper with both the study design and gathering and interpretation of data (Nurani, 2008). Many scholars criticize ethnographic research as a field study from a specific settings so that the outcome might only be suitable or applicable for that particular setting, thus making it impossible to generalize the outcomes of the ethnographic research. The most suitable way to overcome the constraint, Nurani (2008) explains, is to apply procedure to uplift the external validities such as variations of the research contexts and multi-channel studies. It is also of significance for the investigators to understand that while carrying out studies, participants may be tempted to present the ideal behaviors or tell the data collector what they believe the surveyor would want to hear. Whereas the demerit can affect the attempts to offer a precise description, it usually develops at the initial phases of the interaction (Nurani, 2008). The researchers can avoid the challenge by not readily accepting the validity of the first impression, and not to treat the participants as research subjects but like other people in the society.

            Despite the constraints of the ethnographic style, it yields substantial gains for research in naturalistic settings that vary in nature. The primary merit of ethnography, and which makes it appealing to users is its observational approach that permits researchers to record the behaviors as they happen (Nurani, 2008). The style also uncovers and explicitly describes the social phenomena in a community, and offers the chance to understand the aspect from the perspective of those under investigation, thus the outcome is more real than a study that manipulates variables by employing external tests and experiments (Nurani, 2008).


The study looks into the suitable methodological approach that would help to conduct SC research in the most effective manner. The research proposes the use of qualitative approach, and specifically employs ethnographic study, which offers more suitable opportunity to understand how thing work in the field or a natural setting. Investigators in a SC research are likely to understand the real issues or requirements their target audience would want to hear by spending much time with them and learning how they react to certain things such as nutrition, product, or any other factor. Being conversant with the population as much as possible would help to develop a communication plan that meets the desires of every audience, and which is not based on speculation such that it encounters a lot of opposition or challenges during its delivery. The analysis presents examples of where ethnographic study has yielded positive outcome in developing works that impact on a large population, and uses these to show how much the approach is suitable in addressing the relevant SC research questions. The report also reminds groups aspiring to employ ethnography to not only focus on the positive effects of the methodological approach, but to consider the limitations as well. Some of the deficiencies associated with using ethnographic research in SC research include the use of a lot of time, setting-specific outcome, and biasness that could affect data generation and interpretation.


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