Inverted Ethnography

Posted On: 05/1/13

By: Piyul Mukherjee    Pia Mollback-Verbic   

Use of smart phones and the internet among a literate, educated audience is a given. What is of interest is the harnessing of this technology among the vast base of the ‘below middle class’ households of emerging markets, as an acid test of innovation in our profession. Through a series of methodological  experimentation,  the advantages of using an ‘inverted’ approach to home ethnographies is suggested, and posits the significant advantages in tackling cultural issues, contradictions and social barriers at the methodological end.

How it works

By leveraging the potential of joint family structures of households; reaching our end consumer through family members’ ability to use available technology.


The seven emerging markets – China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and Turkey are expected to contribute 45 per cent of the global GDP in the coming decade. As the corporate world of our clients seeks to seize growth opportunities, there is an understandable sense of urgency, which has led to an increasing tendency for a ‘one size fits all’ pattern of setting up the qualitative research study. Yet, even within these listed countries, there is a world of difference from one to the next, and often within the country as well.

Primarily to suggest the advantages of a methodological pluralism that helps researchers to become culturally complementary and enter into our consumers’ lives in hitherto unexplored and unexpected ways:

  • To bend and blend traditional research methodologies with high tech solutions to get the best of both worlds – e.g. the intimacy of an unobtrusive observer of the teenager shooting footage of his mother/relatives doing household chores, and the single-canvas of analysis under one roof as information steadily streams in from various sources.
  • To provide examples of bypassing the obstacles of incorporating technology when working in developing countries and non-tech savvy population segments.
  • To revive the viability of doing in-depth ethnographical research across time – by offering up cost and time-efficient solutions convenient to both researcher and client – that goes beyond the usual  time-starved global client’s diktats to the market researcher to ‘do a two hour home ethno’ with client, simultaneous translator and cameraman in tow.
  • To call awareness to the ‘tectonic plates’ of the research landscape; the critical meridians running between collectivist and individualistic societies – shifting the focus away from standardization and the current one-fit-all approach across markets to a broader recognition of the need for culture-complementing research approaches.


Interviews conducted in the usual home ethno manner of market research yielded surface information. Using self-administered video recordings and cell phone pictures, taken by family members, on the other hand, yields amazing insights

It is no longer a debate about classic vs. new (online) methodologies, but rather an emphasis on our industry’s obligation to juggle, be creative, experiment and stretch our reach – both to hitherto unresearched consumers as well as a larger base of clients, even as ethnographies – already shortened drastically by marketers as compared to anthropologists – become both financially viable and even more authentic in their deliverables, in novel ways.