Ethnographic Study in Strategic Communication

Ethnographic Study in Strategic Communication

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Ethnographic Study in Strategic Communication

Strategic communication (SC) has become very popular over the last two decades. 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 do certain things, or advocating for particular legislations. Actually, the field of communication is wide, incorporating professionals such as public speakers, journalists, educators, and analysts among others (Scott & Lewis, 2017). Strategic communication tries to deliver particular information and to convey a message through the appropriate channels, which are aligned with well-set communication and organizational-specific goals. Strategic communication usually necessitates some research in order to achieve effective results. Unlike the general communication, SC requires the communicator to build concrete knowledge about the target audience, define the intended objectives, choose the appropriate format, and set the expected outcomes of communication (Scott & Lewis, 2017). Unless one develops a clear understanding of the aforementioned components, conducting effective strategic communication research could be difficult.

Identification of a Methodological Approach

Any individual or group aspiring to carry out strategic communication research should choose the most effective approach that would enlighten the investigators on what to address when conveying a message to the audience. The type of study, as well as the nature of the topic under investigation, influences the choice of method. Therefore, the researchers should take into account the research questions. Considering the nature of the study on strategic communication, the qualitative methodology appears to be the most appropriate. Quantitative research is mainly used to quantify numerical data and to generate useful statistics (Apuke, 2017). It is suitable when the researcher seeks to quantify the subjects’ behaviors, opinions, attitudes, and other important variables, as well as generalizing the outcome from a considerably big sample population (Apuke, 2017). Usually, the quantitative approach utilizes measurable data to uncover certain patterns in research, and data is habitually generated in more structured ways through a number of instruments 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 approach, on the other hand, is largely an exploratory research methodology used to gain insight into the underlying aspirations, opinions, and reasons behind the matter under investigation. It helps to build ideas or a hypothesis for the projected quantitative study (Crescentini & Mainardi, 2009). The method is effective in uncovering trends in opinions and thoughts and digging deeper into the matter under study. Thus, the investigator may choose to utilize either semi-structured or unstructured techniques to gather data (Crescentini & Mainardi, 2009). The researcher may decide to use various procedures to assemble data, including carrying out interviews among focus groups as well as exploring case studies or documents (Crescentini & Mainardi, 2009). A key difference between the two methodologies is that whereas quantitative study is more analytical and inclusive of statistical evaluation, qualitative research is more descriptive.

Based on the description of the two approaches, this analysis focuses on the qualitative method as it is applicable in carrying out strategic communication research. The qualitative methodology is more suitable because it provides the investigator with the chance to understand what the target audience prefers. Specifically, this paper focuses on the ethnographic study as the most appropriate methodological approach that can be used to address the SC research inquiries. Even though there are other methods under the qualitative design that could offer substantial guidance in carrying out interviews, handling focus groups, and exploring case studies, ethnography is so appealing because of the opportunity it gives the researcher to interact with the study participants in their natural environment.

Addressing SC research questions, such as tangible awareness and definition of the target audience, the intended goals of the communication procedure, the format to be used in conveying the message, and the expected results, would be easier if the investigator spent more time with the sample population. Ethnographic research, therefore, presents a good avenue as it offers the researchers an opportunity to interact with the study participants and observe them in their environment (Nurani, 2008). Even though ethnography was initially used by anthropologists systematically to study people and their cultures, it is now widely utilized in the social sciences (Nurani, 2008). Reeves, Kuper, and Hodges (2008) describe ethnography as the study of social acts, communications, and ideologies within business establishments, societies, and groups of people. Reeves et al. (2008) further state that the methodology originated from anthropological surveys of interior communities in the early 1900s when surveyors interacted with locals over an extended period, recording their beliefs, behaviors, and social order. Ethnography was later improved by practitioners such as Robert Park at the Chicago School of Sociology, and it was used in some urbanized settings to investigate social life and practices.

The main objective of ethnographic research is to create a holistic and valuable awareness into people’s behaviors and beliefs as well as sounds and visionary objects of the environment through in-depth interviews and observations. Reeves et al. (2008) state that the primary task of ethnographers is to document the practices and beliefs of a particular culture, and to understand the way each person perceives the world. Ethnographic research looks into the nature of a given social phenomenon instead of relying on a particular hypothesis (Reeves et al., 2008). Hence, it presents some key features that would help investigators of SC research to gain a deeper understanding of the audience and identify the most important requirements that need to be addressed. It is easier to apply ethnography to understand the subjects or even the outcomes and the effects of the communications because the approach uses unstructured data or data that is coded at the time of collection. Ethnography allows the researcher to conduct an in-depth study through a manageable and less costly process even on small groups of people (Reeves et al., 2008). Moreover, it allows the investigator to discover the societal practices and beliefs from the respondents’ point of view. Therefore, this methodology can be used to gather data that an organization would require to communicate effectively to its target population.

The suitability of ethnography in carrying out structured communication research is supported by several other features. The methodology allows for the scrutiny of data through the analysis of the processes, effects, and meanings of organizational practices and human actions, and how these aspects are applied locally and beyond borders (Nurani, 2008). Ethnography operates in such a manner that what is delivered in many scenarios are verbal descriptions, theoretical narrations, and portrayals, while numerical breakdown and quantification are not taken into consideration. Ethnography enhances the interpretation of human actions, hence allowing the persons conducting the study to acquire much insight on how communicating in a particular manner would either promote or injure the realization of the desired objectives (Nurani, 2008). The outcomes of the study, which are usually verbal, give the investigators a better chance to understand how the audience would react to the given information, and what attitude they are likely to generate towards the information. Therefore, an ethnographic study provides insight into how a message is likely to be received by the audience.

Application of Ethnographic Research

Already, ethnographic research has yielded positive outcomes in many instances where investigators have yearned to acquire essential information before getting back to the target audience that really needs to learn or to understand something. Tumilowicz, Neufeld, and Pelto (2015) list several examples of situations where ethnography has facilitated the acquisition of valuable data that would be used in strategic communication 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 viewed by beneficiaries. The information gathered has helped to write books about case studies, many of which document the problems involving the acceptance and delivery of public health intervention. Tumilowicz et al. (2015) documented an ethnographic research in Zimbabwe, which assessed how food insecurity, local perceptions, and beliefs affect nutrition. The study revealed that the inadequate energy density of diet for young children and infants was as a result of the scarcity of two vital foods that were culturally perceived as enhancing complementary foods: peanuts and cooking oil. The study in Zimbabwe further showed that many mothers believe infants cannot swallow semi-solid foods or thick porridge; thus, many parents and caregivers did not feed their children with meat, vegetables, and other solid foods because they were afraid the children could choke (Tumilowicz et al., 2015). The study also found that mothers had little knowledge of how to process foods to a state that infants could swallow before they develop teeth. The outcomes of the surveyors after spending much time with the local is adequate proof that learning the practices of other people may help to come up with more effective ways of remedies to disturbing problems. 

Another ethnographic research in Pemba, Tanzania, showed the adults’ dietary pattern formed a significant part in the nutritional intake of young children and infants. Due to the consumption of light breakfast and dinner, both comprising tea and bread, young ones did not get adequate amounts of nutrient-sufficient foods throughout the day (Tumilowicz et al., 2015). In addition to this problem, there was a 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 tooth decay or infestation by worms (Tumilowicz et al., 2015). The investigators learned of such factors after spending a lot of time within the communities under study. Their findings have improved nutrition awareness in the areas where the studies occurred. Perhaps, these discoveries could not have been obtained had the researchers not observed through daily interaction with the participants in their natural environment. Thus, using an ethnographic methodology in SC research could generate vital information and enhance the effectiveness of communication. Findings in Pemba is another indication that ethnography is suitable in gathering information that would be used to enlighten others.

Furthermore, the use of ethnography in medical education has generated many enlightening facts 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 offers accounts on how the application of this research methodology in medical education has increased awareness on what trainees and practitioners ought to do to achieve better outcomes. Reeves et al. (2013) acknowledge that qualitative methods have become increasingly applicable in the medical field over the past decade. Reeves et al. (2013) further state 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 over many years. Arguably, the outcomes from the ethnographic researches have impacted medical education, particularly in identifying the effects of issues such as hidden curriculum as well as improving their impacts through policy reforms and curricula modernization.

Reeves et al. (2013) focus on ethnography by a panel of sociologists based at the Chicago School of Sociology, which is part of a Kansas-based medical school. The emphasis stems from a general desire to study professional education and groups. Whereas the study targeted social scientists, it had significant insights and effects on medical education. The study focused on students’ experiences and perceptions of their faculty, enrolled programs, and their future with medical practice; the investigators collected data through the use of in-depth interviews and participant observation (Reeves et al., 2013). 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 health care facility, and their understanding 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 policymakers (Reeves et al., 2013). Therefore, the contribution of ethnographic research in improving medical education shows that the methodology may also generate important findings in SC research and help to improve communication.

Ethnography is also a suitable approach to marketers’ day-to-day activities as it provides them with many privileges. Moisander and Valtonen (2012) posit that other than the basic features of ethnographic research, the methodology may involve the use of visual research styles in capturing videos and photos, as well as acquiring business cards, flyers, newspapers, brochures, and magazines to achieve detailed insights about a target market. The study of visual creations and qualities that appeal to the eye is vital because the visual representation of all forms carry significant meanings in the marketplace. Moisander and Valtonen (2012) also mention that buyers learn something through regular interaction with visible objects. For marketers, therefore, it is important to understand visual representations and their meanings that can appeal to consumers. Such information may include brand logos and package designs. Other than the production of new products, ethnography provides valuable insights about brand meaning. Moisander and Valtonen (2012) further 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 needs and desires of their target customers. The improvement in the performance of many companies through the use of ethnography is motivational and proof that the methodological approach can help to answer SC research questions.

Limitations of Ethnographic Research Methodology

Even though ethnographic research appears to be a suitable tool for acquiring insights that would help to improve strategic communication, researchers must be keen on the possible limitations that could derail their effort to achieve the desired outcomes. Ethnographic research is time-consuming and requires the intervention of a well-trained researcher. Usually, the investigator must spend a lot of time building trust with participants in order to establish an honest and sincere discourse; hence, it may be difficult to carry out short-term studies because of the time constraints (Nurani, 2008). The other problem associated with the ethnographic study is that research biases can adversely affect the study design, data collection, and interpretation of the findings (Nurani, 2008). Other criticism of ethnographic research as a field study tool is that the outcomes generated through the methodology may not be generalizable. As Nurani (2008) explains, the most suitable way to overcome this limitation is to apply a procedure to uplift external validities such as variations of the research contexts and multi-channel studies. The other challenge that is likely to interfere with the ethnographic research is that participants may behave in a manner that they usually do not simply because the researcher is present. Participants may be tempted to present the ideal behaviors or tell the data collector what they believe he or she would want to hear. Whereas the occurrence of such a situation can affect the quality and accuracy of the data gathered, it usually develops at the initial stages of the interaction (Nurani, 2008). Therefore, researchers can avoid collecting inaccurate data by looking into aspects such as the impression of the study participants, verifying the validity of the information, and observing the behaviors of other members of society who are not directly involved in the study.

Advantages of Ethnographic Research Methodology

            Despite the constraints of the ethnographic method, it yields substantial gains for research in naturalistic settings that vary in nature. The main advantage of the ethnographic approach that makes it appealing to users is the observational approach that permits researchers to record the participants’ behaviors as they happen (Nurani, 2008). The methodology also uncovers and explicitly describes the social phenomena in a community, and it offers a chance to understand the phenomenon under study from the perspective of those under investigation. Thus, the outcome of an ethnographic study is a more accurate reflection of the real issue since there is no manipulation of variables through external tests and experiments (Nurani, 2008).


The paper has explored the suitable methodological approach that would help to conduct strategic communication research in the most effective manner. Through the assessment of quantitative and qualitative methods, the latter was selected due to the nature of the concept under study. Specifically, the ethnographic approach, which falls under the qualitative category, will be used. It offers an opportunity to understand a particular phenomenon in its natural setting. Regarding strategic communication research, investigators will spend time observing participants in their natural environment. By interacting with the target audience, learning the reactions of different groups of people to certain things such as nutrition, product, or any other factor, investigators will be able to understand the real issues that the target audience would want to hear. Being conversant with the population as much as possible would help to develop a communication plan that meets the desires of everyone. Developing a communication strategy that is not based on speculation can minimize challenges during its delivery and increase its acceptability by the stakeholders. The analysis presents examples of where an ethnographic study has yielded positive outcomes in developing works that impact on a large population. The paper uses these examples to demonstrate the suitability of ethnographic methodology in addressing the SC research questions. The report also reminds individuals or organizations aspiring to use this tool to not only focus on the positive aspects but to also consider the limitations, and, consequently, implement measures to prevent negative effects. Some of the deficiencies associated with using ethnographic research in SC research include a huge amount of time spent with the participants, setting-specific outcomes that might not be generalizable to other areas, high cost of running the study, and bias that could adversely affect the validity of data generation and interpretation.


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Moisander, J., & Valtonen, A. (2012). Interpretive marketing research: Using ethnography in strategic market development. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nurani, L. (2008). Critical review of ethnographic approach. Journal of Sociotechnology Edition, 14(7), 441-447.

Reeves, S., Kuper, A., & Hodges, B. (2008). Qualitative research methodologies: Ethnography. BMJ, 337(7668), 512-514. Doi:

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Scott, C., & Lewis, L. (2017). The international encyclopedia of organizational communication. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Tumilowicz, A., Neufeld, L., & Pelto, G. (2015). Using ethnography in implementation research to improve nutrition interventions in populations. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 11(3), 55-72.

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