Ever since I started in qualitative research, more than 10 years ago now, I wondered how our work could be made more user-friendly — particularly when involving the biggest sector of the social strata, the DEs. Over that period my colleagues and I have often attempted to use projective techniques with them, but they’ve succeeded only rarely. Why? A tendency for consumers in that segment to take questions a bit too literally.

With the passing of time, however, and with greater exposure to different methodologies, I began to realise that the integration of ethnography in the research process really does work for the DE segment. Not only does it make qualitative research sexy, it gives this business a ‘heart’.

For one, it made me feel proud of being a Filipino. Having done several pieces of ethnographic work, I have just realized that the Philippines can be ethnographic heaven (saying this right now, my neck is being wrung by my colleagues due to blood, sweat and tears experienced when conducting an ethnographic study).

Immediate connection

Filipinos are generally warm and accommodating. Setting appointments may be extremely challenging, but once they get to see your face, there is an almost immediate connection. They welcome you in their homes as a friend. They treat you like a long-lost relative, serving you mountains of food.

I remember quite clearly the time when, working on one project, I was served a whole chicken and a platter of noodles. I have always believed that my physique does not have ‘big appetite’ written all over it but, just the same, I surprised myself by enjoying the ‘food feast’ and the conversations that went it.

So why does ethnography work well when studying DE markets? Well, I have had several encounters when my respondents were obviously enjoying being ethnoed. Videotaping and perhaps incentives may be considered good perks, but I have discovered that ethnography gives the respondents a means to show others their persona, their dreams and even frustrations. Ethnography is indeed a cathartic experience.

DE consumers in the Philippines, given its economic background, are usually preoccupied with everyday survival. Hence, there seems very little time to dwell on emotions. Talking with them one-on-one gives them a sense of being, of individuality. They interface with you, often revealing their raw self, expressing what seems to have long been hidden.

Many times, they shed tears of either joy or sadness because — to them — it appears that they’ve finally found someone who they can talk to and who is willing to listen to them. This is not uncommon among housewives who often tag themselves as ‘all round personnel, available 24/7’.

As a researcher, ethnography among DEs also becomes some sort of socio-civic work. It’s a humbling experience seeing the world through their eyes. Entering it is about ignoring your own personal preferences and making little sacrifices.

Researchers occasionally feel caught at the bottom of the food chain: either we get to do the dirty work or we get filtered out at times due to budget constraints. We may forget — or not realise — that we enable clients to understand consumers far more deeply because we allow them to experience first-hand the life of a DE consumer. It is like a module straight from Social Responsibility 101.

If this sounds too much like a fairy tale, where everything ends on a happy note, it’s worth remembering the twists and turns involved in ethnography. Filipinos have a big problem saying ‘no’. Doing so, or declining an invite, is always deemed rude. To save ‘face’, we may end up with a ‘no response’ from prospective respondents.

Thus, in my company, we take into account what Filipinos feel comfortable with. We bring in a ‘bridge’ — someone the prospective respondent knows personally — who then introduces us to the respondent. Incidentally, this concept of bridge applies to any income level and almost always does the trick, even to romantic relationships!

Researchers as ‘bugs’

There are also occasions when it seems like the methodology is not working out. For instance, we often describe ethnography in its simplest terms as ‘fly on the wall’. In fact, we’re sometimes literally seen as ‘bugs’, disrupting people’s routines and their environments. As a result, the problems involved making that first contact often seem insurmountable.

Moreover, there will also be issues concerning logistics. Once I had to carry out home visits in the rural Philippines. Transportation was difficult, lighting and ventilation deemed luxuries. It’s not uncommon to have to make do with gaslight, riding on wooden planks laid across a motorcycle seat. Is it worth all this trouble to talk to someone you hardly know in a completely alien environment?

Rich insights

So what is the added value of ethnography to research apart from generating rich insights amid the logistical challenges?

All told, ethnography gives researchers a good story to tell about consumers. The lessons learned and stories shared are invaluable to the brand, to the client and to the researcher. It makes us think how researchers value every human word or emotion expressed. Every anecdote we hear, every misadventure we encounter, every world we enter, ethnography makes research nobler and less business-centric. Our work — particularly in the Philippines — would be poorer without it.