Performing Ethnographic Research: The Importance of Reflexivity


Ethnographic research is the process of collecting qualitative data on a certain culture or group of people by going right to the field site. When we do ethnographic research we want to be completely unobtrusive and observe the way that people do the things they do in their environment. This type of research can be very helpful in helping marketers to further understand their consumers or it could just help anyone find out more about why people do the things that they do in particular environments.

During my study abroad experience in Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to perform ethnographic research on the open air market culture alternately known as Farmer’s Markets here in the United States. Within the process I learned how to stay observant and avoid biases by constantly reflecting on your own discourse as the researcher also known as reflexivity.

Reflexivity happens when one is mindful of their subjectivity. Normally, we tend to take our own life and project it on to other cultures unknowingly. It is because when we are tempted, by emotion, to describe the things we see we are naturally predisposed to tell it how we see it based on our very own experiences.

For example, I took a shot at ethnographic research and took quick notes at the beginning stages during a visit to a huge fair that took place in the far edge of Buenos Aires.

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Keeshawn Nicholson at San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires, Argentina

The notes below are very subjective and an example of what NOT to do as a researcher. They are clearly written for my readability but would never go into an ethnographic essay or further research because it does not note important qualitative data that rightfully explains the culture there that day. I have written comments in red to elaborate on the reasons why the notes taken are not ideal ethnography notes.

Feria de Matadero, Buenos Aires Argentina

October 23rd 2016
First Visit: The Outskirts of Matadero

 1st notes

  • Sunday, slow pace yet hectic at the same time – the words slow yet hectic describe something that is beyond a comprehensible description to someone who has not seen what I have seen in my life. Slow pace yet hectic, for them could bring about the memory of a horse pacing. The proper way to describe such a scene when doing ethnographic research would be “The people around me where moving hastily without any awareness of their surroundings although the vendors were standing still in one spot and seemingly going nowhere for a long time”.
  • hundreds maybe thousands of customers
    • hundreds of vendors
  • People come to just hang out, dance not necessarily buy anything
  • Vendors conversing with each other, neighbors, friends, laughing, drinking mate with each other
  • Vendors of the same product coexisting with one another
  • hot and ready food
    • choripan, stews
    • Brazilian, Paraguayan, Armenian, shawarma, Fatay, flags posted and hanging from the front of the tents
  • Families, a lot of families, almost only families present – assumption
  • There is a very very small tourist presence unlike San Telmo – to compare the tourist size to San Telmo’s suggest that everyone knows what San Telmo is
  • People are dressed as gauchos -what are they wearing?, makes me wonder of the history of mataderos
  • There are ponies, alpacas, live artists; music and visual, live sports; some kind of sport with horses and a ball, street art – the place is bright and lively with a high spirit – bright lively with high spirit are subjective descriptions. The proper way to go about this is to list colors, smells, sounds and actions of people surrounding you
  • Trees are dispersed around the plaza and throughout the fair
  • Tents: colors of white, red, blue and green
  • Used products -believing that I am seeing used products is an assumption sold on the outskirts, sitting on blankets or tarps
  • So many vendors, so many, you could get ANYTHING here – non-descriptive, does not list examples. Also subjective. Proper way would  be to list vendor products I come across or items I see being purchased.
  • Hungry but not finding any of the stands appealing or to appear appetizing
    • I choose to buy choripan from one particular vendor
      • realized it may because she is a woman and she is wearing an apron and gloves,  noticed majority of other vendors are not wearing, gloves, apron, hairnet, just dark clothes, casual t-shirts and khakis. Other vendors are men and leaving their tents occasionally
      • she is not very social, focused on the food, stirring large pots and serving her customers, she seems stern, not very interested in her surroundings, solely focused on what she is doing
      • She owned the only tent with tables right next to it
        – the four bullets above are entirely based on my experiences. Does not focus on the culture around me but instead focuses on my assumptions and first impressions. Completely disregards the culture and instead imposes my own.
  • Choripan $50, Sprite $40
  • Workers are slow moving, not in a rush, walking at a slow pace across to the other side of their tent, serving at an even slower pace  – to me it was slow, because of my experiences with fast food culture and fast service, to them it may have been a perfectly normal pace
  • It reminds me of being at a family cookout, people are amiable, smiling, comfortable being next to whoever they are next to, completely comfortable in their surroundings

Gathered thoughts from first notes

This Fair is completely saturated with Vendors and people.

I was able to realize my subjectivity to buying from a vendor who wore chef appropriate attire and carried about as a Chef. Meaning, someone who took the time to adhere to values of sanitation, and paid special attention to the food she was preparing. Maybe these are her own values, but her practices played a huge role in my decision to purchase Choripan for $50 and sprite for $40 from her tent; when there were may 5 other vendors selling essentially the same product right next to her, possibly at a lower price.

My assumption that this chef took the time to value sanitation is me reflecting my values again on a completely different culture.

Questions derived from first notes….

When customers come to the fair, what exactly are they looking for? What do they expect to purchase or buy?

Is this just a hobby or Part-Time job for Vendors?

What is the significance of this fair that makes everyone come out on a Sunday? – this question assumes that everyone rests on Sundays

Taking notes in a foreign environment helped me realize how important it is to stay reflexive when performing any kind of task that involves observing a particular setting. It was also one of my greatest learning experiences because I was able to see how subjective we are when describing situations and the people around us. This kind of subjectivity we are all prone to is often what causes us to misunderstand other cultures and/or their actions. 

Stay tuned for more articles in the Performing Ethnographic Research Series.

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