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What is the difference between ethnography and digital ethnography?

What is the difference between ethnography and digital ethnography?


Ethnography and digital ethnography generally share the same objectives, however, the process for execution and the tools used for each are different.

Digital ethnography has been growing in popularity for the past decade or so, and the pandemic amplified adoption rates. Now, many researchers deploy this remote method regularly and even prefer it to traditional ethnography.

Key Differences

As previously mentioned, the core goals of ethnography and digital ethnography are the same, where they differ is in their execution and the tools used. Below are some key differences that set apart ethnography from digital ethnography.

Direct vs. Indirect Observation

Usually, in-person ethnography utilizes direct observation to capture every action taken by a participant. This can be difficult through online platforms, especially if your target audience is not particularly tech-savvy or you are researching a sensitive topic that users may feel uncomfortable recording. Digital ethnography uses indirect observation, instead, to achieve the same objectives. Generally, by having participants record their own experiences with their mobile devices.

Digital Ethnography Tools

The use of online platforms is a requirement for digital ethnography, whereas it’s optional for in-person ethnography. With digital ethnography, al of the tasks and interactions occur through a platform or app, whereas with in-person ethnography, the actual observation happens face-to-face. Digital tools make the analysis portion of ethnographic research much more seamless and enable researchers to reach conclusions more quickly.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Digital Ethnography

A digital ethnography participant taking a picture of a busy street.

Advantages of Digital Ethnography

More Flexibility

Since digital ethnography is carried out remotely, it offers much more flexibility in the logistics of the project. Secondarily, the actual tasks can be adjusted or repeated throughout the study (if needed). Since researchers don’t just have just one chance to collect information from a participant, as they would with in-person ethnography, there’s more opportunity for exploration and obtaining deeper insights.

Agile Fielding

With traditional ethnography, you might also limit your base of qualified respondents due to geographical constraints. Because digital ethnography is conducted remotely, it opens up your respondent pool to an international level, eliminating geographic restrictions.

Cost Reduction

Using an all-in-one platform reduces costs. It’s no longer necessary to partner with multiple firms to complete an ethnographic study. Digital ethnography tools give researchers easier access to their consumers. Reductions in travel, project setup, field time, and analysis also lead to cost savings.

Less Invasive

It’s common for respondents to act differently than they would naturally when they are being observed, this is commonly known as the Hawthorne effect. In ethnography, it can be hard to avoid this bias, especially when in person. However, the research can feel less invasive for the respondent when it’s conducted online. People these days are generally comfortable taking videos on their phones and chatting via text messaging.

One of the ways digital ethnography is carried out is through social listening. This allows companies to asses the “free behavior” of customers because they are acting naturally without any consideration for being observed. Companies can capture authentic sentiments from customers which can lead to better product development.

Disadvantages of Digital Ethnography

In general, digital ethnography is incredibly versatile and can easily be substituted for in-person ethnography, which is why it has grown in popularity in recent years. There are a few disadvantages that might prevent researchers from choosing digital ethnography.

Sensitive & Complicated Topics

Using online research might not be best suited for sensitive topics or extremely complicated processes. Sometimes, it is better to have a rapport with the respondent established in person. For example, if you are studying any medical topics or sensitive personal matters. If the product being studied has complexity, then it might also be better to execute research in person.

Researcher Bias

As with all types of qualitative research, there is the opportunity for observational and confirmation bias. This can be reduced by working in teams during analysis and using iterative processes that involve constantly reviewing the themes in the data.

Target Audience

Occasionally, you might be conducting research for a target audience that is not tech-savvy. In these cases, in-person research is required to be able to collect data. It’s always critical to accommodate your respondents’ needs during any research study.


In summary, digital ethnography is becoming more widely used than traditional ethnography because it removes many of the perceived barriers. Being able to execute studies that were previously too expensive and time-consuming has opened the door for any research team to collect rich ethnographic data.

In today’s landscape, consumers have more power than ever and often dictate the path of a brand (that is, if the brand is listening to its customers). With that in mind, the variety of ethnographic tools available makes it easier than ever for researchers to quickly understand what their customers are thinking, doing, and feeling.

Digital ethnography will continue to grow in popularity as more organizations become aware of the methodology and how it helps deliver rich, agile insights.