Experiential Learning vs. Qualitative Research

Experiential learning, discovery through experience, is generally a subconscious act and an integral part of everyday life.  You have been doing it since the day you were born, and it is the primary way you learn.  For example, you may have learned from experience that when you spin around, you get dizzy. You could have also learned this fact by observing an older brother or sister spin around, get dizzy and fall down.  You may have also learned it from valuable, knowledgeable and equitable resources like your parents who told you not to spin around so much that you get sick or hurt yourself (of course, you had to try it yourself to actually learn what dizzy means).  Throughout life we have learned to make associations between different types of phenomena, items and ideas (spinning around sometimes produces dizziness, dizziness sometimes make you fall down, falling down can sometimes hurt). We humans are complex. It is not just “A” plus “B” equals “C.” Learning is actually enhanced when “A” does not always equal “B”; spinning does not always make you dizzy. Add ‘feelings’ to the equation and the complexity goes way up; “Sometimes when I fall down my mother pays attention to me.” Experiential learning in ethnography helps the researcher see the world from the other’s perspective and helps them to witness first-hand what problems they face, what seems to motivate them and what might truly delight them.

Case Study:

The food company researchers ate dinner with the family. The food was good and well prepared but clearly barely sufficient for the family of seven, let alone adding two adult researchers. There was not a lot of other food in the house and it was three days until payday. The researchers both claimed to have had a large lunch and ate sparingly and were very hungry at the end of the five hour visit. Being a hungry adult so the kids can eat is a memorable experience that is not likely to be forgotten. How many times had the parents gone to bed hungry so that their kids would not?

Experiential learning means having the experience. Drive the tractor, do the dishes, mow the lawn, assist the teacher or work the counter. No one knows the floor better than the person who mops it.

Theoretical Groundings of Ethnography

Ethnography differs from other forms of qualitative research methods in several fundamental ways:

First, it is an inductive approach to understanding.  The research ends with hypotheses, ratherthan beginning with them.  Through theuse of an open-ended, discovery-oriented approach to the research topic,ethnography allows knowledge to emerge rather than have it forced into pre-determined categories.  Ethnography is most likely to result incompletely new and unexpected learnings because it is open to what is really there,instead of being constrained by what is already known or presumed to berelevant.  As the famous anthropologist,Clifford Geertz, said, “The trick is to figure out what the devil theythink they’re up to.”

TableX.: Inductive and Deductive Approaches

Second, it focuses on context.  The learning is a result of the time spent inthe environment in which the behavior takes place, not in a lab or behind aglass wall. Careful on-site observation leads to informed questions, whichprovide a deeper level of understanding and new directions for action. Themeaning is embedded in the context in which it occurs.

For example, a conglomerate of tableware manufacturers wanted to learn what tableware truly meant to people.  They focused not on the artifact (the products) but on the past and present experience of eating at home.  An example of this came to be called the “Mother Role Void.”  As the traditional role of mother is changing, how do people learn about things such as how to choose tableware, set the table, display proper table manners, and cook recipes? The team found men and women avidly searching for ideas in a knowledge void filled by Martha Stewart and others. They began to theorize that their industry could fill this need.  Their findings revealed a large variety of symbolic connections that would never have surfaced otherwise (Perry, 1998). 

Third, it is holistic.  In contrast to other approaches, inquirystarts very broadly and then narrows to the specific focus.  From the time the site visit begins, analysisand interpretation inform the questions and lead to testableinterpretations.  When the data areanalyzed, themes and relationships emerge and an actionable framework can beconstructed. This synthesis, or way of “seeing the old landscape with neweyes,” merges the insider’s perspective with the researcher’s insights. 

While ethnography is a qualitative method, the box below defines the difference between qualitative and quantitative research.

As a qualitative tool, ethnography allows us to understand what an issue is like from an insider’s point of view.  The ethnographer tries to get the most complete and accurate perspective of the customer’s experience and how it affects and is affected by people’s beliefs and attitudes.  The goal is to better understand how the customer feels, why they do a certain behavior, how the customers make choices and what do their choices mean in the context of their broader goals and needs.

As anthropologist Mike Agar said,“Formulating the nature of the problem is where ethnography shines.  Such creativity comes out of numerous cyclesthrough a little bit of data, massive amounts of thinking, slippery think-likeintuition and serendipity.  Ethnographyemphasizes the interrelated detail in a small number of cases, rather thancommon propositions across a large number.”

Objective vs. Subjective Observation

The above diagram shows us that “our reality” is made up of two parts.  The first component is the raw facts we obtain through observation.  Observations are made through the five senses.  An example of this is observing that a person is wearing a red dress.  The next component in creating our reality, the lens, is interpreting the facts we have gathered through our past experiences, associations and feelings.  If we observed a woman wearing a red dress, we may assume she is boisterous and outgoing.  This assumption could have been made because you had a school friend who always wore red and she was boisterous and outgoing.  Our lens is where our biases come into play.  The observation and the lens together create our reality.  Our reality will be different from others’ realities because they may observe the same woman in the same red dress but assume something totally different.

When conducting research with your consumer, it is important to label in your notes those things that are raw facts and observations and those things that are your interpretation of the facts.  This will help you to identify when your biases are influencing your interpretation of the facts.

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