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, the researchers, do ethnographic research we want to be completely unobtrusive and observe the way that people do the things that they do in their natural environment. In regards to marketing, this type of research can be very helpful in efforts to understanding their consumers on a deeper level.

Below, is an example of notes I took in the midst of my research on the Farmers Markets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I wanted to know what brought people to the events.

The Farmers Market?


During my study abroad experience in Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to perform ethnographic research on the open air market culture alternatively known here in the United States as Farmers’ Markets. Within the process I learned how to stay observant and avoid biases. Although this may sound easy, it is not because it takes constant self-awareness in a highly stimulating setting. By constantly reflecting on my own discourse as the researcher, also known as reflexivity, I often found that my ideas of what was being interpreted were heavily shaped by the society I grew up in.

Let’s Talk About It: Reflexivity

Reflexivity happens when one is mindful of their subjectivity. It is not objective thinking, which is the act of completely removing the human experience from one’s thoughts in order to make a judgement. Instead it is a branch or conduit to thinking critically. Normally, 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. We tend to take our own life and project it onto other beings and cultures unknowingly.

However, reflexivity helps us to think critically about our assumptions by utilizing self-awareness. I included examples of my field notes below which include the process of

  1. Taking initial notes on the field – which will always be subjective
  2. Going over those notes to pinpoint subjectivity – And using critical thought to asking questions
  3. Reflecting on the notes
Keeshawn Nicholson at San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires, Argentina


On the Field

Feria de Matadero, Buenos Aires Argentina

October 23rd 2016
The Outskirts of Matadero, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • 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 is subjective because it does not tell who or what is slow and how they became that way. It is not descriptive enough to set the scene. The proper way to describe such a scene when doing ethnographic research would be

    “The people in a crowd around me where moving past me hastily without any awareness of their surroundings while the vendors stood still in one spot and seemed to go nowhere for long periods of 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, one of the more frequented open air markets in Buenos Aires.
  • People are dressed as gauchos -what are they wearing? what makes you think they are dressed that way?, makes me wonder of the history of mataderos – what about the “gauchos” evoke this feeling?
  • 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 all subjective descriptions. The proper way to go about this is to list colors, smells, sounds and the actions of the people surrounding you
  • Trees are dispersed around the plaza and throughout the fair
  • Tents: colors of white, red, blue and green
  • Used products sold on the outskirts, sitting on blankets or tarps -believing that the products are being sold and that they are used is an assumption
  • So many vendors, so many, you could get ANYTHING here – non-descriptive, does not list examples. Also an exaggeration. 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. Example “She owned the only tent with tables next to it” implies the western ideal of franchise and ownership for this particular food stand. 
  • 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 notes

This Fair is completely saturated with Vendors and people. In the moment, I was able to realize my subjectivity buying from a vendor who wore the appropriate attire and carried about as a Chef. Which meant to me, that she 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 as well, 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 cook was a “chef” who “valued sanitation” and wore “chef appropriate attire” is me reflecting my values on another culture. In addition, I used my experiences, my values and my decision making as a marker for the reasons behind my choice to buy food from the vendor instead of trying to understand why there were more customers in line than at other vendors, even though the food was priced at a higher price point than the others.

Questions derived from 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

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

This article is in no way a reflection of my research capacities to date. The exercise has helped me hone my critical thinking skills as well as helped me become better at observation. I recommend trying it at least once if you are trying to understand the importance of qualitative research or the culture of a people.

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