BAMM’s Guide to Ethnography in China


Written By: Sam Lipscomb

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There’s no ‘one’ in China
China’s pretty big. It covers a landmass of almost 9.6 million square kilometres and is inhabited by 1.3 billion people. To put that in perspective, the UK covers a mere 242,000 square kilometres and is inhabited by approximately 64 million people.

But China is big not only geographically, but also culturally. Lifestyles and traditions vary enormously: urban vs. rural, young vs. old… There are 12 spoken languages across China with local variations within those. There’s just as big a mix of religions, with Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity being the most prominent. So, conducting research in China is equally complex and a (Chinese) cookie cutter approach won’t get you far.

High view looking out over the vast urban sprawl of Shanghai
High view looking out over the vast urban sprawl of Shanghai

At BAMM we have a global network of researchers, videographers, photographers and fixers that help us overcome barriers and immerse ourselves in any market. In China, one of the people we are fortunate enough to work with is Yeelin Tan, now based in Hong Kong, but with over 15 years experience conducting research in China. Her passion is stalking, talking and learning about people and their cultural differences. In the article below, we combined Yeelin’s local perspective with our global view to summarise what we know about working in China.

A foreigner in your own country
China is huge and diversified. Yeelin believes that appreciating this is important not only for overseas clients, but for Chinese native researchers and brands as well. It’s necessary to understand people’s culture or traditions everywhere in China. Just talking to them might not be enough to comprehend their lifestyle and habits entirely. Immersing ourselves into their lives definitely helps us and our clients have a better and clearer idea from which to optimise marketing strategies.

Yeelin explains a famous example, in which she found it interesting that many people living in Northern China have a fridge, which is odd because it’s freezing cold for nearly all of the year. However, through ethnography she found that those fridges are used mostly to store things that don’t require refrigeration – even things like clothes. The fridges weren’t actually plugged in, and perishable goods were stored outdoors.

Another difference to take into account is that in Western culture, people are typically brought up to express themselves, whereas Chinese people are culturally more reserved. Ethnography helps overcome this by immersing ourselves in their life to give us a more vivid picture. Moreover, as an increasing number of brands become interested in emerging markets in China such as 3rd tier cities and even rural areas, they are likely to encounter people who may be less articulate in the way they talk about brands and products. Talking to them in an environment that they are familiar with makes them more relaxed and more comfortable to talk.

It’s not what you ask, it’s the way that you ask it – and that’s what gets results
The subject of what can and cannot be researched differs in any country. Yet there is a tendency for the ‘uniqueness’ of China to be exaggerated in this respect. In fact the biggest difference is not the subjects that can be covered, but the types of questions that can be asked. Chinese respondents are particularly honest about what they do and do not know. They’re less likely than respondents in Western countries to make up answers to avoid looking foolish.

As a result, projective questions tend to work less well, as do speculative questions. Whereas in the West these types of questions often get us the most interesting answers, in China, they’re more likely to be met with a confused response.

BAMM ethnography in China
BAMM ethnography team interviewing local mechanics in Shanghai

Chinese whispers
In 2015 China’s Internet population hit 649 million, with 86 percent of those accessing via smartphones.

Yet Yeelin explains that online research hasn’t been broadly adopted in China because it’s difficult to guarantee sample reliability and representativeness.

She adds that this seems strange considering social media has such a big influence on the society. People have more channels to talk and express their opinions than ever before. Evidence from a recent ethnographic project on mechanics in China, found that they are using social media to catch-up with friends but also to share professional knowledge and ask for help.

The problem is that online research forces people to use platforms they don’t know and aren’t used to. We’re making them have ‘natural’ conversations where we want to have them, instead of immersing ourselves in the environments where these conversations are happening.

Online ethnography, or Netnography, could be a real solution to conducting robust, representative research in China.

Yeelin reiterates that one standardised methodology will always fall short in China. From our own experience, it’s important to tailor our approach to both our clients needs and to the audience we’re studying.

If you’re thinking about conducting research in China and would like to discuss any of these points in more detail please get in touch.

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