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ENGL 307: Performing Identity (HC) Spring 2015: Performance Ethnography

Anthropology/English 307: Performing Identity: Race/Gender/Sexuality in Theory and Practice (Pryor) Spring 2015

Interviewing Methods

In-Depth Interviews are one-on-one interactions that are typically long in duration and involve researcher self-disclosure. These types of interviews seek more personal data: deeper explorations of the participant's lived experience. When formulating interview questions, be sure to structure them as open-ended, to encourage your informants to provide rich details and go beyond the basic "yes or no" format. Don't be dismayed when an informant goes off on a tangent that you didn't expect. You may discover new lines of inquiry and connections that you didn't consider before.

Autoethnography is a form of retrospective self-interview, where the researcher remembers and recounts their own memories and feelings. This can be useful as part of a feminist approach of situating your own experiences within your research, if you are a member of the community you are studying.

Virtual Interviews can be done via telephone, email, virtual chat, or any other kind of virtual platform. They can be asynchronous (meaning participants are not online at the same time) or synchronous (meaning the exchange is taking place in real time). There are several benefits: you can easily and quickly poll a lot of people; you can interact with people who live far away; you can interact with people with disabilities that find it easier to communicate virtually; if you are doing research relating to social media or virtual interaction then this is your "field." However, there are also drawbacks: responses tend to be shorter, since you might not have the opportunity to probe for deeper responses; the informal nature of the medium may inhibit more "serious" or emotional discussion; and some responses, particularly emails, may be heavily edited, so you do not get spontaneous reactions.

Focus Groups are group interviews where the participants interact with each other as well as the researcher. This can be a fruitful method because groups create shared meaning together. People often trigger memories in each other, leading to deeper exploration of topics and sometimes surprising tangents. If participants do not know each other, you may need to provide ice-breaker activities, and bear in mind that people may be very reticent, especially at first. Focus groups can be structured as conversational (letting the participants take the lead) or content-oriented (researcher provides topics and guides the interaction).


You may decide to use some form of technology to document interviews, events, locations, and your thoughts. Digital audio recorders, video cameras, still image cameras, microphones, and laptops are all potentially useful devices. If you decide to simply use your smart phone, I would still recommend using an external microphone (otherwise your interviews may not be easy to hear and will certainly not be of sufficient quality for use in projects such as websites or documentaries). The following websites contain guidelines for using technology in the field, as well as processing and disseminating your digital data.

Digital Audio Field Recording Equipment Guide, prepared by Andy Kolovos, contains detailed information about various devices from a respected folklorist.

Oral History Tutorial, created by Matrix, presents best practices for recording, processing, and delivery of audio.

Digital Omnium, created by Doug Boyd, offers reviews of fieldwork technology as well as very good advice about taking oral histories.

Doug Boyd also provides a set of questions to help you choose recorders and microphones.

Fieldwork Tips


It’s important to create rapport with the community you are in. You want to collaborate rather than observe coldly from the sidelines. Sometimes this means participating in events that are boring or outside your comfort range. For example, I sometimes find myself staying up later than I like or perhaps eating something I’m not fond of. But trust your intuition if you feel uncomfortable, and always keep your own safety (emotional and physical) your top priority.


Fieldnotes help you remember your experiences. You will forget things otherwise! I tend to bring a notebook with me and jot things down when possible, and then type up my notes and expand on them at the end of the day. Include the date, day of the week, time, where you were, who you spoke to, and the topics you spoke about (as detailed as you can). Remember the affective dimension- how did you feel? Was there shared laughter? A somber mood? Did the person sit close to you? Did they avoid eye contact? Did they gesture as they spoke? Doodling, for example architecture or food, might also help you remember what you saw.


If you are using consent forms, offer to read them out loud, to avoid embarrassing anyone who may not be literate or a fast reader. Also make sure you use natural language rather than jargon. Explain what it means to be named in a research paper- who might read it? Would they prefer a pseudonym? Also, be sure to ask permission to record and to take photographs if you want to do that. Always explain what you are doing with the information and give them a way to say no.

Take notes on affect, location, gesture, proximity, etc. during the interview. Did the participant pause a lot when talking about a certain thing? Were they excited and speaking fast? Were they animated, using large gestures? Were they keeping their bodies small and still?

Remember, this is a human interaction. It’s okay for you to be human too. People will likely ask you questions too. You can decide if you want to answer them honestly.

Always end the interview by thanking them. They gave their time as well as their honesty about personal things. It’s a gift.

Visual Documentation

Photographs and video can be useful just for remembering your experience and the people you collaborated with. Or you may want to use it to augment your written thesis, or for a different kind of project (documentary, website, poster presentation, conference presentation, future classes you teach, and so on). Make sure you ask permission of anybody you photograph or video record. Some people may expect payment of some kind, so be prepared with some sort of response.

What Do I Call Them?

The question of what we call the people who talk to us is a fraught one. Terms are imprecise and often have troublesome connotations. Here are some possibilities:

  • Informant: someone who provides information. However, also used by government agencies.
  • Subject: perhaps useful if you never meet the person and interact as a human being.
  • Source: same as above.
  • Respondent: implies a one-way exchange.
  • Interviewee: functional, but narrow.
  • Participant: implies agency, but also implies ownership, which may or may not be ideal.
  • Colleague: same as above.
  • Consultant: respectful but sometimes confusing.
  • Friend: use only if true.