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Ethnographic Fieldwork Methods

Institutional Review Board

All students doing research with human subjects for their theses are required to follow the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process. This process protects the safety of both the researcher and the informants.

You will work with your faculty advisor to prepare your proposal, using forms available on the IRB website. The Board typically comes to a decision in 2-3 weeks (longer in the summer). Revisions are occasionally required, so plan ahead and begin this process early.

For more information, and to access the required forms, visit the Office of the Provost IRB Site.

Consent Forms

Consent forms are used to ensure that research participants are fully aware of what their role in the research is and how their information will be used.

The basic elements of informed consent are as follows:

  • A statement that the study involves research,
  • an explanation of the purposes of the research and
  • the expected duration of the subject's participation,
  • a description of the procedures to be followed, and identification of any procedures which are experimental

(2) A description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject;

(3) A description of any benefits to the subject or to others which may reasonably be expected from the research;

(4) A disclosure of appropriate alternative procedures or courses of treatment, if any, that might be advantageous to the subject;

(5) A statement describing the extent, if any, to which confidentiality of records identifying the subject will be maintained;

(6) For research involving more than minimal risk, an explanation as to whether any com­pen­sation and an explanation as to whether any medical treatments are available if injury occurs and, if so, what they consist of, or where further information may be obtained;

  • An explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects’ rights,  [Suggested text: If you have further questions about the research or your rights as a research participant, please contact (your name and contact information). You may also address any concerns to _____, chairperson of Haverford College's IRB (a committee with oversight over human subject research).]
  • and whom to contact in the event of a research-related injury to the subject; and

(8) A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled.



(taken from the IRB proposal form)

Consent form templates:

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Swarthmore College has helpfully compiled a range of consent form templates.

The Office for Human Subject Protection at Rochester University provides several template options, including short forms in various languages. 

Interviewing Methods

In-Depth Interviews are one-on-one interactions that are typically long in duration and conversational in style. These types of interviews tend to seek more personal data: deeper explorations of the participant's lived experience. When formulating interview questions, 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.

Life Story, Testimonial, or Oral History Interviews are even longer still, often taking several sittings. In this mode, you are more of a documentarian than a driver of the content being shared. That is, your informant is offering you the story of their life as a whole, rather than a few targeted topics. Your role is to guide the teller by asking about time periods and relationships, reminding them where they left off last time, and mainly being a respectful listener.

Autoethnography is a research method in which you intentionally incorporate your own lived experiences and positionality. This feminist research method asks you to situate your own experiences within your research process, particularly 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.

Surveys can be conducted via telephone, face-to-face interviews, mailed questionnaires, or the Internet. Surveys can be used to collect both quantitative data (such as age or other demographic characteristics) and qualitative data (any number of open-ended free-text question). Surveys are a quick way to gather a standardized set of data. When using surveys to predict behavior or assess population characteristics, be aware of common errors (sampling, coverage, nonresponse, and measurement).

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).

Tools & Technology

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.

The National Association of Student Anthropologists has supplied this list of field equipment with the student budget in mind.

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.

You might also consider using a digital tool like Evernote to help you store and organize your fieldnotes, as described by David Keyes.