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Ethnographic Fieldwork Methods

Fieldwork Methodologies

Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide

The Smithsonian Institution has a free downloadable guide to oral history interviewing.

Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Field Techniques

The American Folklife Center has a great page on fieldwork techniques, from a classic how-to guide.

Research Methods in the Social Sciences

This YouTube channel by Graham R. Gibbs (University of Huddersfield) includes a series of videos on grounded theory, surveys and sampling, questionnaire design, the research interview, social research methods and design, and more:

Fieldwork Tips

Participant-Observation

It’s important to create rapport and establish trust with the community you are in. You want to collaborate rather than merely observe when possible. Sometimes this means participating in events that are boring or outside your comfort range. This might mean staying up later than I like or eating something you're not fond of. But trust your intuition if you feel uncomfortable, and always keep your own safety (emotional and physical) your top priority.

Fieldnotes

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. Returning to update and annotate past notes will help you make sense of them later. 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. The Anthropod Blog has some helpful guidance for structuring fieldnotes.  

Interviewing

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? How will it be shared? Would they prefer a pseudonym? Also, always 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 how you want to answer them.

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, including how you intend to share the images. Remember that digital images are easily shared online, sometimes in unexpected ways. Some people may expect payment of some kind, so be prepared with some sort of response. Doodles and drawings are another way of making a visual documentation, especially impressionistic ones when photo/video is not allowed or ideal.

Questionnaires

Questionnaires can be useful for a few different reasons. You might use them as a survey tool at the beginning, to figure out who you want to follow up with an in-depth interview. Or you might use them to accompany an interview, for example to record demographic information.

Questionnaires are not a good idea if your participants are not literate or have difficulty with vision or hand mobility.

Make sure to word questions as inclusively as possible. Allow space for all identities and don’t make any assumptions. Free text answers take longer but can be more respectful than multiple choice. Also, don’t just ask ALL the demographic questions without considering which are actually important to your research.

Finding your Interlocutors

If you're lucky, you might have a ready-made group of people willing to talk to you. This is rarely the case! Field researchers often have to stretch their interpersonal comfort levels to meet people. Here are some suggestions:

  • Think about local community organizations related to your topic. Could you talk to someone there about providing an introduction?
  • Are you doing research in a small community? Consider typical community meeting spaces such as markets, churches, and parks.
  • Are you doing research on the Internet? Ask relevant forum admins if you can post. Also think about harnessing Facebook and other social media platforms and asking people to reblog and share.
  • Is the group you hope to work with difficult to access? You may need to ask permission from somebody in a leadership position.
  • Don't forget to network. Every time you have a positive interaction, ask the person if they would be willing to introduce you to somebody else.

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.
  • Interlocutor: nicely corresponds to the dialogic nature of fieldwork, but a bit jargon-y
  • Consultant: respectful but sometimes confusing.
  • Friend: use only if true.
  • Collaborator: again, use only if true

Challenges

There is no such thing as a perfect fieldwork experience! Expectations and reality don't always match up, technology may fail, a participant may decide they'd rather not be recorded, you might get lost and show up late, and so on. Don't despair: it's always a learning experience and these things happen to the most experienced field researcher. Here are some common challenges you may want to prepare for:

  • You may be flirted with, especially if you are female-bodied. This can be awkward if every interaction turns into a request for a date when you'd really prefer to talk about your work. There's no magic answer for what to do: you might laugh it off, you might decide to talk to someone else, you might make up a spouse, or you might find that a certain level of "safe" flirting is conducive to rapport. Use your best judgment and think carefully about your boundaries. Listen to your instincts if you feel unsafe.
  • You may be lied to, either because someone doesn't want you asking questions, or because someone thinks it's funny, or even because someone really wants you to succeed and gives you the answers they think you want. That's okay--it's useful information, in its own way. Hopefully, you'll talk to enough people that you can easily pick out data that doesn't match.
  • You may be asked for money or other resources. Depending on your academic department and approved fieldwork plan, you may decide to pay informants a small stipend for their assistance--this is common in psychology but rare in anthropology. If this is not in your plan or your budget, though, this could be awkward if it comes up. I often offer something small and symbolic as a thanks--whether it's treating the person to a coffee for the interview or offering to email them any photos I took. Be careful though; there's a line between respectful compensation and bribery.
  • Your technology may (will probably at some point) fail. ALWAYS have backup batteries and a plan B.