Archive for February, 2010

Taking It All in Stride: An Ethnographer’s Guide to Grace in the Field

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

We had just finished spending two hours with a handsome, lovely young couple in Boston for our study on facial hygiene. We got a tour of their home and spent a good chunk of our time in their bathroom as we got the skinny on how they each took care of their faces, how they organized the bathroom space and how they navigated the universe of cohabitation. We laughed heartily as they made plenty of jokes and told stories about boogers and nose picking. “I guess it’s good to know you pick your boogies with a Kleenex,” said the wife.

“Well this was fantastic fieldwork!” I thought to myself. Something just clicked with this couple. My colleague and I were excited about visiting them for our second round of fieldwork, which we would use to better understand the patterns that had started to emerge. For our first round we were getting a broad understanding of facial hygiene and how facial tissue fits into that. For the second, we would hone in on some of the themes that would be most beneficial to our client’s business objectives. It was a really fun project.

We gathered our little camera and engaged in the appropriate goodbye. I started out the door but it stuck. “Oh, you just have to give it a tug,” said the wife. In any participant’s home we take the path of least insistence, so I quickly moved out of the way to let her open her door. I certainly didn’t want to break anything. She opened the door. “Bye, thanks again!” I said, and I took a fervent step forward.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you feel like, “Hey, I’ve got it going on today. I look good, I feel good, I am the [wo]man!” only to trip on the sidewalk in a very compromising sort of way?

I do. My fervent step forward launched me head first into their screen door, the one I know existed because I opened it to walk into their house when we arrived. Like a caterpillar caught in a spiderweb, the more I tried to fight my way off the screen door the more my head, arms and legs entangled. I ripped the door, and not just the screen but the entire door, right off its frame.

Have you ever enjoyed that scene from the movie Old School where Will Ferrell gets shot in the neck with a horse tranquilizer dart and then falls in the pool? On his way down everything juuuuuussst ssssllllloooooows doooowwwnnnn. That’s what it felt like for me, because it was only 5 seconds of real time, if that, but I experienced a slow reel of humiliation.

My video camera, cell phone and tapes went flying. I fell flat on my face. “I’m so sorry, I will replace it!” came out of my mouth. My fellow ethnographer stood behind me next to the wife. “Are you ok?” they asked. I looked over at the husband, who stood wide-eyed in the doorway with a mixed expression of utter shock and stifled laughter.

I just kept repeating over and over, “We will replace this, I am so embarrassed.” And we all laughed and laughed. My fellow ethnographer grabbed me by the arm and we walked to the car. I couldn’t contain myself and once we got in the car, neither could she. She laughed for the next 15 minutes as she drove me back to my hotel in Brookline.

We replaced the screen door for our participant. And, they invited us back for the second round of our study. Talk about breaking down barriers to rapport!

Categories: Ethnography, Interview

You do what? Building Rapport with Participants

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

People often wonder how we’re able to go into people’s homes for several hours, with a video camera, and talk to them about their lives–not to mention that they are willing to show us inside their cupboards, trash cans and other spaces generally considered off-limits to the general public. We often get asked, “How do you get them to do it?”

Well, we don’t. At least we don’t ‘get’ anyone to do anything. Here’s the thing about ethnography and ethnographers. We genuinely are very, very interested in the people we visit, and we cherish what they have to tell and show us.

We’re not just interested in specific information about specific products or services. In ethnography we go into each experience with eyes and ears wide open, and without an agenda about what we expect to see, hear or experience. When we do that we get a whole lot of information that helps us really understand what our clients want to know. And if we did have expectations, the people we visit would surely pick up on that and not be as likely to share with us.

So if you want some tricks of the trade, we can share a few. It won’t necessarily make you an ethnographer, but it will help you understand the ethnographic approach.

1. Have a-wear-ness. If you show up to a participant’s house wearing dress slacks and a tie, you might not learn as much as you would have had you arrived in jeans and a sweater. On the flip side, show up to a physician’s office wearing those same jeans and you might not learn much at all. In ethnographic fieldwork aim to blend in to your surroundings. You’ll make people feel comfortable but also give yourself credibility as someone who can navigate different cultures.

2. Have a slice of humble pie. A lot of us are used to having to be the expert in daily life (how else would we do our jobs!). But when it comes to ethnography, our participants are the experts. Remember, we are trying to understand daily life to really get at how products and services are conceptualized and experienced. So what you may typically think of as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ just isn’t so during an ethnography. Stifle that urge to tell someone, “You’re not doing that right.” There’s no quicker way to stop a conversation dead in its tracks and trash the opportunity for learning.

3. They’re not subjects, they’re participants! We talk with and learn from the people we spend time with during an ethnography. Not the other way around. Remember, they are the experts.

4. We never, ever get carte blanche. Just because someone has invited us into her home, it doesn’t mean we have free reign. It’s not only impolite to wander off into spaces we haven’t received permission to see, it’s downright unethical. Especially when the use of video is involved. Honoring the privacy and confidentiality of our participants is important and something we take very very seriously.

5. Less said is best. If it’s done right, an ethnographic interview looks a lot like two people having a conversation over coffee. Normally when there is a pause in conversation people have a tendency to fill it with words. If you can resist the urge, your participant will likely tell you something you never would have known had you added your two sense.

Categories: Ethnography, Interview

The Top 10: Fieldwork with Kids

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Top 10 things we recently discovered during fieldwork with kids about family gaming and communication/technology.

10. Just how quickly a video game can suck them into “the zone”. And what the zone actually is.

9. Just how fast a text from their friend can suck them out of “the

8. What REALLY happens when a 12-year-old and 6-year-old girl try to play
Sorry together!?

7. Are those board game laughs always about the game? Nope. Sometimes it’s the fart!

6. Discovering how loud and chaotic Rock Band really is for a family of six.

5. The frequent and never-ending correction of their parents on how
to text, use an iPod, start the Wii, etc.

4. Seeing how kids REALLY behave during a game of monopoly. Chaos theory!

3. Learning the multitude of ways kids communicate without ever opening
their mouths. No, not ventriloquism. How about that conversation analysis?

2. Texting with one thumb? No problem.

1. Texting with one thumb while also talking to mom? You better believe it.

Say What?

February 8, 2010 Leave a comment

For the past several months we have been talking with families to learn more about how different generations communicate and how technology impacts their day-to-day decisions about communicating. Whoa, is this ever a rich, broad and diverse ethnography! We’re talking with kids as young as 6 and working our way across the life span to get the skinny on all things interpersonal. Talk about a sociological minefield! We are starting to uncover oodles about identity and the impact of technology [ahem, facebook anyone?] on identity formation, about voyeurism, narrative and compulsion, about the functional and symbolic nature of electronic devices, about rites of passage, about reference groups, about concentric zones…really we could go on and on about what we’re learning. More on that later!

Season’s Greetings: An Ethnography on Attitudes and Behaviors Around Holiday Card Making

February 5, 2010 Leave a comment

We spent time with women and mothers to learn more about how they approach the holiday season, and specifically, how they go about sending holiday cards. We learned about their annual traditions, how they decorate their homes, what they try to get accomplished during the last month of the year and how they really, really feel about everything that makes up the holiday season. We also explored the universe of holiday cards with them, from paper to photo to ecards, and we learned more about what these women look for when they set about the task of wishing their friends and family Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Holidays, etc. We were just as overwhelmed as they were with all the options for cards. There’s just so much to choose from! We learned a whole heck of a lot about the creative process, about multi-tasking and about the impact of technology on decision-making, not to mention how everyday life impacts all these things.

Categories: Ethnography

Growing Pains: An Ethnography on the Impact of Acromegaly on Daily Life

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Of all our projects on health and illness, this was one of our favorites. We wanted to better understand how having acromegaly impacts the daily life of the men and women who have it. To learn, we spent time with men and women who have acromegaly throughout the U.S., and we also asked them to keep video diaries of their experiences in between our visits. We also spent time with endocrinologists throughout the U.S. to learn more about how they treat acromegaly, and we even got to go on doctor visits with some of our participants! We discovered so much about what it means to have acromegaly, from a physiological standpoint but also in terms of how it changes how those who have it relate to the world, not to mention how it can turn what we think we know about the nature of illness on its head. We are extremely grateful to our participants, each and every one, for sharing so much of their lives with us.

Categories: Ethnography