Home > Uncategorized > We’ve been everywhere, man: Participant observation and in-context interviewing

We’ve been everywhere, man: Participant observation and in-context interviewing

I like to say that our theme song here at Ethnographic Research, Inc. is I’ve been everywhere man.  We travel a lot, a whole lot, but more importantly, our ‘office’ (when doing fieldwork) can be almost anywhere.  Since one of the most important mandates of ethnography is to be there to observe the thing you are interested in, while it is happening, we find ourselves ‘going to work’ in a lot of unusual places.  When we were hired to understand how oral care happens, we spent months hanging out in bathrooms watching people brush, spit, and gargle all over the world.  When we were hired to understand how Gen Y families used their cars, we logged hundreds of miles squeezed into back seats, in between car seats.  When we were hired to understand teenage gamers, we hung out in strip mall card shops observing late night Dungeons’ and Dragons’ games.  When we were hired to understand pet health, we spent the day in veterinary clinics.  In fact, we spend the majority of our time hanging out in places where we have never been before.  Each new day of fieldwork presents a new context to explore. 

For most of the best ethnographers I know, this is a fairly easy challenge.  Sure it is a little unsettling to report to work at a different ‘office’ each day, but once you get used to it, it is kind of fun.  And most of the time, the transition period is fairly short.  In fact, it is almost imperative that we hit the ground running and get comfortable as soon as possible.  In each new setting there are unique distractions that must be overcome.  And really, we never know what each setting will bring.   Sometimes there are unique sights, smells, or sounds that we have to get used to.  Often there are additional people (especially in public places) that we must filter in or out depending on our goals.  Since we approach our work assuming that everything is potentially data, we generally try to take in as much as possible in each setting whether it is someone’s kitchen or a hospital operating room.  But there are some times that the ‘background’ of a particular setting asserts itself as foreground, and ethnographers have to struggle to focus on the topic at hand. 

This happened one day when I was working on a project designed to understand travel and tourism in Atlanta.  I had spent weeks hanging out in all of the usual tourist spots, seeing historical sites, eating at great restaurants, and visiting local attractions.  Based on what I was learning about what people did when they visited Atlanta, it became increasingly clear that I needed to visit the Cheetah (a very famous high-end gentlemen’s club) if I was to get a complete understanding of what drew visitors to the ATL.  So, we set about getting the appropriate permission and finding the right contacts.  Surprisingly it was fairly easy to gain access and we scheduled a time to visit the next day.  I had never been inside a gentlemen’s club before and really didn’t know what to expect, but I approached it like any other fieldwork setting, assuming that everything was potentially data and ready to take in all that was unique to the Cheetah.  Our visit started with a tour and then we settled in and began to talk to some of the employees and customers.  Just as we sat down, a show began around us.  Several, mostly nude, women were dancing on elevated stages in front, behind, and beside us. Although the people I was talking to were saying very interesting things, things that were probably really important to my understanding of tourism in Atlanta, I found it increasingly difficult to hear what they were saying.  My attention was drawn more and more to the dancing women and I found that I really just wanted to talk to them.  It’s important to note that this rarely happens to me.  No matter what the topic, I generally find whatever it is I’m studying to be pretty riveting.  Participants are always saying ‘you must be bored to death’, but the truth is, almost everything can be interesting if you know how and what to ask.  So, I found it a little bit unsettling to be struggling to stay focused.  But then I remembered that participant observation requires me to not only make observations and conduct interviews, but also to immerse myself into the experience and to become a true participant in the action.  And so I did.  I stopped trying to focus only on the patrons (the primary target of our research), and begin to take in the experience of being at the Cheetah. 

When we left the Cheetah, I felt like I had a very good understanding of the culture and history of the space, and why the Cheetah was such an important tourist draw for Atlanta.  As we got into our car, my colleague and I began to debrief and realized that we had both had trouble applying our usual approach to fieldwork during our time at the Cheetah.  Our typical ability to ‘jump right in’ and be-at-one with the space and with our participants had been put to the test.  Although both of us had found ourselves in lots of unusual and even uncomfortable fieldwork situations, we had never tried to conduct fieldwork in a space quite like the Cheetah.  As we drove through the ATL, I felt like I had passed another ethnographic rite of passage, and knew that I had definitely gathered another interesting story.    

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