Home > Ethnography, Process > Forming connections in the field: Three case studies on the bonds that ethnography builds

Forming connections in the field: Three case studies on the bonds that ethnography builds

The bonds ethnographers make with their participants can come in unexpected ways. Years ago I was in Australia studying hair loss, and my participant’s apartment looked like it would be walkable from the hotel. This was back when we used paper maps, and I would measure distance by how many thumb-widths point A was from point B. What I thought might be a twenty-minute walk turned out to be more like an hour jog in the Sydney heat, so I showed up late, sweaty, and panting like a dog. Fortunately, the guy was as nice as could be, and it ended up being very rich, surprisingly intimate fieldwork. As much as I’d like to, I can’t really attribute that to my highly refined skills and astute questions. Rather, I think that by arriving a disheveled mess, by showing this very human side of myself, it gave him free rein to do the same.

That day we connected over dripping sweat and blistered toes, but often our bonds with participants are deeper and longer lasting. It’s only natural that ethnographers in academia who spend years with the people they’re studying might build these bonds, but it can happen in business ethnography too, where we might only have a few hours with participants. You don’t always develop intimacy with participants, and it isn’t always necessary in order to walk away with good data, but it’s still great when it happens.

All ethnographers, including my co-workers at Ethnographic Research, Inc. will likely have similar stories of the connections they’ve made in the field. Here are a few of mine, along with a few ideas of how the methods and contexts of ethnography might have fueled the bond-building.

Watching fireworks with the Wilsons

A travel and leisure company hired us to understand families on vacation—a fun topic for sure. We did all of the fieldwork in Orlando, going to both the lesser-known attractions, like the Titanic Museum and the Holy Land Experience (a religious theme park), to the bigger names like Universal and Disney World. Our job was to become ethnographic tourists and temporary members of the families in the sample, popping in for participant observation multiple times throughout their trips. I was “Uncle Steve, the one that keeps staring at us.”

Each family was great, but I really bonded with one in particular, the Wilsons. The mom, Marianne, has a personality that can light up a room and is one of the funniest people I’ve met. The dad, Paul, is much more reserved, the “strong and silent” type. He had fun, but I always got the sense that his biggest joy was seeing his family have a good time. Marianne and Paul have two teenage daughters: both good, smart kids who share their parents’ love of all things Disney. They are the kind of people who would have gotten along with anybody, but we really hit it off. On our last day, together we hung out for hours longer than we were slotted for so they could show me Epcot’s fireworks show, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. We still send each other Disney-themed Christmas cards every year.

Why did we get on well? The Wilsons were very friendly and that’s certainly helpful, but there’s probably more to it. We got along well with all of the families in the sample, probably more so than a typical project. Some of it might have been transference: we were observing one of the happiest times of the year for the families, and those good feelings about their vacations became good feelings about us ethnographers along the way.

The context also provided the families an ideal “looking glass self,” a way of gauging how they think they appear to others. With an ethnographer at your side, you might be more self-reflective, more aware of how this outsider is perceiving you and your kids. Sometimes this can be a good thing, sometimes not so good. On vacation, your family might put aside its typical troubles for a few days, everyone might stop quibbling for a minute. Seeing the ethnographer there, observing you and your family in all of its glory, can feel great. You might think, “Yeah, we are pretty awesome.” Still, not all of the trips were as fun and fancy-free as the Wilson’s trip. Some continued to quibble and some didn’t leave their problems at home—those families don’t send me Christmas cards.

Gaining mana in game shops

A games company wanted to learn about teenage boys who were into collectible card games (CCGs) like Pokémon and Magic the Gathering so we dove headfirst into the fascinating world of the local game shops they hung out at. More than just retail stores, these shops were gathering places where people played all varieties of games: mainly CCGs, strategy games like Warhammer, and tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. The shops served as many players’ core social hubs, where they went to be with their friends, chill out, and have fun.

Although I didn’t keep in touch with the participants I met during the study, they welcomed me into their world with open arms, and I became a part of their groups remarkably fast. I did the weekly Friday Night Magic events with my pedestrian starter decks and won a game or two. I competed in a Pokémon tournament and lost miserably. Dungeons and Dragons is hard for a newcomer to jump into without grinding everything to a halt, so we just sat in on those sessions. All in all, they enjoyed us being there, and we enjoyed it too, the culture and the games themselves—I still play Magic to this day.

But why did we have these synergies? Simply showing interest went a long way. Collectible card games serve a niche audience and CCG players don’t have many people outside of their inner group willing to talk about games with them. I know I’d be thrilled if someone asked me how my Ooze deck was coming along.

The research was also a great example of something we talk about a lot: the value of letting the participant know they’re the expert. There was a distinct hierarchy at the shops. There were the adults and older teenagers who had been playing these games for years and were often more skilled and had more expendable income to spend on the best cards. The old timers often mentored the younger kids (our primary participants), teaching them the ropes, raising the next generation of CCG players. Our arrival meant that the younger kids could turn the tables. The students became the masters, and we became their students. That sort of role switching can be fun and empowering for a kid.

Henry and his chauffeur

A pharmaceutical company hired us to learn about the experiences of people living with schizophrenia. The plan was to see each participant four times times over the course of a year, but I ended up hanging out with one participant, Henry, for several years (until he passed away). When we met Henry, he was living in a transitional home in a rough part of Kansas City. His thoughts could be hard to follow at times, so we never really did any sort of formal interviewing with him. Instead we learned through observation, experiencing his very unique life alongside him.

Henry was a character: charismatic, a 24/7 Lothario, kind of a hustler, but an all-around good guy. Henry walked most places out of necessity, so when we first showed up, we weren’t so much researchers to him, we were a ride. I couldn’t count how many times I drove him to Dollar General and the smoke shop so he could resupply. As time went by, our destinations expanded, and I never knew what I was in store for when he invited me out to lunch. Cigarettes and snacks continued to be on the docket, but we might go to sell some stuff at the pawn shop. We might go to see one of his girlfriends (who had interesting stories too). One time I even took him to vote (and saw how problematic voter access can be).

With Henry, the bonds of fieldwork might have had an economic origin (I had a car and paid for lunch), but he developed a genuine fondness for not only for me but my co-workers, Melinda and Shalonda too. It was probably a rare treat for someone to be as attentive to him as we were, for someone to really listen and care about what he had to say.

Henry’s situation was unique but regardless of who you are or where you’re from, it is unusual for people to show you the sort of genuine interest that’s central to an ethnographer’s work. Whether we’re asking someone about their life story or how they do their laundry, the “it’s all about you” focus of an ethnographer is refreshing and makes fieldwork wide open to these kinds of bond-building moments. Ethnographers don’t necessarily remove themselves from the environments they work in, rather they work to help others shine, to share themselves in ways they often do not. Part of it is simply people “clicking” with other people, but there is also some special magic in the ethnographic context—our methods produce a setting ripe for the kinds of deep connections that develop between us and the people we learn from.

Categories: Ethnography, Process
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