Home > Uncategorized > Keeping your cool when things get hot

Keeping your cool when things get hot

After more than a couple of decades of being a professional ethnographer, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen it all. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean it in an authentic way. I’ve been present to share in the good, the bad, the joyful, the heartbreaking, the beginning, the end, the scary, the exciting, the uncomfortable, and the easy. During each of these moments, my craft has required that I maintain a focus that allows me to stay firmly grounded in the experience at hand and to stay the course, no matter how awkward. Although sometimes this can be difficult, I’ve found that there are a couple of strategies that help me to do good fieldwork no matter what comes my way.


Oscar Wilde said it best when he said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” I don’t think it is possible to do good fieldwork unless you are willing to be authentically yourself. This doesn’t mean that you have to bare your soul or uncover your blemishes with participants, but it does mean that you behave and speak in a way that is normal for you. This is important for a lot of reasons, but it often becomes especially important when fieldwork is more intense or when it departs, more than usual, from the standard. We are usually asking people to share so much of their lives that it is not unusual for them to end up sharing things that we didn’t anticipate or maybe weren’t fully prepared to discuss. When this happens, the process is just quicker, easier, and more fluid when the ethnographer is her/himself. That is because going off script is easier to navigate inside the skin in which you are most familiar.

One time, I spent about three weeks following families on vacation at a theme park. Originally I had planned to keep my intense fear of roller coasters to myself. I knew that I had a pretty good poker face and that I would be able to manage riding along with families, even if it wasn’t very pleasant. After my first day of fieldwork, however, I realized that sharing my fear with families actually opened up an interesting dialogue and surprisingly seemed to help build a more intimate rapport. I stumbled upon this when one of my participants, an 8 year old boy, asked me if I liked scary rides as we were standing in line to board said scary ride. I knew I couldn’t lie so I told him the truth, which sparked a heated discussion amongst the family about just how scary the ride was and about the definition of “scary.” It also resulted in the son holding my hand on the ride and moving me into a deeper participant role with that family. Several days later, the family had a collective meltdown as I was shadowing them. It was not pretty and was uncomfortable for everyone present, but I think that having shown them my authentic self (and weakness), made them more comfortable to share this event with me. The rapport we had built over the last few days made it more comfortable for me to witness.     


I wish I had a quarter for each time my job required me to do something I didn’t know I would have to do. A deep commitment to flexibility is really the price of entry for being a good ethnographer. We take an inductive approach to our work which means that we never really know what is going to happen. It is best to show up with a sense of adventure and a wiliness to experience and do whatever helps us better understand who our participants are and what it is like to be them. This means that I have consumed lots of delicious food over the years, but also tons of things that I would have rather not eaten or drank. I’ve stayed longer than expected and sometimes even returned for an additional visit. I’ve spent hours and hours waiting patiently (or lending a helping hand) while my participants had to deal with or manage a crisis that was unexpected and (at least on the surface) unrelated to the reason for my visit. One time my colleague and I helped clean up a very serious water spill when our participant’s washing machine emptied out onto her floor. I’ve helped feed hungry kids, put babies to sleep, carried boxes, moved furniture, given rides, helped fill out forms, searched for lost items, helped fold laundry, sat outside in 100-degree weather for a visit with a cancer patient who was always cold. At every venture, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn additional context that helps me to better understand my participant’s lives and often their challenges.

One time I was doing fieldwork on how families with young kids used their minivans, so I was riding along while they did errands. When we called to arrange one of the visits, the dad had mentioned that I was welcome to join, but that I would have to enter the minivan from the hatch back. The third row was not accessible from the sliding door because of the child car seats. Although this didn’t sound like much fun, I figured it would be okay—I’m a practitioner of yoga after all. But once I arrived and saw just how little room there was between the top of the third-row seat and the ceiling of the minivan, I started to panic. For a minute, I considered asking if there was an alternative, but then I remembered that they had mentioned that this was how grandpa got in when he rode with them and so I hopped into the trunk area and threw myself over with abandon! Not only did my colleagues get a good laugh, I developed a keen appreciation for the need to create a different solution for grandpa! 

Empathic Curiosity 

Obviously being curious is an important skill for an ethnographer, but it is a particular type of curiosity that ensures fieldwork inquiry leads to understanding and not just a macabre documentation. Our work requires not just the observation and recording of data, but an attempt to better understand the challenges, experiences, and feelings that our participants have, from their perspective.  This can be really, really hard, especially when the topic at hand is a difficult one. It requires that the ethnographer open themselves up in a way that is sometimes painful. We have conducted a lot of fieldwork with people who are seriously ill or who are caring for someone who is seriously ill, and in both cases, the day-to-day experience is often excruciatingly difficult and the discussion of that experience can be equally difficult. In these kinds of situations, people often stop talking to their loved ones about what they are experiencing since it is just too painful for both parties, and so when we visit them, there is sometimes a little bit of a watershed moment when our participant understands that we really are there to learn from them and to hear their story. This can be exceedingly emotional for the participant and sometimes for the ethnographer.

One time I was visiting a woman who had a very serious chronic lung disease that had left her socially isolated. Her home was the majority of her world. She rarely got out and maintained very few relationships outside of her husband, her doctors, and the woman who came in to clean for her a few times a week. She had been a powerful and social executive prior to her diagnosis, and the transformation had been devastating. As we spent our final hour together, I was exhausted. She had walked me through her life in a way that left me feeling like I could truly understand what it must be like to be her. In order for this to happen, I had to be not only curious and willing to listen, but also be willing to let her lead and to be open to seeing the world from her point of view.


After a particularly frustrating round of fieldwork, a colleague once reminded me that there are no mistakes with ethnography. By definition, ethnography is all about real life and real life is messy, and therefore ethnographic fieldwork is often messy. Sometimes ethnographers forget this when butting up against deadlines or when working with clients that prefer a more tactical approach, but it is really, really true. Things tend to be connected in ways that we don’t always understand, especially at first blush. Sometimes when we are doing fieldwork, we can get distracted by our fieldguides and forget what we are really there to do—which is to learn about the social and cultural context of our participants’ lives and then and only then to dig into the specific topic that our client has hired us to learn about. It is understanding our specific topic in the context of our more general learnings about who people are and how they live that creates the much deeper insights that our clients are looking for. But sometimes the social and cultural context of people’s lives are complicated or thorny. Over the years, I’ve found myself witnessing a variety of illegal or unsafe activities. Once when we did fieldwork with people who had chronic pain and found ourselves in the middle of some sticky pharmacological situations. One participant, an elementary school teacher, asked me to ride with her to finish packing up her classroom for the year. After a few minutes on the road, it became clear that she was impaired. Luckily the drive was not that far and after spending some time moving things into a storage shed, she seemed to be less impaired than before. When touring another participant’s medicine cabinet, it became clear that they received prescriptions for pain medications from a variety of different doctors. Naively, I had not anticipated either of these situations and neither were covered on the official fieldguide for the project, but a quick re-grounding in the project objectives made it clear that understanding the context in which both of these events happened would provide me with a much more holistic, accurate, and real understanding of what it is like to live with chronic pain.

Ethnographic fieldwork isn’t always easy, but it is almost always interesting. Maintaining authenticity, flexibility, empathetic curiosity and a commitment to holism goes a long way towards ensuring that even when fieldwork is difficult, insights are trustworthy and even deeper and more real.

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