Below are some of the questions which were raised by students both before and during their research abroad under the supervision of the Ethnographic Encounters Project from 2013-15.
What do I do if writing about particular events or people make the place or people I am writing about identifiable to others, but would also be extremely interesting to write about in the context of my project?
Answer: In ethnographic work it is sometimes difficult to completely disguise the identity of an institution or individual, especially to those who will be familiar with the setting. You just need to make the best efforts you can – not identifying the place or any individuals by name, using pseudonyms instead, and perhaps changing some details about the people or place that would make it obviously identifiable. When you go to get approval from the head of the organisation you will be writing about, you may find that he/she does not mind you using the name of the place itself, as long as you protect the anonymity of individuals. This is fine as long as permission is explicitly given. The guiding principle is to be sensitive to the wishes of those you are working with, and to protect their identities (and that of the institution if applicable) as much as you reasonably can.
It will probably become easier to see how to do this once you start actually writing a bit about the setting – remember that the blog is currently private so it is a space in which you can start to work out some of these issues without the text becoming public.
There is a festival next week where there should be some performances (of interest to my project) in the main square, what do I do about consent for public performances if I want to video it and use the footage in my project?
Answer: This should be fine as long as there are no general restrictions on filming and you are not filming identifiable individuals. You can use the footage as part of your research data, but may not be able to make it public online without appropriate permissions.
I want to do research on how students use English in social media by establishing a FaceBook group for students and observing how they use English in postings on this group, and if they are using the language from social media postings during their oral classes. Can you recommend any references on this type of research? Particularly about the ethics of this type of research: I plan to establish a new FaceBook account for myself without any personal information, want to know how to do this in a way that won’t have a negative impact on myself or on the students. Also plan to do observations about how English is used around town in general, and to interview students to ask if their use of English is being influenced by social media.
Answer: I will send some references about ethnographic research online, which looks at how people use social media. The context you propose is slightly different to this, because you are thinking about setting up a specific group, not observing how people use social media in the normal course of events. You will need to give them information about the group you are establishing and how you will be using the information gathered through the group so they have clear information on the research project. Will send some references and we can talk through some of the issues individually.
Answer 2: Important to keep research ethics in mind whether you are working with social media or with people face to face so will need to inform the participants about the research. To establish whether social media is influencing their use of English you will need to do interviews to ask them not just observation.
You spoke about attending events as a good way to meet people but this won’t be possible with my research. How do I approach people that I want to interview, what suggestions do you have for how to approach people, or how to get people to open the door to me? My site is in Venezuela with an African descendant community, I am Venezuelan but they won’t see me as part of the community, so I am wondering how to start out, to say I am here to do research and want to talk to you.
Answer: This is daunting for all of us. Start by going to events that are semi-public anyway: is there a community centre, public event, festival, party, football game, restaurant, somewhere it is OK for you to go. I also started by going to community spaces, then the time factor kicks in – if you turn up once and say I want to interview you people will probably say why, what do you want. As an ethnographer you have to be quite a sensitive researcher, not just show up on the first day with your microphone to interview people. Think about how you might respond if someone showed up on your doorstep like this. The more time you have to get to know the scene and the people involved the better, then you can explain that you are interested in a particular aspect or community. Often you will find a gatekeeper – the people who run the community centre or someone else who has already been in the role of talking to outsiders. You can then ask them if they know someone who you might be able to talk to. This also gives you an idea of how the community works and is structured.
If you find someone that you want to interview but they refuse to be interviewed do you offer them some incentive?
Answer: Instead of ‘interview’ think in terms of conversations, communications, informal chats, exchanging opinions. Then once they know at a later stage you can ask if you can do an interview or a conversation that you will record. If you come in with the idea of doing interviews people may think you are a journalist, or an official, a spy. Think instead in terms of talking with people and learning from them.
If we have an informal chat with someone are we allowed to quote that person in our research or do we have to get their permission to do this?
Answer: If it isn’t recorded you would write up your notes as closely as possible to what has been said but then it would probably not be used as a direct quote attributed to an individual in your written work.
Answer 2: You also need to use pseudonyms for all your research. Don’t use Person A/Person B but choose different names for them rather than using their real names. Be confidential about what they have said. You can use the pseudonym and attach it to a quote or you can use a series of verbatim quotes that are not linked to a specific person in the text. It depends a bit on the specific case and how you phrase the written work.
If we use pseudonyms do we need to tell people about our research, that I am going to write down things from this informal conversation?
Answer: If you are doing research with a small scale group you tell them that you are doing research. You tell people what you are doing even if they have only a faint idea of what is meant by research. As a matter of principle you should do overt research rather than covert, and tell people you will treat their information confidentially – you won’t use the real names of the people, or of the places or community centres. An insider might recognise who you are talking about if they read your work, so you may need to think about that as well.
Answer 2: This may also depend on the context, some people may want you to use their real names or to use the names of their organisations to publicise their work. The principle is that you inform people that you’re doing research, are interested a particular topic and will be taking notes and writing something about this. In some cases this might not be practical – for example if you are attending an event you are taking notes about the context but not necessarily attributing anything to an individual so you may not need to announce your presence as a researcher. But the idea is to be sensitive to what other people would expect and want from you as a researcher.
If you are attending events as part of your research at what point do you tell people that you are doing research – do you wait until you have attended a few times or tell people as soon as you start talking to them so they know?
Answer: As soon as you start engaging with people individually it is a good idea to tell them what you are doing and where you are coming from.
Answer 2: In some cases you will stand out, people may ask you what you are doing. It depends on the context, work in a way that is sensitive to the setting. For example if you are working in a school where everyone is writing all the time, it may be fine to take notes, but if you are observing a ritual or another context it might not be appropriate to be sitting there taking notes. Ethnography is also about developing sensitivity to the context.
If you attend events to try to meet people, what if the people there are different every time? Should you just start talking to them even if they haven’t been there previously? I am planning to attend dance performances as part of the research.
Answer: There will be people who attend regularly – teachers, managers, students, you can start with those. There will also be people who only attend once. In many of your spaces this will be the case – you won’t have a homogenous group, but these can be the different categories of people you can start to record and describe. You will also see different sub-groups within the groups – teachers, tourists, students, and you can think about ‘what is in it for’ each group.
What do you do if people feel you are a threat to them or are hostile to your research? In Venezuela at the moment everything divided between pro-Chavez and the opposition. People may see me as siding with the opposition.
Answer: Heidi did research on the former German-German border as a former West German, and the East Germans were quite suspicious. Ended up having a local gatekeeper who was able to introduce her to people. If you can identify someone local that the community trusts this can help you gain access to people. But if it is too difficult to overcome you may need to do a different type of research. It also raises an interesting point about ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ – someone who is not Venezuelan might be seen in a different way, if you are an outsider it might help people to trust you more. But it might also work in the other direction – again it all depends on the context.