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Ethnographic Interviews and Questions


When we examine the ethnographic interview as a speech event, we see that it shares many features with a friendly conversation. In fact, skilled ethnographers often gather most of their data through participant observation and many casual, friendly conversations. They may interview people without their awareness, merely carrying on a friendly conversation while introducing a few ethnographic questions. It is best to think of ethnographic interviews as a series of friendly conversations into which the researcher slowly introduces new elements to assist informants to respond as informants. Exclusive use of these new ethnographic elements, or introducing them too quickly, will make interviews become like a formal interrogation. Rapport will evaporate, and informants may discontinue their cooperation. At any time during an interview it is possible to shift back to a friendly conversation. A few minutes of easygoing talk interspersed here and there throughout the interview will pay enormous dividends in rapport. The three most important ethnographic elements are its explicit purpose, ethnographic explanations, and ethnographic questions. 1. Explicit purpose. When an ethnographer and informant meet together for an interview, both realize that the talking is supposed to go somewhere. The informant only has a hazy idea about this purpose; the ethnographer must make it clear. Each time they meet it is necessary to remind the informant where the interview is to go. Because ethnographic interviews involve purpose and direction, they will tend to be more formal than friendly conversations. Without being authoritarian, the ethnographer gradually takes more control of the talking, directing it in those channels that lead to discovering the cultural knowledge of the informant. 2. Ethnographic explanations. From the first encounter until the last interview, the ethnographer must repeatedly offer explanations to the informant. While learning an informant’s culture, the informant also learns something-to become a teacher. Explanations facilitate this process. There are five types of explanations used repeatedly. a. Project explanations. These include the most general statements about what the project is all about. The ethnographer must translate the goal of doing ethnography and eliciting language explanation might be, “If you were talking to a customer, what would you say?” d. Interview explanations. Slowly, over the weeks of interviewing, most informants become expert at providing the ethnographer with cultural information. One can then depart more and more from the friendly conversation model until finally it is possible to ask informants to perform tasks such as drawing a map or sorting terms written on cards. At those times it becomes necessary to offer an explanation for the type of interview that will take place. “Today I’d like to ask you some different kinds of questions. I’ve written some terms on cards and I’d like to have you tell me which ones are alike or different. After that we can do the same for other terms.” This kind of interview explanation helps informants know what to expect and to accept a greater formality in the interview. e. Question explanations. The ethnographer’s main tools for discovering another person’s cultural knowledge is the ethnographic question. Since there are many different kinds, it is important to explain them as they are used. “I want to ask you a different type of question,” may suffice in some cases. At other times it is necessary to provide a more detailed explanation of what is going on. 3. Ethnographic questions. Throughout this book I have identified more than thirty kinds of ethnographic questions (Appendix A). They will be introduced by stages; it is not necessary to learn all of them at once. The design of this book allows a person to master one form of ethnographic question and make it a part of their interviews; then the next form will be presented and explained. For now, I only want to identify the three main types and explain their function. a. Descriptive questions. This type enables a person to collect an ongoing sample of an informant’s language. Descriptive questions are the easiest to ask and they are used in all interviews. Here’s an example: “Could you tell me what you do at the office?” or “Could you describe the conference you attended?” b. Structural questions. These questions enable the ethnographer to discover information about domains, the basic units in an informant’s cultural knowledge. They allow us to find out how informants have organized their knowledge. Examples of structural questions are: “What are all the different kinds of fish you caught on vacation?” and “What are all the stages in getting transferred in your company?” Structural questions are often repeated, so that if an informant identified six types of activities, the ethnographer might ask, “Can you think of any other kind of activities you would do as a beautician?” c. Contrast questions. The ethnographer wants to find out what an informant means by the various terms used in his native language. Later I will discuss how meaning emerges from the contrasts implicit in any language. Contrast questions enable the ethnographer to discover the dimensions of meaning which informants employ to distinguish the objects and events in their world. A typical contrast question would be, “What’s the difference between a bass and a northern pike?” Let’s turn now to an example of an ethnographic interview based on my own research on the culture of cocktail waitresses in a college bar. This example gives an overview of all three types of questions to be discussed in later steps where I begin with descriptive questions, then move on to structural questions, and finally contrast questions.

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