A day in the life of qualitative fieldwork
If you’re reading this, you either (1) know what qualitative fieldwork means, or (2) you are curious about what it means. In this post, I’m going to share my personal and professional reflections about the work I am very, very lucky to do as a professional ethnographic researcher.
Qualitative fieldwork involves several components of which I will describe in detail using actual ethnographic interviews we have conducted in the past year. Overall, our fieldwork is composed of several important ethnographic components:
- Traveling to the destination of our participants
- Conducting deep, conversational interviews with them in their homes
- Observing their lives as deeply as we can for approximately 2-5 hours. Sometimes, we meet with them in a location other than their homes, so they can share a particular story about place or experience (e.g., hospital, or neighborhood)
In most cases, we determine where we will conduct our fieldwork with our client, who is a partner in our research process from the very beginning. As expert researchers, we consider important contextual factors related to the socio-geography of any location in which we conduct fieldwork. In many cases, our participants are recruited by a professionals, and they expect us to arrive to their home at an agreed-upon time/day.
As ethnographers and social scientists, the process of empathizing with participants is very important. This process begins very early – long before we have exchanged greetings with our participants. As we prepare to meet each person, we look at the information the recruiter collected to try to get a small sense of the person’s life. This information may include their name, age, marital status, demographic factors, and perhaps something specifically relevant to our project as well (e.g., type of vehicle, health-related issue). As we are making ourway to participants’ homes, we talk to each other about who we are about to meet. We think about our own circumstances and the circumstances in which we are meeting, and the empathy process is well underway.
The relationship between us and the participant began in the recruitment process, which is why it is so important to work with recruiters we trust and know very well. Sometimes, participants search for our company and our faces online after they agree to meet with us. Sometimes, they even call our office to make sure we are who we say we are. In other cases, we meet people so busy they barely remember we are coming by to speak with them. The relationship has begun, but it is incomplete. Once we arrive to their home, the relationship begins to really develop.
Entering their homes
For me, entering a participant’s home is perhaps the most important 60 seconds of the ethnographic process. First impressions are critical when we only have 3 hours to try to deeply understand their lives.
With as much humility and kindness as possible, we introduce ourselves and usually are invited inside. Sometimes, they have designated a place for us to sit, or they may have set out a few treats for us to share.
In most cases, we let them lead the way to a place they are comfortable, and we begin to set up our recording equipment.
Recording the Interview
Because our ethnographic work happens quite quickly and fast-paced compared to academic research, we appreciate when participants allow us to audio/video record, take photos, and hand-write notes during our visit. Even as trained professional researchers, we recognize the limitations of our memories. Recordings of our interviews and observations through audio, video, and photographs allow us to be transported back to the interview during later research phases of analysis and synthesis. We also believe it is important to capture the exact sentiments and words of participants, representing their true and lived experiences as accurately as possible. Finally, our recorded data can be used in private reports to clients, who really enjoy seeing the faces and hearing personal stories of their customers or patients.
The face-to-face interviews are a time to dig deep into our questions about participants’ lives. Since I have worked at Point Forward, it has been such a rewarding and humbling experience to conduct this work. I’ve noticed that people tend to be a little hesitant at the beginning, and this is understandable, since we have not had time to establish ourselves as members of their community as is the case in some academic research. We try to get to know them slowly, and we warm up to more personal questions as we build trust. We have purposefully and thoughtfully developed a semi-structured interview guide we use to guide our conversation. We engage in something called trampoline listening, which Point Forward partner, Tom Williams describes in his latest blog post. As appropriate, we engage in activities to help participants explain complex thoughts or concepts, like a card-sorting activity, or image stimulus for creative thinking. Our goal is to uncover values, meanings, details about their lives, and how they explain their expereinces.
Often, we are fortunate to be offered a participant-guided tour of their home. Sometimes we meet family members, pets, and friends who are visiting. We ask to take photos and record the home tour as well, and this helps provide insight into their daily lives and meaning. We allow them to explain things to us, show us important things, and sometimes we probe into things they may not even bring up – like magazines, or books. Oftentimes, we simply observe as guests and researchers at the same time.
Depending on the project, we may actually leave participants’ homes with them and try to probe into other areas of their lives. For example, if we are working with an auto company, we may conduct a vehicle tour and/or a drive-along and continue asking related questions throughout. If we are interested in their neighborhood, we may take a walk or drive through the area. A project related to healthcare may lead us to follow participants through an appointment or a clinic visit. In addition to understanding the particular experience related to our project, we believe people don’t necessarily separate aspects of their lives as cleanly as companies sometimes assume. Their personal lives and decisions related to family and values are intertwined with their purchase decisions and how they manage or perceive their health. This is why it is important to try to meet with participants in their homes, among their most personal belongings, where they are most comfortable. We try to understand people as a whole, not just as shoppers or patients.
Closing the interview
At some point, as difficult as it is for researchers who are never fully satisfied, we must close the interview. Our skills are tested because we have to make sure we have covered important topics and have really uncovered areas of potential insight.
By the end of an interview, most people are smiling and so happy to have shared their time with us. In all sincerity, this was a surprising part of this job for me. While we do offer an incentive to our participants for their time, I have observed their smiles and relaxation after an interview are linked to more than just money. As a social scientist, it’s my observation that people genuinely appreciate being sincerely and deeply listened to. The busy and cluttered nature of our lives leaves little time for us to reflect deeply, let alone explain our lives and priorities to strangers. However, during our interviews, we are often asking participants to explain these complex thoughts and decisions they make. Perhaps doing so – even with strangers like us – is a bit restorative, if not healing, for participants. It definitely is rewarding for us as researchers.
How often do we really get to dig deeply into our own lives, our decisions, and our relationships? Research interviews can be a rare opportunity to do this in a nonjudgmental setting.
We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to do this type of research; it’s a true privilege. We do not take it for granted!