Between Bartenders and BFFs: Great Ethnographies Start with Great Relationships

April 21st, 2016 by Kathy

bartender and BFF

Like your bestie or your barkeep, it’s a lot easier to talk when you’re in your comfort zone. That’s why many of the qualitative research studies we do require a technique called ethnographies. These are field observations like meeting with participants in their home or work environment. And while each project is different we’ve found a few simple strategies that help our studies run smoothly and enhance the quality of the data. Here are four we consider:


  1. Pre-interview ‘homework’ – I like the idea of asking participants to complete some sort of activity before we actually meet. We’ve found that providing a means for people to give some thought to the topic in advance gives you a running start so-to-speak. It can result in a richer, higher quality interview than you might have otherwise. It works best when it isn’t too time consuming or too complicated. It can be a simple task such as answering a few questions or gathering items around the house; or more elaborate such as keeping a diary or taking or uploading pictures.
  1. Start building rapport early – I almost always like to call and introduce myself to participants before we meet. We have the recruiter tell people to expect a call from the researcher. This call is a verbal handshake that has so many benefits. It gives the participant an opportunity to ask questions – typically about the study or the homework or what’s expected. But I’ve also been asked how I like my coffee or if I mind taking my shoes off before going in. It gives us a chance to ask our own questions too – ‘is it okay to park in the driveway?’ and ‘will GPS get me to your house?‘ are two I always ask. We also like to reiterate everything they should’ve been told by the recruiter such as how long the interview is expected to last and that we will be recording the session. An added benefit of making this call is that once you’ve talked with someone and established a connection, they are much less likely to cancel out of the study.
  1. Start the interview with a topic that is easy to talk about – A good place to start is by going over the homework. It’s easy for the participant to elaborate on and you get a chance to clarify anything you have questions about. It serves as a good warm-up for the discussion and provides an opportunity to strengthen the rapport you began over the phone. This is especially important if we’ll be discussing sensitive or difficult to verbalize topics.

In conversational partnerships, the first goal for the interviewer is to develop a relationship in which an interview can comfortably take place.

- Herbert J. Rubin and Irene S. Rubin, "Qualitative Interviewing – The Art of Hearing Data"

  1. Include a fun activity – Whether you’re on the phone or in-person, think about including an activity that will help your participants think about things in a completely different way. Maybe it’s a collaging or drawing exercise. Maybe it’s a sorting exercise. Maybe it’s a simple ‘what if’ or fill-in-the-blank exercise. Come up with something that will take them out of their comfort zone and help them think from a different perspective.

As always, we’re here to help! And we make great drinking buddies!