Arrange Access

Secure access to the community without poisoning the waters.

Experts typically agree that the way you are introduced into the community plays a crucial role in the overall success of your study. If the people in charge introduce you to the community and ask participants to do what they can to help you, you may be perceived as a spy or enemy. It is, therefore, often better to enter a community less obtrusively. Because being introduced to the community by someone in power or by someone considered to be a member of an “opposing faction” can irreparably taint your results, you may have to reject the role implied by your introduction or withdraw from the community and select another site to conduct the research.

Pick the Perfect Spot for Making Observations

Position yourself in a spot that will enhance your data collection and ability to make observations. For example, a student was intrigued by what she heard at the teachers’ lounge when she was undergoing her training to be a teacher. After extensive reading about the concerns of high school teachers, she conducted an ethnography of the teachers’ lounge at the school where she was assigned to intern for her teacher training. The result of her study was a sometimes inspiring and sometimes depressing account of ten teachers’ struggles, ideas, and ambitions.

Experts strongly disagree about how active a role researchers should play in the community that they are studying. While some ethnographers formally interview respondents, give them psychological tests, and inform community members about their role, others are less candid. Instead of revealing their status as observers, these ethnographers prefer to enter the community as silent detectives. Although this secrecy about their goals can result in an ethical quandary, some professional anthropologists prefer this approach, believing it results in better data collection. Clearly, there are dangers that participants will not forget their “company behavior” after you disclose your intentions; yet, you need to be honest about your intentions.