Select Key Informants

Wisely choose key informants and triangulate the informants’ perspectives.

When conducting an ethnography, the researcher closely observes the key informants in a particular culture because they tend to define the qualities of their group. Every culture includes leaders and followers.

When choosing key informants, you may not necessarily want to select group leaders. Other members of the community may serve as more effective key informants because they are more accessible or more willing to share information or more observant.

Triangulate Perspectives

To ensure that they are not ignoring contrary evidence and focusing only on information that confirms their preliminary hunches, ethnographers practice “triangulation,” which essentially means that they verify the authenticity of information and interpretation by checking it against other sources. If an ethnographer were studying the lives of campus police, for instance, the ethnographer would not believe one police officer’s opinions about the morale of the squad if it conflicted with the opinions of other officers.

Not only are key informants an important source of information, they also can help to make your project as accurate as possible. Ethnography often uses the technique of “triangulation” to help double check the researcher’s perspective. Triangulation is the process of having multiple perspectives involved in the composition of your project. In other words, the more viewpoints that the ethnographic researcher is able to include in his or her project, the more realistic and reliable the interpretation and thick description of the culture are likely to be.

However, triangulation does not necessarily mean that a key informant’s words are included in the final report. Triangulation can also be obtained by allowing members of the culture to read your paper in its developmental stages. Their responses allow you to revise parts of your report that may have been incomplete or misleading. Of course, you may not want the members of the culture to read what you have written, in which case you should consider other sources for triangulation. You may even ask someone who is familiar with ethnographic methods to respond to drafts of your report even if he or she has never encountered the culture that you are investigating.

Regardless of whether or not you use triangulation, or whether you use ethnographic methods at all, you should always share drafts of your writing with other people in order to help you revise your projects. The use of peer criticism is essential to all writing, regardless of its methodology or purpose.