Entering the Field (Essential Ethnographic Methods – Lecompte and Schensul)

When collecting ethnographic data, often, researchers will spend a significant amount of time in the field. Now, this doesn’t have to involve camping, or any meadows, but any “naturalistic geographic/social setting or location where a selected research problem is to be studied” (Schensul, Schensul, and LeCompte 1999, 70).

One of the first things to do when in the field is to acclimate – to learn what those who are immersed in or reside in the field already know – to make the unfamiliar familiar, or, for those working a little closer to home, the familiar unfamiliar through a distancing and critical eye. It is important to remember that no matter how close someone can be to the studied field, they can never be a full member within it, say the authors, emphasizing the consistent need to remind participants that they are researchers and not members of the studied group.

(Kx says: I’m not sure as to how this works; you can obviously be a member of a group that you’re studying, but you must remain, in ways, separated from it through your consistent interpretation and observation, despite your participation. SSL may be attempting to demonstrate a sense of objectivity that is often stressed in positivistic social science fields, but knowing your role and being reflexive about your participation in your field is just as important as being able to stand outside of it. Also, despite ethical questions brought on by not divulging your status as a researcher, can consistent reminders of being of a separate class than those observed not reveal power dynamics? As ethnographers are the primary tool of data collection and interpretation, we must consider these topics with weight.)

On the contrary to the previous recommendation, SSL recommend to be very unobtrusive, in hopes of people acting the most natural way possible, while simultaneously building rapport, trust, access, and communications with those who will be able to provide critical information. This must be considered under the ability of the researcher to offer reciprocity (the equal exchange of time, services, access to information, or other resources) to research participants.

In entering the field, SSL recommend the following steps:
1) Obtain formal permissions to be where you are studying. (In my case, obtaining formal permissions may jeopardize the integrity of the research, therefore, with permission of the university IRB, I am able to waive this requisite.)
2) Establish contact with people knowledgeable about the local setting. (Here, because I’m looking at local -emic- perspectives, the people who know the most about the local setting are those who are experiencing the same festivals as I am; the experience that comes with these folk vary, but include the diversity of customers who attend these events.)
3) Identify and carry out interviews with critical players in the field and gatekeepers to other participants – these may be (un)official in nature, and may want to be selected on the basis of representativeness to the wider studied population.
4) Carry out observations from a distance – this is done to familiarize the researcher with norms and demographic information used in exploratory and initial inquiries.
5) Obtain introductions from local gatekeepers with whom you’ve already established relationships with
6) Directly participate in the research setting with those being studied — participant observation — SSL note that the initial impressions and introductions that the researcher offers to participants is incredibly important, and impacts the remainder of the project.

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