Sean’s War Story: Pockets full of cash
Sean Ryan, a corporate ethnographer, reflects on a fieldwork experience where he learned first-hand some crucial lessons when going into another country: pre-recruit participants, and do some basic homework about where you are going.
It was back in my early days as an ethnographer. I was still a young pup in the field, doing consulting projects. I was teamed up with an Elder Anthropologist – a Puerto Rican woman who lived in Guadalajara, named Luz. We were doing a project for a major pharma company who had just had great success with a new oral care product, so they thought they would try an ethnographic exploration to uncover any other unmet needs. I think their aspirations at the time were something like “We want the next $500 million consumer product!” Luz and I were to visit two field sites in Mexico: Guadalajara and Tijuana. Living in Los Angeles, I was relatively close to the border and it wasn’t yet seen as that dangerous to go to Tijuana (i.e., no Mexican mafia drug lord street battles…at least you didn’t read about them in the papers everyday). But I still had my reservations, not possessing any potent Spanish language skills (outside of the slang I had picked up from bartending in a Mexican restaurant in Long Beach).
Having only been to Tijuana once to explore the finer points of Avenida Revolución (read: drinking tequila shots with college kids and having my head shaken back and forth by a woman with a whistle), I had no real frame of reference for doing fieldwork in TJ. As I quickly learned, neither did my counterpart Luz. She had some relatives in TJ, but had never done fieldwork there. And so we made what we later realized was a critical error in not pre-recruiting participants before we went into the field. Upon arriving in Tijuana we quickly found ourselves literally approaching people in the streets, in shops, etc. to ask about their oral care routines (a strange encounter for the locals I’m sure). While this has all the hallmarks of classic guerrilla recruiting it’s never a comfortable situation to be in, especially in a foreign country. Luz was doing her best to recruit people while I stood by idly awaiting our field day fate.
Eventually we started to have some success…or so we thought. One woman who worked in a nice department store in downtown TJ offered to let us come to her home after work. We got her contact info and told her we would see her that evening. We were offering $150 in US cash (this was more than 10 years ago) to interview the participant and observe their oral care routines. This, no doubt, was more than substantial for an incentive. So we were quite confident that we would have no problems grabbing participants on the fly. That evening, we made our way to this woman’s house via an old Crown Victoria station wagon taxi (with the suicide seats facing out in the back). Once we got to her town we approached the participant’s door and gave it a confident knock…but nobody answered. We waited a few minutes longer and knocked again…still no answer. This was before mobile phones, so we couldn’t exactly call this woman on her cell. We sat and waited for 15 minutes, but then realized that our day was quickly wasted on a participant who, for whatever reason, decided she did not want to do the study (Perhaps she thought the $150 was too good to be true?). In a moment of desperation, Luz decided to frantically go door-to-door in this small community, hoping for a shot at someone’s teeth and mouth. But to no avail.
This disastrous field trip continued. The next day we tempted fate again by preying on another unsuspecting citizen of Ciudad Tijuana. Once again, we arranged to go visit a shopkeeper’s home later in the evening. Once again, we had no idea where exactly our little field visit would take us. And once again we crammed ourselves into an old Crown Victoria station wagon. This time we were left off at what appeared to be a small village of Gypsies. It was, in fact, just a typical working class abode on the outskirts of the city. I brazenly brought out my Sony DV camera with the Carl Zeiss lens and began filming the local scene as we walked through the streets to find the right home. We were very excited to actually find the participant’s home and then to actually find her in her home!
It was a very interesting interview: the participant was a mother of two, a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. We observed their oral care routines, which consisted of going out to the backyard to gather water from a large plastic drum (as there was no running water), after which the children vigorously brushed their teeth with your standard run-of-the-mill Colgate toothpaste and toothbrush. When we paid the mother $150 (US) cash at the end of this encounter, her eyes lit up. I realized at that moment that this was probably more money than they made in a month. And so we broke another field rule: understand your surroundings and pay participants appropriately based on the context. But there was bit of a feel-good moment here too; the client could clearly afford the incentive money, so it was no skin off of their backs.
After this first round of field visits in Tijuana we came back about a month later for a second round, with different participants. We interviewed a relative of Luz’s who lived in a canyon high above where we had visited last time. He laughed out loud when we told him that we had been down in that village only a month ago. He said with all seriousness “Don’t you know that is the most dangerous area in all of Tijuana?!” Of course we had not known this. I thought back to the $800 Sony camera that I slung around in the streets of that village. And then I thought of my pockets full of cold, hard US dollars. I laughed to myself, but thought “I need to be a little more careful in the future if I’m going to make a career of this ethnography business!”