A few months ago I was working on a book proposal. The book (about the process of ethnographic research) isn’t happening (at least with that publisher), but I thought I would share an anecdote that I dashed off as the underpinnings of a sample chapter.
As we rang the doorbell, my colleague and I unconsciously straightened, preparing ourselves for that all-important first impression, that moment when our research participant would come to the door and size us up. We waited for a moment, looking at each other as we heard footsteps, mustering a smile as the inside door opened.
“Hello,” I offered, “Are you Brian?”
As I began to state the obvious, that we were here for the interview, he grunted, opened the screen door, and as we took hold, he turned around and walked back into the house. We glanced at each other, and stepped into the foyer. What did we know about Brian? Our recruiting screener told us he was 22, lived with his parents, and his brother, and was employed part-time. The rest would be up to us to discover.
It was 7:30 in the morning and we were taking our shoes off in a strange house. Eventually someone beckoned from the kitchen, and we came in. But already we were out of sync. The kitchen was small, with an L-shaped counter, and a small table for dining. The mother was at the end of the L, working with bowls and dishes and burners on the stove. The father was perched against the counter, while Brian, and his younger brother sat at the table. The father was a small man, while the other three were quite large. The room wasn’t intended for the six of us, so we managed to set ourselves up for our interview in the only place we could; at the far end of the counter, at the far end of the table. We wedged ourselves (one behind the other) on small chairs, pulling our knees in, our paraphernalia of notepads, documents, video cameras, tapes, batteries etc. clutched in close. It wasn’t ideal, but we hoped we could make it work.
But then the real challenge became clear – although Brian had agreed for us to meet and do this interview, he was actively disinterested. We were positioned 45 degrees behind him, in his blind spot. With his physical bulk, he managed to loom over his food in a way that eliminated even any peripheral eye contact; somehow this was something a smaller person couldn’t have done. His brother sat across from him, echoing his posture.
We had recruited Brian specifically, but of course, here we were with the entire family. We pressed ahead, explaining our study, and starting in with our planned questions. Since Brian was the person with whom we had the arrangement, we focused our attention on him. He would not respond, beyond one word answers (which sounded more like grunts), and the occasional glance up to his brother, causing them both to giggle.
My colleague and I avoided looking at each other (it may have not been physically possible, given the tight quarters) for fear of displaying our despair at the situation. Sure, we had arranged this interview, but the cues we were receiving were making it clear the arrangement wasn’t worth much. At this point, we had already woke up quite early to do this interview, so there was no point in giving up. If they changed their mind explicitly, they’d let us know, and we’d leave. Meanwhile, what else was there to do but press on? I asked questions, with very little response. I tried the brother, at which point Brian bolted out of the room for a few minutes, without a word. The brother was only slightly more amenable than Brian, mostly interested in make critical comments about his parents (to Brian’s great grunting enjoyment) as much as provide any actual information.
Indeed, the mother and father seemed not to have been warned that we would be coming; although I directed some of the questioning towards the mom, she reacted with pretty serious hostility, informing us (in the context of an answer to a question) that they did not welcome strangers into their house, and (while she was preparing food) highlighted the intimate nature of food preparation as a symbol, and that was even less open to strangers. The message was very clear.
But again, what could we do? Pressing on, until asked to leave, under the explicit agreement we had made, seemed the best approach. We asked our questions, following up on the information they had shared, listening closely, looking for clarification, offering up as much space as we could for them to talk, all in trying to build some flow and dialog. Even though the message was negative, at least the parents were willing to talk to us. And so, the young men faded out of the conversation, and the interview eventually switched over to the parents. Two hours later it turned out that we had completed an excellent interview with them; they each had great stories about our topic area, and revealed a lot of background about their family, about growing up, about their activities, and even their perspectives on what made the United States the country it had become.
Before we left the house, the mother insisted on cooking up some fried bread fresh and hot for us; admonishing us that “no one comes here and doesn’t get food” – reiterating the intimate nature of food she had mentioned at the beginning, but this time as a compliment rather than a shield.
As soon as we left the house, my colleague turned to me and said “I don’t know how you pulled that off; I thought we were done for and would have to leave.” I was very pleased with how the interview turned out, especially because it began at such a low point, but there was little magic to it. I didn’t try to solve the big problem of the complex dynamic we had walked into; I focused (especially at first) on just the next problem; the immediate challenge of what to say next. I was certainly keeping the larger goals in mind of how to cover all the areas we were interested in, but I was focusing my energy as an interviewer on the next thing. And by working at it in small pieces, bit by bit, the dynamic shifted. As interviewers, we had to compartmentalize the social experience of the event – the extreme discomfort and awkwardness of the early part of the interview, and just stick to our jobs. We didn’t handle the situation that differently than any other interview, and it served as a testament to our approach – listening, following up (and showing that we were listening by the way we followed up), building rapport and trust, bit by bit, until there was a great deal of openness and great information.
Years later, it’s obvious that there are better ways to communicate with the participants ahead of time to screen out unwilling participants. For example, the person who is going to be in the field should always speak live to the person they will be visiting before they day of the interview just to get that person-to-person communication started early, so both parties can get a sense of each other and start to feel comfortable (or agree that it’s not a good fit and move on to someone else). But, given the diversity of people, we will always end up interviewing people who are more or less comfortable with the process, and it’s our job to make them comfortable in order to get the information we are interested in. Doing so may make us uncomfortable ourselves, but with practice we must learn to set aside the social dynamics and focus on the question asking and listening that will make the interview a success.