Lessons from a Novice Ethnographer

As a part of my office’s Get Out There initiative, I recently had a chance to incorporate some ethnography into my day-to-day desk job (check out our story here, and the associated Instagram feed here), and it was one of the most fun assignments that I’ve had in years. I’ve always had a fascination with anthropology (it was essentially my undeclared minor in university), so I appreciated having the chance to learn and hone some very basic ethnographic skills. I tapped into my network of colleagues, including our own resident expert, all of whom provided invaluable advice, and have combined these lessons along with those learned from my own personal stumbles along the way to bring you my Tips and Tricks From a Novice Ethnographer.

In interviews set-up by a recruiter, get the photo asap. In our first interview, we got to the end of our chat and the interviewee didn’t want to be photographed. Even though the release form had clearly said it was a part of the deal for agreeing to meet with us. We pressed a bit, but ultimately respected his wishes when he declined again. I think he just ran out of steam and didn’t want to be bothered anymore after spending 45 minutes talking to us, so we probably could have avoided this by asking for the photo at the beginning.

Other tricks with the recruiter that I wish I’d known from the beginning: You can do a pre-screen call with candidates to see if they’ll provide the kind of info and interview that you’re seeking.

You can ask the recruiter to have the interviewee bring a friend, which makes for really nice interactions, more at-ease demeanours and lots of additional perspectives (just have to iron out the compensation details for two people ahead of time, but the recruiter can smooth that out).

And if you get to the interview and the person is immediately just not into it, it’s better to call it off and reschedule. We had one case where a guy showed up totally late and seemed quite distracted and unengaged for our interview. It would have been a better use of our time to reschedule.

When setting up interviews yourself, get the face-to-face meeting booked asap. This tip is inspired by the two months of back-and-forth emails with a promising interviewee who kept responding to my suggestion that we set up a time to meet by asking more questions or stalling, only to then decline outright.

Tricks for approaching random people on the street and getting them to chat. Remember when that guy was mocked for creating a “Tube chat?” badge? As a novice ethnographer, I worried about how I would combat the total aversion that most people in London have to conversations with strangers, without coming across as a total nutter. Here are some of the tricks I used that worked for me.

  • Silly and Cheerful: This was my mode, super smiley, happy-go-lucky, and it disarmed people quite nicely.
  • Kick-Off Plan: To get over the initial nervousness in a new place, I would plan out my first random encounter so that I had a script to follow and a commitment to myself to get things going. For example, when I would arrive at a new Tube station, I would go to the train station attendant right off the bat to ask about good places to eat in the neighbourhood, and boom! use that as an opportunity for a first interview.
  • Icebreaker: Our office recently had a presentation from a marketing exec who was doing his own novice ethnography, and he had talked about how he had far better interactions once he started walking around with a dog. In that same spirit, I found that wearing an icebreaker (in my case, a bright red CANADA tshirt) helped people warm up when I approached them, all friendly-Canadian-style.
Me in my Canada t-shirt in Willesden Green; also an example of the Selfie Trick that I describe below.
  • Selfie Trick: Feel uncomfortable or intrusive asking someone if you can take their picture? First ask them to take your photo, then when you get the camera back and ask if you can now take their pic, they’ll be more at ease. Worked every time.
  • Map It Out: I did a “virtual walk” of the destination high streets using Google Street View, noting the different stores, shops and cafes that looked like they’d be interesting opportunities for interactions. Gave me a good gameplan so that I wasn’t just wandering aimlessly around new neighbourhoods.
  • Get the Inside Scoop: After spotting some international shops in those same “virtual walks”, I asked colleagues from those countries what interesting specialty item I could ask the shopkeeper to show me. In one case, this sparked an amazing conversation at a Brazilian grocery store, as the shopkeeper proudly gave me the grand tour and other shoppers weighed in on the best way to prepare the dish that I was asking about.

Common Sense Admin Things. Along with wearing an easy tote bag or coat with some good pockets so that I could quickly grab pen, paper, and camera, there were a few basic, common sense habits that I quickly learned through these experiences.

  • Wear a Watch: I literally forgot to do this every single time, which was so annoying because it meant I had no easy way of keeping track of how much time I had left in a given interview. You might think, well just use your phone, to which I say, yes that’s an option, except that looking at my phone would then totally break the flow in the interview. Or cause me to accidentally pause the voice recorder. Or other such shenanigans that made me wish I had just remembered my wristwatch in the first place.
  • Keep the Tape Rolling: “Okay, that’s it for my questions, thanks so much! Let’s just take a few photos now.” And I put the voice recorder away to take photos only to have the interviewee then launch into a beautiful story, the most detailed and lovely observation of an already detailed and lovely interview, and I have no record of it.

But that’s okay, because I was able to learn from that and all of my other stumbles & experiences, and figure out ways to do even better the next time. Onward, get out there and explore, we have so much to learn from each other!

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