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Elissa Helms

CEU Department of Gender Studies


Sampling: How do you find your informants/respondents? How do you avoid biasing your
“counting” statements:
“most of my informants had had some contact with foreigners”
“very few people expressed positive opinions about the socialist era”
“working married women often spend 4-6 hours a day doing household chores”
be careful about absolute statements: they must be qualified according to your
sample (in statements such as “everyone has a TV” it should be obvious which group
you are referring to as “everyone”)
Small-scale communities: the “village census”
Random samples (as opposed to haphazard ones): everyone must have equal probability
of being selected. This is necessary for statistically significant findings.
Stratified samples, quota sampling: specifying different categories of people within
which to gather informants (targeting people in groups by age, ethnicity, sex, origin,
experience, profession, etc.)
Cluster sampling: targeting randomly selected areas (neighborhoods, apartment blocks,
Snowball sampling: locating people through social networks

Objects of social research:

Respondents: people who answer or fill out a survey/questionnaire
Interviewees: people you interview
Informants/Consultants: people being studied in ethnographic research, members of
a community under study
Key informant/consultant: someone who acts as a gateway to others, a main source
of explanation or interpretation

Language and “translation”

People tend to filter information for you, assuming your ignorance, knowledge, or
specific bias.
Interpreters, translators, and others who speak for you and your informants are likely to
infuse their messages with their own interpretations
You as the researcher are also a translator

The position of the researcher

The identity of the researcher, in interaction with the researched, influences findings
Reflexivity: being explicit about your position vis-à-vis the people you are researching;
reflecting on the impact you have, both positive and negative, on the behavior of your
Different positions for “foreign” and “native” researchers

Ethics: Rule #1: Do no harm

Ensure that your researching or your writing does not have negative consequences for
your informants/respondents
Do not burn bridges for yourself or other researchers in the future
When in doubt, and if possible, ask your informants/respondents what they prefer


Surveys and Questionnaires

Surveys and Questionnaires are good for certain types of concrete data, especially
demographic and event-related data
If you ask yes/no or scaled questions, make sure to minimize possible ambiguities and
multiple interpretations
Using surveys and questionnaires in combination with interviews and participant
You can do a survey to identify questions on which to follow up in subsequent
Preliminary interviews are a good way of finding out what questions are logical
to ask, and in what form, in a larger survey

Types of Questionnaires:
Self-administered: distributed by hand, mail, or email
requires less of the researcher’s time, so you can survey more people
all respondents get the same questions in the same way so there is no
danger of interview bias
it’s easier to get answers about socially sensitive issues when the survey
is anonymous, rather than in a face-to-face questionnaire
but you have no control over how respondents interpret questions or
whether the person you sent it to actually filled it out
Telephone surveys: limited by time and cost but they allow for some follow-up
Face-to-face administering of questionnaires: this resembles a structured
interview but there are more opportunities to ask for clarification or ask follow-up
Often used in projects involving multiple researchers
These can be longer than telephone or self-administered questionnaires
Respondents cannot skip ahead to see what questions are coming
But, these take longer to administer so you cannot reach as many people

Wording questions:
Ask one thing at a time
Be specific and unambiguous – minimize multiple interpretations of a question
Make sure the terms you are using understood the same way by your respondents
Be sure respondents are equipped to provide the information you are asking for
Avoid loaded questions that presuppose a particular answer – remain neutral

Participant observation: “deep hanging out” (Renato Rosaldo)

Neither just participant nor just an observer
Be up front with informants about the fact that you are doing research and will
write about them for your thesis
“Go with the flow”: allow informants to lead you
Establish rapport
Participant observation is good for understanding the dynamics of everyday life in a
certain social setting or a specific activity carried out by a group
What you find is inextricably connected to how you find it out: linking method and
substance to recognize that “findings” are not absolute, they are contingent upon the
context and circumstances of “discovery”

Informants, key informants, or “consultants” are different from research subjects in an
experiment or respondents to a survey or questionnaire
Consider your informants’ position within the community you are studying: is
s/he central or peripheral to the group? Do others respect her/him? How long has
s/he been a member of this group? What are the positions and characteristics
represented in your informants as a group?

Fieldnotes, note-taking, daily journals: this is your data (it’s not data until it’s written
down; if it’s written down, it’s data)
Always carry your notebook (but use your judgment as to when to bring it out)
Consider your informants’ impressions of your writing – is it intrusive? Have
you failed to write down something s/he feels is important (and therefore
(in)validated it)?
Basic facts, chronologies, social relationships, mapping the community
“Thick description” (Clifford Geertz)
Get direct quotes as much as possible (and include them in your write-up)
Description: documenting things as they occur and in (relevant) detail
Analysis, reflection, and speculation: your thoughts on certain events or
interviews may change with time
Organize your notes for searchability later (by date, event, person, etc.)

Tape-recording: advantages and disadvantages

always take notes even when recording an interview
remember that transcribing interviews takes a long time
but only taking notes means fewer direct quotes or exact language and more
chance of inserting your own interpretation
be explicit about whether you are quoting or paraphrasing from fieldnotes

Back up your data!!! (extra disks, email, photocopies, regular mail)


Structured: allows some room for open-ended answers but questions remain the
same for each interview
Semi-structured: questions and categories of information you will seek are
determined before-hand, but the order in which they are asked is left up to the
flow of the interview, the interviewer asks follow-up questions and
encourages interviewees to expand on certain topics that come up, and the
general shape of the interview depends on the interaction with specific
Oral histories: interviewees are asked about their lives, certain periods in their lives,
or the trajectory of their lives in terms of a specific issue (directed oral
Focus Groups: a moderator leads discussion with a small group (8-15 people) which
is selected according to specific sampling criteria (e.g., shared experience,
stratified to represent major social categories). The discussion is similar to the
semi-structured, open-ended interview but debate, dialogue, and group
consensus on meanings are encouraged.

The semi-structured interview:

State your purpose:
explain to the interviewee
who you are, where you come from

what your project is about
what you are interested in knowing
why you chose this person to interview (and what do you want to know
from this specific person)
state your ignorance of the topic and the need for the interviewee to
explain seemingly obvious details
Ask permission to tape-record and/or take notes of the interview
Tell the interviewee what you plan to do with the information: Who will see it?
Will it be published? Will you use his/her real name or a pseudonym?
Types of questions to ask:
Descriptive: e.g., How do you celebrate the New Year? How do you
make homemade gin? Who is present when a woman gives birth? What
chores are you responsible for in the house?
Structural: What different classes/kinds of people are part of this
community and what are the relationships among them?
Conceptual: How do community members conceive of different aspects
of your topic? What culturally-specific categories (“folk taxonomies”) do
they use to organize their knowledge?
Contrast: what does not belong to a certain conceptual category?
What is the difference between two items/kinds of people/etc.?
Terminological: ask about the language informants usually use to
refer to certain concepts (How would you refer to other members of
your group? What do you say when you want to bring up this topic?,
Hypothetical: what would you do in a certain situation? How would
you categorize a certain phenomenon or behavior? What if…?
Restate and sum up the interviewee’s answers: this is a way to clarify
what the interviewee is telling you, to give her/him the opportunity to
expand on what was said (especially if s/he thinks you haven’t
understood correctly), and/or to get the interview back on track so that
you can ask a follow-up question
Follow-up questions: probe the interviewee’s answers from different
angles, restate your questions, especially if you don’t get a satisfactory
answer the first time
Pay attention to the kinds of categories your informants suggest: they might direct
you to new issues to explore, people to interview, documents to look for,
conceptual categories to compare with those of other informants


Transcribing: this can be done selectively to save time, but only if you have taken
notes during the recorded interview
Direct quotes are only those you have written down word for word or recorded and
transcribed; otherwise you can paraphrase what your informants said
Coding of fieldnotes, transcriptions, and interview notes
Make a list of topics, themes, symbols, conceptual categories, approaches that your
informants talked about and label the appropriate sections of your notes so they are
easy to find later. Your list will grow as you go through your material and begin to

This is why it’s so important to create a good organizing system for your notes. Think
about what will be easiest to search through, possibly using the computer (e.g., the
“find” feature in Word)
Begin to collect and summarize the parts of your notes that deal with certain topics.
As you read though these and write down summaries, you will begin to analyze what
you’ve found


Begin writing while you are collecting data—these are the reflections and analyses in
your fieldnotes. This way you will have a chance to go back to informants or sources
to clarify points, ask new questions, fill in gaps, etc.
Make an outline from the list of topics and categories and the summaries you created.
Go back to your original research problem/thesis and the argument(s) you developed
in your literature review. Do your data change what you thought you would find?
How do they answer your question(s) or support/refute your assumptions?
Arrange your analysis in relation to the theoretical categories that emerged from your
literature review, and the local categories and topics that emerged from your
Sometimes you will only figure out what your data “say” about your overall question
by writing and re-writing each section of analysis
As your ideas and conclusions change, be sure to adjust your literature review and
other parts of your text accordingly.
Save the introduction and conclusion to last. (We will talk more later about the
structure of the actual thesis.)


Bulmer, Martin (ed.), Questionnaires: Sage Benchmarks in Social Research Methods, (London: Sage,
2004). In four volumes.
Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln (eds.). Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry. (Thousand Oaks:
SAGE, 1998).
Denzin, Norman K. Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century. (Thousand
Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1997).
Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw (eds.). Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Fetterman, David M. Ethnography: Step by Step. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, Second Edition, 1998).
Fielding, Nigel (ed.), Interviewing: Sage Benchmarks in Social Research Methods, (London: Sage,
2003). In four volumes.
Jarviluoma, Helmi, Pirkko Moisala, and Anni Vilkko, Gender and Qualitative Methods (London: Sage,
Krueger, Richard A. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. (Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage Publications, 1994).
Morgan, David L. The Focus Group Guidebook (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998).
Spradley, James P. The Ethnographic Interview. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979).
Whyte, William Foote, (ed.). Participatory Action Research. (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991).