We’ve just concluded a lengthy ethnography study on foods and snacking. The field team has been de-briefing on our collective experiences across US markets and a story has emerged about a potentially risky ethno location one of our researchers encountered while in LA. While our recruiting partners make every effort to properly screen ethno participants, they simply aren’t always able to anticipate every potential issue. This one in particular involved a consumer living in a boarding house in neighborhood that looked and felt unsafe to the researcher assigned to the ethno.
Clearly, safety comes first when in the field and our team follows a strict and conservative protocol when faced with a potentially risky situation – especially when conducting ethnos solo, as is the case in many studies. Our protocol is as follows:
1. I instruct our researchers to call the participants in advance of arriving at their home – preferably a day or so in advance and then again on the day of the ethno. These phone contacts are opportunities to begin to establish rapport and trust, but also to tease out any potential concerns such as safety risks, professional respondents, falsified information and address or schedule mix-ups. If any concerns are identified, the recruiting partner can re-screen, we may send a team of researchers together, or we may opt to meet the participant at a public location to interview them before going to their home. We decide as a team what course to follow, but the fact is we have options at this point.
2. I also recommend the researcher arrive 30 minutes early to do a drive-through of the neighborhood. This provides another opportunity to identify any yellow or red flags and to react accordingly with a back-up plan. It also helps to minimize stress when parking is an issue! Again, at this point we are still working with options…and options are a good thing when thinking about safety.
3. Finally, once in the home I recommend the researcher position her/himself in a location to maximize her/his view of an exit, i.e. near or at least with a clear path to the front or back door. And if any part of the home feels unsafe, I tell them NOT to go there (i.e. I once decided not to go into the basement of a home to be shown the participant’s ’secret smoking spot’ opting instead to have it described to me in detail). I also like the researchers to stay in contact with us throughout the visit, texting and/or emailing with status updates throughout the visit.
The core tenet of this approach is one of the central ideas of ethnography: in order for the researcher to be fully tuned in to the situation and the human being studied, the researcher must be acknowledged as part of the environmental stimuli. The fact is, we influence the ethno just as much as the participant’s perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes do. As such, it’s critical that the researcher allow her/himself to be immersed fully in the psychology of the environment…and when that immersion leads them to an instinct – as sentient beings are known to have – we need to be ready to listen to our intuition and act accordingly.
Of course, 99% of in-home ethnos we conduct feel completely safe and non-worrisome, but I have found it reassures the field team, the clients and our leadership to know that we have a protocol for dealing with potentially unsafe situations.