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You are here: Home About EthnoMed Contributor's Guide Collecting Ethnographic Data: The Ethnographic Interview

Collecting Ethnographic Data: The Ethnographic Interview

Author(s): Tao Kwan-Gett, M.D.
Date Authored: November 01, 1995

The following are lecture notes from a seminar given by Carey Jackson, MD at Harborview Medical Center in March 1995.

What is an Ethnographic Interview?

The primary method of cultural data collection for EthnoMed is the ethnographic interview. The researcher interviews an informant, sometimes with the help of an interpreter, who may also be an informant. The ethnographic interview differs from the usual patient-doctor interaction in several ways. Health care providers are accustomed to control in the medical interview. Their questions are driven by an understanding of pathophysiology and a desire to find causal, temporal, and biomedical relationships between pieces of information. In the ethnographic interview, providers must relinquish control to the informant and allow the informant to be the teacher. The challenge is to maintain a friendly conversational tone while keeping track of the information being collected.

The first step in the ethnographic interview is to establish a domain for the conversation. This might be a free listing of topics or ideas, e.g. "I am interested in different types of shoes." The next step is to perform a "card sort" by grouping things together. Using shoes as an example, these groups might be by gender (men's and women's shoes), function (running shoes, hiking shoes, dress shoes), class (leather shoes, canvas shoes), or idiosyncratic. It is also important to explore the folk taxonomy, or how the informant's culture relates different types of shoes. From this one can then build semantic networks and cognitive maps. Again, the art and the challenge is to do the above while maintaining a friendly conversation and not lapse into the typical medical history interrogation.

Interviewing Informants.

It can be difficult to perform an ethnographic interview that avoids fatiguing the informant, who will quickly realize that she is being turned into the teacher. Sometimes you have to balance free conversation with information gathering. Here are a few techniques to help with the ethnographic interview:

  • Greeting. An important element is getting a good start with a friendly greeting, both verbal ("Hello, how are you?") and nonverbal (e.g. handshake).
  • Expressing interest. Again, use both verbal cues and nonverbal cues (eye contact) to let the informant know that you are interested in what she is saying, and want her to continue.
  • Expressing ignorance. Give verbal cues to let the informant know that he is not boring you with information you already know, and to open areas of conversation ("I have never heard of that herb before.").
  • Avoid repetition. People get bored when they have to go over a story twice in the same conversation. Though we sometimes ask patients to repeat information ("Could you describe the headaches to me again?"), it is good to avoid repetition when interviewing an informant. Use a tape recorder for all of your interviews to help avoid this.
  • Taking turns. Avoid letting the conversation become one-sided.
  • Incorporating native terms into questions. By using terms the informant has taught you, you tell the informant that you are interested in the conversation and are learning from it. ("What other treatments might a /krou k'mai/ use for this illness?")
  • Restating and incorporating. Often this is used together with incorporating native terms. By using the informants own words in conversation, you tell the informant that you want him to continue to use his own words.

Making a Record of the Interview.

After the interview, review the tape recording of your conversation and make a verbatim record of the interview. The verbatim record is useful because it includes terms used in native language. If you keep a record of the interview entirely in your language, you may lose important information. Review the verbatim record with an interpreter, who can be an informant who helps you understand unfamiliar terms and concepts that were used during the interview.

Running a Focus Group.

There may be times when you will want to collect your information through a focus group. Focus groups are often useful to find out what the key issues are within a particular topic. They can also be a better forum to discuss moderately controversial topics that people might be too inhibited to discuss individually; however, if a topic is too controversial people might feel uncomfortable exposing their opinions before a group. You can also use focus groups to validate your findings from previous interviews. In focus groups it is easier to identify majority and minority views on a particular topic.

You may run a focus group anywhere, but having a group discussion in the informants' home, community center, or church often helps the group feel more at ease and talkative. There may also be photos, objects, or pictures in these settings that can help facilitate conversation. Obviously there is the potential for a focus group to degenerate into chaos, and it requires skill to keep a focus group on topic while maintaining the ideal of being a "fly on the wall." Try also to avoid polarization and argument, as there may be strong differences of opinion between minority and majority voices within the group. Emotionally laden topics may also be difficult to tackle. An encounter group exploring individuals' feelings and psychology may be interesting, but will likely offer less ethnographic information.

If you are audiotaping, taped verbal consent or first written consent, should be obtained and submitted with the ethnographic data for the record.