3b- Selecting a Research Site

Now that you are aware of some of the things you will be looking for and reading as a researcher, you can begin to think about possible sites for your primary research. Over the years, students using this text, engaging in ethnographic research projects, have studied a wide range of sites and communities. These sites have been both physical and virtual, dealing with online and real-time communities. Sometimes students see themselves as complete insiders, and sometimes students are less able to find that connection immediately, and choose a location because of another interest, such as cultural background, personal belief, or even social interest. Examples of research sites chosen by students in first year writing classrooms:

Dog parks
Ethnic restaurants
Art activist projects
Family holiday parties
Smoking lounges
Dorm spaces
Online discussion groups focusing on any number of topics

No matter what, the most important factor when selecting your own site is choosing a place or space or group of people to whom you already feel connected in some way, either by direct membership, burgeoning interest, or cultural/political belief. That last statement is so important that it merits repetition. The most important consideration as you narrow your search for a research site is to identify some kind of a connection with the place/space, even if you might not consider yourself a complete insider, even if you believe you know very little about the culture. We recommend that students have a personal connection with their site for a few reasons:

  1. One semester is not enough time to conduct research and then write an enthographic essay discussing the behaviors and/or beliefs concerning a particular site/group/community about which you know, and initially care, absolutely nothing. You want to give yourself a leg up and choose your site based on a genuine interest or personal connection with a site so that you have a starting point for your observations and analysis.
  2. The site you select will be a place you go or a group you meet with for many, many, many hours over the next weeks. Your site will be your text. If you are not “into” your research or “into” your site, chances are that you’ll be bored and not want to conduct your research. And, then writing an essay will become more of a chore than a challenge.
  3. If you have an identifiable connection with the site, you will be better able to embrace and understand the role of the participant-observer in ethnographic data collection. To some degree, you will need to see yourself as part of, rather than separate, above, or beyond the community/site you’re researching. Choosing a research site based upon personal connection allows you to more easily become one of the subjects of your own research, thereby increasing your own abilities to conduct reflexive analysis of the community and yourself.

There is an important caveat if you are considering writing as an insider and selecting a group or site to which you already belong. The “insider” perspective is challenging because it can be quite difficult to see yourself and your friends with the eyes of a researcher and observer when you are not confronted with anything unfamiliar, if you are simply doing what is “normal.” You also may find that it becomes awkward to talk and write about some of the observations you make. Being able to see patterns and find the rituals and rules that members of a community take for granted is a challenge if you are a part of that community.

An example: One student decided to look at how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was able to form such strong support networks. This was an “insider” group for him because he attended an AA meeting every day. As a writer and ethnographer, his challenge was to take that very familiar world and to see it with the new eyes of a cultural observer. While he could see and report on the very obvious rituals and “rules” of AA and AA meetings, he was not comfortable writing about some of the deeply personal issues that came up in the meetings in which he was both an active participant and an observer. He was not ready, nor was he ethically able, to share some of those things with the world outside of AA. Ultimately he was able to write a very good essay about how AA created a “safe” space for him. The struggles he faced in writing a very personal, close-to-home ethnography are not uncommon when researching as an “insider,” so you should keep these things in mind as you consider possible research sites.

The challenge in writing from more of an outsider perspective, though making sure to choose a site based upon some genuine interest that is not driven by voyeurism, is the opposite of that of the insider challenge. You will probably find many patterns and interesting things to explore, but you may have more difficulty becoming a participant in the community and finding the meaning in your observations. Deciding which behaviors are meaningful (rituals) and which are just done (habit) can be problematic. If you are able to discern between those to things, you then have to move on to presenting an interpretation of what the meaning might be. You will need to be very aware of your own filters and make sure that you find out how the members of the community see things.

And, as is the case with the dangers of the “insider” perspective, problems being clearly situated as an “outsider” in a research site have ethical implications. Some students may be tempted to choose sites based upon stated interests in issues such as homelessness, homosexuality, exotic dancing, and other ‘foreign’ communities. When a site is chosen because of a kind of voyeuristic impulse, the project itself is at risk of being unethical. If it is impossible for the individual to become a participant-observer, and not just remain an observer, the student-research risks ‘othering’ the members of the community that they’re observing.  Students must selected sites and research trajectories that allow them to participate in the community rather than simply watch it from afar. Often, the solution can be to figure out how to engage in a volunteer scenario and serve the community in some way, via homeless shelter, or community organization. If this option seems impossible, then a student would do well to read a couple memoirs written by folks in their community of interest, and choose a different site.