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
Laun­dro­mats
Fam­i­ly hol­i­day par­ties
Smok­ing lounges
Dorm spaces
Work­spaces
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.