No matter how excited you are about a group or site, if you don’t have access to a community, you cannot conduct ethnographic research. The three most common reasons that limit the type of access that students need are:
- There is no site or community. For example, one may have an interest in the issue of violence in video games, or French Revolutionary history, or NASA astronauts, but these more traditional topics do not provide a clear site or a community that can serve as your cultural text. However, one can shift perspective and explore the interaction and team-building in an on-line gaming community, with any and all violence that it entails, or the behaviors and knowledge of individuals in real-time or online role-playing game/group focusing on the French Revolution history to explore current relationships with history, or even behavior at a local science museum in order to assess public perceptions of NASA. The point here is that even when it may seem as though there is no site, you might find a way to creatively identify one.
- It is a closed community (culturally or physically). There are fascinating sites and communities that would make excellent research sites, but are culturally closed to outsiders. One urban example of this is street gangs. Students who are already members of street gangs can conduct this kind of research as insiders, but it would be unlikely that a curious college student would be allowed enough access to this kind of closed society, in the time frame of a semester or quarter, to conduct solid research. There would also be potential danger in this kind of a situation. As a rule, you should not engage in research in which your participation can result in physical or emotional harm, or arrest. You should also always make sure you select a site that is physically accessible. If you want to research a site you can’t get to (locked doors, security clearances, the South Pole, etc.), you need to go a different route.
- The site or community does not come together in the time frame of this course. Then there are the time constraints of researching and writing for a class, which has predetermined beginning and end dates, and, of course rigid time frames for when grades are due. If the site that has your heart pounding is not accessible for repeated field visits over the course of the semester or quarter, you will need to choose a different site.
Because there is no one way to choose a site or to write ethnography, making a good decision regarding a research site might seem difficult. This is true. But this also means that there are also endless possibilities for success. If you take the time to carefully consider finding a site or group that you have a genuine interest in, your research and your writing will be much better.
There are also important ethical considerations for access to your research site. As you go through the process of selecting your site and writing your proposal, keep one very important thing in mind: you are ethically obligated to let the people you are studying know what you are doing when you begin and you should seek to establish some kind of mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship. If you are going to a site to collect data, you must represent your mission as such. This is not undercover or hidden-camera work. If you fear letting people at your site know what you are doing and why you are doing it (this comes back to that physical or emotional harm thing), then once again, choose another site.
In an age of reality TV and surprise, tell-all talk shows, there are always some students that are excited about the possibilities of “not telling” or of using the information they uncover to pit people against each other. For example, one student wrote about fighting in his family, and he really wanted to use inside information to set his family up for a big, blow out fight – for the purposes of his research. While that may or may not have been a smart personal strategy, as a writer and ethnographic researcher, it crossed the ethical behavior line. Chapter 2 explains why you need to include ethical considerations in your research and research plan, but overall, the issues of ethics come back to respect for the people and cultures at your site. You need the kind of access we have discussed in this section to collect enough data from which to write and present your interpretations, and both your research process and writing must be accomplished with this respect.