3c- Access to Your Research Site

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.