Listening to People
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Listening to People

A Practical Guide to Interviewing, Participant Observation, Data Analysis, and Writing It All Up

Annette Lareau

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eBook - ePub

Listening to People

A Practical Guide to Interviewing, Participant Observation, Data Analysis, and Writing It All Up

Annette Lareau

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About This Book

This book will help you:

  • Understand the importance of talking to others, including listening to feedback from others while conducting research
  • Recognize that there is not only one right way to sculpt your study
  • Learn how to plan the early stages of a project such as designing the study and choosing whom to study
  • See how to navigate the IRB and how to perform practical matters while collecting data
  • Learn how to plan before an interview and how to construct an interview guide
  • Read real-life interviews with notes showing what probes work well and which are less successful

A down-to-earth, practical guide for interview and participant observation and analysis. In-depth interviews and close observation are essential to the work of social scientists, but inserting one's researcher-self into the lives of others can be daunting, especially early on. Esteemed sociologist Annette Lareau is here to help. Lareau's clear, insightful, and personal guide is not your average methods text. It promises to reduce researcher anxiety while illuminating the best methods for first-rate research practice.As the title of this book suggests, Lareau considers listening to be the core element of interviewing and observation. A researcher must listen to people as she collects data, listen to feedback as she describes what she is learning, listen to the findings of others as they delve into the existing literature on topics, and listen to herself in order to sift and prioritize some aspects of the study over others. By listening in these different ways, researchers will discover connections, reconsider assumptions, catch mistakes, develop and assess new ideas, weigh priorities, ponder new directions, and undertake numerous adjustments—all of which will make their contributions clearer and more valuable.Accessibly written and full of practical, easy-to-follow guidance, this book will help both novice and experienced researchers to do their very best work. Qualitative research is an inherently uncertain project, but with Lareau's help, you can alleviate anxiety and focus on success.

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The Emergent Nature of the Research Process

Interviews and participant observation studies deepen our knowledge of people, institutions, and social processes. These approaches draw us into the meaning of events in the everyday lives of individuals, showing how people are affected by social structural forces. Well-crafted studies can make us feel as if we are close to the social events being vividly described. For example, while surveys of victims document the size and scope of disasters, in-depth interviews and participant observation can help us grasp unexpected ramifications. In Everything in Its Path, Kai Erikson demonstrates how the collapse of a poorly maintained dam in West Virginia not only released a torrent of water that swept away homes and killed 132 people. The catastrophe also—in part because of how the disaster relief was organized—dissolved key social bonds and feelings of community.
Relatedly, ethnographers show how people simultaneously live in different overlapping social worlds and reveal how these worlds collide in unexpected ways. For example, professionals routinely enact policies that do not consider multiple institutional pressures, but family members feel the cross-pressures keenly. In Trapped in a Maze, Leslie Paik describes the “multi-institutional maze” that confines families such as Ms. Catherine, an older woman living with her two teen grandsons and nephew. Ms. Catherine interacts with eleven different institutions; the colliding institutional rules create havoc.1 Many times, qualitative studies offer a “local point of view” regarding the meaning of events. This perspective can challenge taken-for-granted assumptions. For example, in his study of defendants going through the criminal justice system, Matthew Clair notes that lawyers were surprised when Black defendants sometimes voluntarily declined an offer of probation and chose instead to go to jail. Clair’s study, Privilege and Punishment, illuminates the logic behind this choice: since the working-class Black defendants were resigned to a high level of police surveillance in their communities, they viewed probation as too risky. Other times scholars can show how very different groups of people have similar experiences, as anthropologist Katherine Newman used interviews with displaced homemakers, air traffic controllers, blue-collar workers, and managers to illuminate the pain of downward mobility.2 Because in-depth interviews and participant observation can uncover processes that were previously unknown or underdeveloped in the social science literature, these methods are especially helpful in improving our conceptual models.3
Many people want to learn how to do high-quality in-depth interviews and participant observation.4 In my case, when I was beginning to learn how to do this kind of research, the literature I read left me feeling stumped. I could not find the advice I needed. The books seemed overly prescriptive. They informed me that I should sensitively “probe” in interviews, but they didn’t describe what that looked like, nor did they seem to recognize sufficiently the difficulties inherent in probing. As I read methodological appendices, I was especially frustrated when researchers who had carried out a participant observation study described gaining entry into a field setting as the result of a serendipitous event. How was I supposed to replicate such serendipity as I sought to break into a setting? Books about interviews and observation made it seem like doing a study would be relatively smooth sailing, but in my experience, it was not. I yearned to read a book that was more realistic and practical.
In pursing my interest in a deeper understanding of how people think, act, and make sense of their everyday lives, I also have been struck by studies that had wonderful, unrealized potential: the authors designed great projects, gained impressive access, spent a great deal of time collecting data, either by interviewing many people or writing countless field notes, and wrote clearly. Despite all of these very promising elements, the final products fell short. How did that happen? What went wrong? In some cases, the works didn’t have data of sufficiently high quality to offer readers the rich, vivid feeling of being there. The lack of in-depth data made it hard to assess the basis for the authors’ claims. I was bothered by researchers who essentially told readers to “trust” them because they had collected a great deal of data since I wanted these authors to show their readers the data they found to be persuasive. In other cases, authors provided plenty of data, but their arguments lacked focus. Sometimes, the arguments were clear, but the research questions were narrowly conceived and, worse, the authors had not considered alternative explanations. In a few instances, a single error—whether in design, data collection, or analysis—was so consequential that it dramatically reduced the value of the study. How could similar studies yield work of such wildly different quality? The qualitative methodology books I read didn’t answer this question.
These challenges—that methods books are not practical enough and that potentially wonderful studies can flounder—led me to write this book. In Listening to People, I give concrete, practical advice for actually doing a wide variety of studies including class projects, theses, articles, and books. After all, novice researchers can encounter very hard problems and still manage to produce outstanding studies. In addition, since even experienced researchers inevitably face difficulties, I offer a more realistic account of the research process than appears in many other works. I also stress the inherently uncertain nature of the research process, and the importance not only of talking to others but also of listening to feedback from others while conducting research. As the title of this book suggests, I consider listening to be the core of in-depth interviewing and participant observation. You must listen to people as you collect data, listen to feedback from others as you describe what you are learning during data collection, “listen” to the findings of others as you delve into the existing literature on topics that interest you, and “listen” to yourself as you sort through and prioritize some aspects of your study over others. As you engage in listening in these different ways, you will discover connections, reconsider assumptions, catch mistakes, develop and assess new ideas, weigh priorities, ponder new directions, and undertake numerous adjustments, all of which ultimately will make your contribution clearer and more valuable.
What Does Emergent Mean? Thinking as You Go
In analog photography, the film is developed, and prints are made in a darkroom. There, you use a machine to enlarge and then briefly expose the image onto white photographic paper, and subsequently you immerse the paper in a chemical bath. At first, the paper is completely blank. But then your photograph begins to take shape—very gradually and unevenly. It may even be hard to recognize the image when it is beginning to emerge, but very slowly the picture comes to life. If the image is too light or too dark, you return to the machine and change the amount of time you “burn” (give the image more light) or “dodge” (withhold light on part of the picture) to create a balanced photograph. Then, you put the new paper into the chemical bath, watch for the image to emerge, and finally plunge it into a “stop bath” when you are satisfied with the picture.
There are important differences between developing pictures and allowing insights to emerge from your interviews and participant observation research, but the slow taking shape of focus is similar. In addition, in interviews and participant observation, there is a lot of adjusting and changing as you go along—particularly in the first half of the study process. Thus, it is common for interviewers and participant observers to not really know what they are doing for a long time. If this happens, you may feel confused and uncertain. You may not quite understand how your study fits into the intellectual debates in the field. You may not know what is new and exciting. Or, you may feel overwhelmed and be convinced that your study is a big mess. All of this uncertainty and worry is normal. As you do interviews or hang out in a setting, many new questions surface. You have to make many decisions based on incomplete information—should you probe this or that, should you spend time with this person or that person, why are you doing this study, and what do you hope to learn? Since social life is complex, there are always multiple intellectual pathways present within any given study. As a result, you need to be constantly “thinking as you go.”
As I explain in a discussion of data analysis in chapter 8, there is also not only one right way to sculpt your study. In that chapter, I present the case of a student who was doing a study of dog owners and was struggling to choose among multiple reasonable research questions. He couldn’t address them all, and for a while he was uncertain. Gradually, however, he settled on one intellectual direction, and he let the others go. In my own case, when I was a doctoral student and met regularly with Arlie Hochschild to discuss my research, she would listen attentively as I described another new idea I had, but then she would say kindly, “You know, that is a great idea! But why don’t you set that idea aside for another paper. Let’s focus.” As I learned to develop a focus, the core ideas of my study emerged more clearly.
Why is focus so important? It is hard for readers (or for any audience) to absorb a story that is really four or five different stories. When a writer hops from point to point, or when a speaker presents a lot of examples that are interesting but don’t fit together clearly, the audience can become confused, bored, or impatient. As a reader, you may have had the experience of reading a long paper and not really understanding why the author wrote it. (Was there a key idea? What was it?) Or, you may have read something with so many different ideas and examples it was hard to get the overall argument straight. Do not underestimate how difficult it can be for readers to simply follow an argument. If you have a clear focus, it helps your audience understand what key idea you are trying to convey.
When you first start doing interviews and participant observation, however, finding a clear focus is difficult. Sometimes it is impossible—even if you have read other relevant studies very carefully and thought a great deal about your topic. Normally it is only by collecting data, and thinking about the literature, honing your question, and collecting more data, that your focus slowly takes shape. Similar to the image in a darkroom, your focus emerges over time.
One more point about the emergent nature of interviewing and doing participant observation: You often have to act as if you know what you are doing. To gain access to a research setting and research subjects, you must explain the purpose of your study. Furthermore, people who read and review research proposals, funding applications, institutional review board (IRB) applications, dissertation proposals, and so forth usually expect you to tell them the purpose of your study. At this stage, they want to know what you are thinking, and they want to make sure that you haven’t overlooked anything. They may be especially concerned that you think through the impact of your study on the research participants. What you say in applications and proposals is, by definition, inherently speculative, since the true focus of your study can only become clear as you move through data collection and data analysis. Adjustment and change are integral to the process of interviewing and participant observation.
William Strunk Jr., author of the classic English usage guide The Elements of Style, once advised his students at Cornell University, “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!” The writer E. B. White, who later revised Elements, endorsed this guidance and added: “Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?”5 In the case of preparing a proposal or funding application for a study using interviewing and participant observation, you want to clearly state your preliminary research question and then outline how you plan to proceed: you will gain access, collect data (specifying your methodological approach), be sensitive to particular problems (listing examples), and use these possible solutions (listing examples) to the possible problems. You will consult with advisors. It is also important to express tremendous enthusiasm and excitement about your study. It will be valuable! You will learn important things! You are aware of possible hiccups, but you have a plan for addressing those!
Although in some ways the entire exercise of writing a research plan is deeply contingent, it is also the best you can do. You are sharing what you know when you know it. As you learn more, you will adjust your study. The emergent nature of the work also means that you don’t want to wait too long before you start collecting data. Once you start that step, many things will shift, and you will have new questions. This is all normal and appropriate. At some point, ideally around halfway through your data collection, you want to settle on your highest intellectual priorities, begin to focus your data collection on your central research question, look for data to support your emerging argument, seriously consider alternative explanations, and begin to think about the kinds of data you need to nail your argument. As I explain in later chapters, your research question, understanding of the literature, and focus of data collection will all evolve. You don’t want to get to the end of the study without a clear focus. But, at the beginning, you want to loudly and confidently act as if you have a clear plan. That plan is to get permission to do the research, begin your study, and do the best you can. That is good enough.
Organization of This Book
I begin, in chapter 2, with planning. Despite important differences, interviewers and ethnographers face many similar challenges. I take up the thinking and decision making that happen in the earliest stages of a project, particularly designing the study, choosing whom to study, and making difficult trade-offs. I also provide an overview of the research journey. Chapter 3 is about preparing by getting ready. Here I discuss navigating the IRB as well as practical matters such as handling food, clothing, and safety while collecting data. I also discuss the tricky issue of recruiting people for your study and gaining access.
Then, I devote two chapters to interviewing. Chapter 4 is about “everything but the interview,” including planning before an interview, constructing an interview guide, packing an interview bag, and thanking study participants. Chapter 5 takes you through two real-life interviews, using long excerpts from an interview done by a novice and one done by a more experienced interviewer. The excerpts are accompanied by boxed commentary where I point out what probes worked well and which were less successful.
Chapter 6, which begins a two-chapter discussion of participant observation, takes up some of the key challenges associated with doing participant observation: introducing yourself to people at your study site, defining your role in the field, scheduling fieldwork, and avoiding common mistakes (e.g., forgetting to eat before going into the field, putting off writing up your field notes for more than twenty-four hours after a visit). I also take up other challenges in terms of what to talk about, how to respond to participants’ requests for help, and the reality that it may be hard to get yourself out the door to do fieldwork. Chapter 7 offers concrete examples of high-quality and low-quality field notes and shows how underdeveloped field notes can be improved dramatically.
One theme running through this book is that you have to think as you go. It is best to carry out data analysis at every point in the research project—as you design your study, collect data, refine your focus, collect more data, code, and write up the results. But, despite the ongoing nature of the work, it is helpful to pause and systematically compare and contrast what you have learned through coding. Chapter 8 focuses on this formal phase of coding in data analysis. Chapter 9 turns to the challenge of writing, clearly stating an argument, providing ample data to support your claims, discussing disconfirming evidence, and building a conclusion. In chapter 10, the book’s conclusion, I revisit the value of doing this kind of work, the limited impact of most mistakes, and the gift that the inexperienced bring to the table. I offer some final words about the importance of having faith throughout the process.
How to Use This Book
Listening to People is intended to be read from beginning to end and to be revisited when you are facing a particular task or wrestling with a specific problem. As a result, I usually briefly define key terms in each chapter so that they can be understood in...

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