how anthropology works

Rainbow Sorry, sorry, sorry. 

I haven’t posted the last couple of days because I am in Seattle and doing ethnographic interviews.  The project is for a capital markets company and the objective is to see why people invest in mutual funds.

I can’t remember a project more fatiguing than this.  I am so tired I can hardly see.  For some reason, the interviews take everything I’ve got and then some.  I end up in that state where you find yourself wondering whether you can make it from the hotel lobby to your room without having to sit down for an hour or two.

The interviews are free wheeling and designed to be as opportunistic as possible.  At this point, the client doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, as it were.  At this point, it isn’t sure what to ask.  This is when you send in the anthropologist.  My job is to listen carefully and see the basic terms of references with which an investor sees themselves, their world, and investing.

So every question casts the net wide.  Let’s see what they say.  And follow up.  Let’s be prepared to go where they take us.  Let’s let the respondent design the interview so that we capture how they see the world, and not how the anthropologist or the client imagines they see the world.

Once the interview and the respondent is launched, I greet each question with the Letterman-Schaeffer question: Is this remark something or is it nothing.  The trick is to find the frame that makes it somethingÂ…if you can.  I am asking myself, "what do I have to think to see the point of this?  Where can this answer take me?  What view corridors does it open up?  Does it allow me to see into the world of assumptions and beliefs that make this world make sense?  As I say, the trick is to shuffle interpretive frames fast enough to ‘hear’ what I’ve have just been told, before the rules of conversation oblige me to ask another question."

Ok, let’s say it is something.  Now I have to decide which follow-up question will open the something up.  I have a thought about where this might take us.  But I can’t flat out ask.  Because the second rule of this method is: never supply terms of reference.  If I give the respondent a way to fashion their response, they may well use it.  Then the interview has become a kind of mirror.  In a sense, I am listening to myself. 

So, I ask something that encourages them to keep going and suggest in a non directive way which way to go.  Sometimes, the thing dies.  But sometimes we are away to the races.  We have a gusher.  The respondent has let me into the way they see the world.  My job now: write like a demon.

Eventually, the interview begins to fill up with key terms and the interpretive possibilities.  I want to be as precise as I can about what these are, without being so precise that I am foreclosing my opportunity to see new definitions and relationships.  I end up with a large contingency table.  All these things may go together like this, or this, or this.  And more data is pouring in.  And the set changes as I entertain, promote or abandon my interpretive frames.

There are mechanics to keep track of in all of this.  Where are we in the interview?  Have I covered all the possibilities raised by this particular answer?  Have I covered all the things I must ask about in the course of the interview.  Given this respondent, and these answers, what is the best way to get these questions in?  How should they be phrased and in what order?

It ends up being a little like air traffic control except that you have to keep reshuffling the stack even as you wonder whether you have correctly posited the principles of lift and flight that apply in this particular air space.

Yesterday, I had two quite different interviews.  The first was with a guy who writes educational gaming software for children.  He was smart, but deeply cautious.  He would answer every question very carefully and then bring the interview to a dead stop.   With every question, I would have to get out the paddles and see if I could restart the interview. 

The second interview was much easier.  A woman from the arts who spoke with great ease and wonderful figures of speech.  I could see into her easily.  She lived in a glass house and never closed the drapes.  Lots of momentum here.  She saw where I was going, she saw where she was going, she saw where we might both go.  In this case, the task is to offer direction that was small, precise, and, I hoped, on target, and then write like hell to capture the profusion of data that resulted. 

A couple of days I did an interview with a guy who looked a little Dennis Hopper and talked like him too.  Smart but circuitous.  Just when you would think, "damn, this is going nowhere," he would say something that was remarkably interesting.  My job: to ask a question that Dennis would ignore and then wait patiently for him to wander into  illumination. 

My point, and I do have one, is that I think this interview process has something in common with contemporary culture to the extent that both of them demand that we "shift frame" with greater constancy and skill.  By "shifting frame" I mean that we find ourselves in situation where our favorite and customary assumptions do not apply.  Nor can we see what assumptions do apply.  We are obliged to nose into this world and respond nimbly in real time, and work out what to think and how to act as the data is forthcoming. 

The anthropological conclusion?  This is hard.  It demands a special elasticity.  And too much of it induces a particular inelasticity.  The cosmopolitan becomes a zombie.  Anyhow, think of this post as a "note from my doctor" or at least an excuse why I have been blogging infrequently.  Thanks for your patience.

6 thoughts on “how anthropology works

  1. steve

    That sounds pretty difficult. Do anthropologists actually have a way to teach people to do this?

  2. Grant

    Steve, I wrote you a long response but it didn’t get through. Anthropologists do most of their training on the job. But I have written a small book on the topic, which I am happy to send you. Best, Grant
    p.s., let’s see if this gets through

  3. Stephanie Rosenbaum

    Dear Grant,

    Thank you for this interesting and insightful post. As a consultant who coaches others on ethnographic interviewing, I would love to read your “small book” and share it with colleagues. Is it publicly available? Could you send me a citation?

    Thank you for your help,

  4. Grant

    Stephanie, thanks for your note. The book is called The Long Interview and its available from Sage publishers. Turns out that Russ Belk (University of Utah business school) is working on a collection of readings in this area, but it won’t be out till late 2005. Thanks for your interest. Best, Grant

  5. Sebastian Acuña

    me interesaria poder recibir algun tipo de informacion relacionada con el tema del trabajo, especificamente antropologia del trabajo

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