Keep Your Tools Clean

As ethnographers, we are the instruments of data collection.  While recording equipment and software packages like ATLASti are part of the collection process, we are ultimately the primary instruments of collection, analysis and dissemination.  With that in mind, it is wise to think about the tools we use before we start our work.

Interviewing Tools

It is extremely important to record all of any interviews you may conduct as memory is not a sufficient source for citation.  Before a project is begun, decide for yourself whether you will perform full or partial transcriptions.  The more you transcribe, the more protection provided for your research and analysis, not to mention better, more in-depth insights.  However, the facts remain that full transcriptions are very time consuming and expensive, and the majority of your field session may not be useful for your research, at least not in a direct way.  Therefore, partial transcriptions are good for transcribing only the necessary or most valuable parts of your interview.  You may not know what is the most valuable information you receive when you hear it, which is why it is beneficial to take light notes during the interview and extensive notes of what you remember after the interview.   Do not focus heavily on your note-taking so that you miss what your interviewee is saying.

Participant Observation Tools

A research journal for field notes is a very practical way to keep track of your observations.  After an extended period, flipping through your journal, you might notice patterns that you had not realized were prevalent as you witnessed them in person (that’s right, you don’t see everything the first time). As memory fails it is very important to have detailed notes of what you observed; otherwise your observations are meaningless.

Journals are also valuable for realizing your own biases or prejudices.  When it comes to examining specific design or business issues, it’s easy to focus too early on solving problems.  That means an inerrant bias when sifting through data.  The journal helps you identify personal assumptions and what’s actually going on. It is here that you might begin to question some of your interpretations, and here where you might realize possibilities that had not yet occurred to you.  When conducting fieldwork, you should always question yourself to make sure you are not getting in the way of your own research.  It can also be valuable if you are having trouble connecting to your interviewees to see what it is you are doing that distances them.

Technical Tools

Always test your equipment before you go into the field. Fieldwork is a learning experience, however, it would certainly be more valuable if the learning experience was about your research topic rather than temperature at which tapes melt, hard drives fail or batteries are dead.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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