Chapter Activities

Experiential Exercises

(1) The best way to learn about intensive interviewing is to practice. First, model an intensive interview on some topic (preferably a noncontroversial one) by inviting a student to the front of the class and interviewing him or her. Next, have students get into small groups (ideally of four students) and decide on a topic for which they would like to conduct interviews (remind them that intensive interviewing is particularly useful for investigating subjective reality). Have each group develop an outline of the topics they would like to cover in their interview. Split groups up into interviewing teams, in which two members of the same group interview one member of another group. One person should lead the interview, while the other should write down their informants’ responses (and take note of any problems with the outline or interviewing style). After first round of interviews, groups should reconvene to discuss whether their outline should change at all. Split groups into a second round of interviewing. Repeat process until every student has conducted at least one interview, taken notes for at least one interview, and been interviewed at least once. Have the groups present reports on the topic of their choice and/or their experience as interviewer or informant. 

(2) You can recreate focus groups in your classroom. As a demonstration, separate the class into two groups: the focus group (of 7–10 people) and observers. If possible, seat the focus group around a round table with observers on the outside. Ask them a series of predetermined questions to get them talking, while the observers take notes on responses (the difficulty here is making sure that the observers don’t try to participate . . . which they will!). Two topics that have worked well for me with college students: (1) Describe the worst job you have ever had; (2) Does birth order affect performance in school? After the mock focus group, have smaller groups of students construct an outline for a focus group on a topic of their own choosing and allow them to try it out on their own classmates. You can run several focus groups concurrently, and you can divide the student groups into two (one half conducts their focus group for half of the class period but then becomes the subjects in a focus group for the other half). Make sure that multiple people try to take notes on what the subjects say! Have groups compare their data and suggest findings that they could test in a survey, an experiment, or another round of focus groups. You may also ask them to compare what they recorded, as this will demonstrate how taking field notes are an inexact art.

(3) Students should form small groups (ideally of three or four) in which at least one group member is a regular participant in some group activity (e.g., team sport, social club, on-campus employment). The other group members should arrange, through the member, to observe a group event (such as a meeting or a game), including the set-up and activities after the event. The observers should take and analyze their notes separately and then discuss with the participant their impression of “what was going on.” The entire group should develop a brief report on the relative merits of participation and observation as field research strategies.

(4) Ask a small group to identify a social setting where none are “regulars” or “participants,” but where they would be comfortable doing some observation (e.g., a waitress station, a waiting room, a surfing beach, a local club). Have each member independently conduct 1 hr of observation at the field site, during which time they sketch a map of the site and record social activities as they occur. After these hours of observation have been completed, the group should come up with a series of questions that they could ask of participants in the setting. If possible, they should also try to get interviews with participants. (If nothing else, this can be a good exercise in learning how to approach informants; many will be suspicious of an interview and will decline.) If interviews cannot be conducted, more observation should occur. In a final report, the group should try to develop some grounded theory based on their observation and citing their field notes where relevant. Make sure each member turns in his or her field notes and maps!

Individual and Group Activities

(1) Review of Qualitative Literature

This exercise is particularly useful if students are conducting their own research projects in your course. Ask them to:

(a) Locate five research articles in academic journals that present qualitative research that is relevant to a single topic of research. (The articles need not be on exactly the same topic, but they must be relevant.)

(b) Note the details on data collection for each article, including (as relevant): number of key informant interviews, time spent in the field, type of field research (e.g., participant observation), number of focus groups, and composition of focus groups. This information should be identifiable in the methods section of the article.

(c) Note the key findings of each article, as stated in the abstract (or in the absence of the abstract, in the findings section of the article).

(d) For each article, discuss the limits to generalizability of findings based on the field research. How has the researcher (or researchers) dealt with this problem?

(2) Social Behavior in Public Places

For this project, students will conduct a short observational study of social behavior in a public place. Instruct them to:

(a) You may select an outdoor mall, a church service, or some other setting with a large number of people that is open to the public and where you can hang around without appearing too conspicuous. Go to the setting only to conduct this assignment--not because you have business or social plans there.

(b) Plan to spend about 20 min conducting your study. Allow at least that much time soon afterward to write up your notes (and, of course, more time than that to write the paper). Prepare a tentative plan for observing, emphasizing phenomena that are of most interest to you and that you believe will be most helpful in understanding social behavior at this location. Consider observing the frequency and type of interactions between people and so on. You should observe nonverbal ties and boy language, exits and entrances, spatial arrangements of people, and so on. Also review mentally from your previous experiences in this type of setting to help you decide how to focus your formal observational experience.

(c) While you are observing, take brief notes as unobtrusively as possible. Depending on the setting, you might want to go outside or to another area to unobtrusively jot down a few notes.

(d) Write up your notes in as much detail as possible (try to record all that you observed) soon after leaving the setting (but do not try to record everything “while it is happening” because you’ll miss too much!) Record what you observed as accurately as possible. Be sure to include in your notes a description of the place that you observed and of the types of people in the setting. Try to focus on the situation, the types of people in it, and how they interact, not on particular individuals or socially irrelevant activities (such as the color of clothes worn). You may try to infer characteristics such as social class and mood from what you observe about people, but be sure and cite the evidence for your inferences.

(e) You may wish to count the number of activities, persons of different types, and so on. If anyone asks you what you are doing, you should mention that you are observing people’s behavior for a class assignment.

(f) Begin your research report by identifying the issue(s) that you studied in the setting. In a methods section, describe the setting and draw a map of it. Report briefly on how your “study” developed: how you entered the setting, what you first noticed in the setting, how you felt in the setting, what you did during the observational period, and what impact you seemed to have on the setting. Present your findings, identifying the different types of behavior and types of interactions and/or groups you observed. Note the frequency of occurrence of these behaviors, how their occurrence varied, and who engaged in which behaviors. Try to identify the similarities and differences between people and groups engaged in different behaviors.

(g) Analyze your observations. What have you learned about social behavior in this setting? Are differences in social status or other characteristics important in influencing behavior in this type of setting? In your conclusions, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your study and explain how generalizable you believe your findings are. What general conclusions about social relations or human behavior can you draw from your study? How effective was your methodology? What hypotheses and methods would you suggest for future research? Note any influence that your own orientation toward or role in the setting may have had on your observations and interpretations.

(3) Is Social Science Becoming More Qualitative?

Sociology and political science, in particular, are believed to be more open to qualitative methods that they were in the past. Here’s an opportunity to test that belief.

(a) Select a nonanthropology social science journal for which your library has at least 40 years of back issues.

(b) Review the abstracts three issues within the past 2 years. For each article, note whether the article included any qualitative data.

(c) Locate issues in the same journals from 10 years ago. Repeat Step 2.

(d) Do the same for 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and 40 years ago.

(e) Write a brief report in which you assess how the number of articles using qualitative methods has changed during this time period (or hasn’t changed).