Ethnography – How Do People Actually Talk, Think, and Behave With Regards To Race?

Value:
If we have the resources, it is helpful to start with a qualitative, particularly an ethnographic, perspective. This perspective helps us to generate a “thick description” of the phenomenon in question. This process provides inspiration for quantitative work and helps us to interpret quantitative results.

Relevant to our intervention-oriented research question – we can identify areas of contradiction and areas of lack awareness in the way that our participants think about race, which can then inform interventions. We can build upon their existing wisdom as well. We can then frame our interventions in a way that is accessible to participants – that shows an understanding of their perspectives.

Showing understanding can allow us to be supportive and affirming even as we challenge them in ways that could produce a general sense of threat. Our intervention depends on challenging, not threatening, our participants.

Process:
We could, for example, select two communities, one racially diverse and the other majority white. Then we could conduct a participant observation study – meeting with community members (white and non-white) and spending time with them formally and informally.

Formal contact might be in the form open-ended interviews in which we ask community members about racial attitudes, attitudes towards prejudice, interracial interaction, and discrimination. For my own experience as anthropologist, click here. We could also sit in on meetings in which community members are discussing related issues, including diversity but also including economic or political issues that they may see as relevant to race. Using both individual interviews and a record of public utterances, formal study can juxtapose public and private expression.

Informal contact may be more rare and will depend upon the rapport that you have built in formal interviews. In “hanging out” with community members, you may encounter a very different, more spontaneous, public and private expression. However, spontaneity does not mean that the expression of the attitude is “pure.” By talking with people and asking questions you inevitably influence what they later express and how they express it, at least to you. You’ve made ideas and the expression of ideas salient that may have only been inchoate before you began your research. Last, no matter how much rapport your develop, some ideas will not be expressed.

To get at those ideas, we can employ structured, interview, surveys, implicit attitudes tests, and behavioral experiments.

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