This article summarises the issues in conducting corporate ethnographic research in rural locations covering logistics to research dynamics. Rural communities are far from homogeneous.
Compared to more urban settings, rural dwellers tend to have a more polarised expectation of "outsiders." (The "outsider" label may be designated by any number of factors including nationality, skin colour, accent, place of birth, caste, the list goes on. In Afghanistan, "foreigners" can include anyone from outside their province). Interactions with locals will be framed by their touch points with outsiders—whether aid workers, missionaries, NGO staff, backpackers or television, and slowly but surely entrepreneurs.
How might the dynamics of an interaction change if a local villager's only experience with a blonde female came through Baywatch? For example, I've been in interviews where male perceptions of foreign women is shaped by their porn consumption. My principle is that the team only needs to find one person in a community to be able to build out a meaningful local network, so the only question is finding that one person. The research is rarely about finding statistically representative participants but rather people that that fit within relatively broad criteria. Leave room for interesting outliers. A good team knows how to turn the outsider status to their advantage (or at least minimise negativities) using this status to gain access.
Research doesn't always flow well and it is natural for interactions or requests for interview to be rejected. In urban centers, there are plenty of opportunities to move the team to another location even in the same neighbourhood. In rural location, the ripples of rejection can spread, tainting the team within the community and forcing them to move on.
Rural locales tend to have lower levels of literacy, especially regarding females, who generally have less formal educated than males—if there is not enough money to educate all of children girls are the ones that receive less investment. Literacy can become an issue when it comes to consent, since participants are asked to sign a document that must be communicated orally, which in turn puts a greater onus on the team to communicate appropriately. In my experience, this can take a matter of seconds or upwards of half an hour. The participant's welfare the primary concern: The team should devote whatever time is required to ensuring that the consent is understood to ensure that consent is informed. My priority is participant first, team second, client third—and keeping to this eventually does the best by the client. Similarly, when a model release is being obtained (allowing external use of data including photos), the research team needs to exercise an additional moral pass to ensure that data (mostly photos) is used in the spirit in which the data was obtained.In contexts where the participant is put at risk (or may feel they might be put at risk), there will be a natural reluctance to sign any official document. Oral consent can be obtained, but this too will impact how data will be used.
I have an aversion to large team sizes in any context—too many bodies in the room feels like 'tour bus' ethnography. I generally work with a translator/guide, lead interviewer/photographer and notetaker, with the translator/guide being an appropriate bridge to the community being explored (we rarely have time to transcribe audio-recorded notes in field, and tend to have a dedicated note-taker in interviews). This typically means hiring a mixed gender, mixed ethnicity local team with a good range of languages and dialects.
Overnighting in rural locales can be problematic, given that most of the formal sleeping space is already taken—often three or four to a bed in a two-room hut. Host participants may feel significant pressure to do right by their guest, offering up valuable food and drink.
Final thought: Even if the focus of the research is on urban dwellers, you need to understand rural dynamics of agrarian societies in order to understand what is happening in the city.
Photo: view across the valley near Musanze Northern Rwanda. The team took an early morning hike of our popup studio to conduct a long-half day's research in one of the nearby villages. Hit the trail head by 7:30 for a two-hour walk into the valley, a breakfast of kings of passion fruit, mango, a thermos of coffee, shared with a gaggle of local kids picked up on the way.
Jan Chipchase, an executive creative director for global innovation firm frog, is an expert on applying human-centered insights to the design process. He is the author of Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow's Customers, which will be released on April 16, 2013.
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