|When Does an Interview Dig Deep Enough?|
By Linda Burton, James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, Duke University; firstname.lastname@example.org
Ethnographic research is a method of gathering data about individual's thoughts, behaviors, and experiences in the context of their everyday life. In ethnography, researchers engage systematically with those they are studying, participating in their lives and asking in-depth questions about the information they are learning.
Ethnographic research differs from surveys of human behaviors in several important ways. While surveys typically ask an individual a series of questions with fixed-option responses at one point in time, ethnographers record over time both what individuals say about their own behaviors and what they actually do. In the process, ethnographers build trusting relationships by listening without judgment and keeping promises of confidentiality. They may also get at hidden data by being there when research participants are ready to reveal previously concealed information, on their own terms. Sincere promises of confidentiality and anonymity can often convince participants to share sensitive data, but these measures are sometimes not enough. In settings where those studied have much to hide, it is not until some long-term relationship has been established that research participants will come relatively "clean" with fieldworkers about data that could potentially harm them or important others in their social worlds.
As a result, ethnographers' assessments of respondents usually go well beyond the "public face" and socially-appropriate facades individuals tend to put on their responses to general questions. They may also uncover patterns of behavior or experience that informants are either ashamed to admit or that they may not even initially regard as relevant to the relationship. Such was the case in our Three-City Study of economically disadvantaged families in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. This four-year study, designed to examine the impact of welfare reform in the lives of low-income African American, Latino, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic White families, revealed that domestic violence and sexual abuse are more central to women's economic vulnerability than researchers have commonly recognized.
More than two-thirds of the mothers who participated in this survey eventually disclosed that they had been sexually abused or had experienced domestic violence as children and/or as adults. Yet in most cases, it took more than 6 months of interviews for this information to come out, and in almost 20 percent of the cases, the information emerged only after 10-24 months. Three patterns of disclosure were identified in the ethnographic data: "trigger topics" disclosure, "crisis" or recent event disclosure, and "ethnographer prompted" disclosure.
The trigger topics disclosure pattern involved mothers unexpectedly revealing sexual abuse and domestic violence histories to ethnographers when they were asked about topics such as health, intimate relationships, transportation, work history, and intergenerational caregiving. For example, during an interview about her general health, a 37-year-old African American mother of three commented that "My pregnancy with Dante was hard because I was sick." The ethnographer asked neutrally for more information: "You were sick?"
Yeah, he had been sleeping around and gave me gonorrhea. I'm still embarrassed talking about it. Sometimes I didn't want to sleep with him but he'd rape me. I told him I was gonna' call the police and he said, ‘Go ahead. Ain't nobody gonna' arrest me for wanting to be with my woman.'
A different informant revealed experiences with abuse when the ethnographer asked how she had met her husband. Liza stated that this was a "funny story" and noted that she had met her husband just after ending a relationship with a man who had broken her nose.
Yet another example of such unprompted disclosure was one that occurred during the twenty-third visit to the home of Delilah, a 40-year-old European American divorcée and mother of four children. The ethnographer was conducting a follow-up interview concerning Delilah's past and current work experiences because Delilah had failed to mention particulars about her work history over the previous two years of interviews. At this point, Delilah finally told the ethnographer that she had once worked at a bank as a switchboard operator, but quit when her former husband physically injured her. Delilah stated: "I went to work with a black eye. People at the bank noticed. When it happened a second time, I felt embarrassed coming to work, so I quit like cold turkey."
Seventy-one percent of disclosures conformed to this trigger topics pattern. The second most common pattern of disclosure, accounting for almost 20 percent of the accounts, was the "crisis" or recent event disclosure pattern. This occurred when the ethnographer unexpectedly "walked in" on a domestic violence situation when she was visiting the participant, or when the participant experienced a sexual abuse or domestic violence episode a few days or weeks prior to the ethnographer's regularly scheduled visit. In both instances, the abuse situation was "fresh" in the minds of mothers and they chose to discuss it with their ethnographers in great detail. In most of these cases, the ethnographers had suspected abuse (as indicated in ethnographers' field notes and in discussions with their supervisors and team members), but hadn't felt that they could directly ask the participant about it. For example, Janine, the ethnographer for Patrice, a 28-year-old European American mother of two, describes the circumstances that led to Patrice's crisis-prompted disclosure:
I arrived at Patrice's house 10 minutes before the interview only to find the streets covered with cops, patrol cars, and an ambulance... Patrice was on the porch screaming, her face bloody and cut. The kids were running around everywhere screaming and crying.... I feared that my worst suspicions about the prevalence of domestic violence in Patrice's life were about to be confirmed.... When I visited Patrice three weeks later the flood gates opened without me asking. I listened as she told me everything about the incident and about other incidents of physical and sexual abuse that she had experienced since childhood.
The third pattern, "ethnographer-prompted" disclosure, occurred when ethnographers directly asked mothers about their past and current experiences with sexual abuse or domestic violence. Ethnographers usually asked direct but open-ended questions about these topics in an interview if they noticed a behavioral reaction from mothers when discussing their intimate relationships with their partners. Only 9 percent of all disclosures came from such prompts.
It is also important to note that only 12 percent of the mothers who revealed sexual abuse and domestic violence experiences to the ethnographers did so during visits or participant observations that occurred in the first 3 months of their involvement in the study. Twenty-nine percent disclosed sexual abuse and domestic violence experiences during the 4 to 6 monthly visits with the ethnographers, 40% during the 7 to 9 month visits, and 19% after 10 to 24 visits.
The prolonged wait before most informants revealed their history of sexual abuse and/or domestic violence reveals the importance of investing enough time and participation in the mother's lives to reach a "turning point" in the relationship between mothers and ethnographers - a moment when the participant trusts the ethnographer enough to share intimate, sensitive, and sometimes highly painful information. And the fact that such revelations often occurred almost accidentally or unintentionally suggests that such ethnographic studies capture much more of the actual incidence of violence in poor women's lives than official police reports or surveys.
About CCF: The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners. Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Council's mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.
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