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Finding Key Informants

One of the most famous key informants in the ethnographic literature is Doc in William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1981 [1943]). Whyte studied ‘‘Cornerville,’’ an Italian American neighborhood in a place he called ‘‘Eastern City.’’ (Cornerville was the North End of Boston.) Whyte asked some social workers if they knew anyone who could help Whyte with his study. One social worker told Whyte to come to her office and meet a man whom she thought could do the job. When Whyte showed up, the social worker introduced him to Doc and then left the room. Whyte nervously explained his predicament, and Doc asked him ‘‘Do you want to see the high life or the low life?’’ (Whyte 1989:72).

Whyte couldn't believe his luck. He told Doc he wanted to see all he could, learn as much as possible about life in the neighborhood. Doc told him:

Any nights you want to see anything, I’ll take you around. I can take you to the joints— the gambling joints. I can take you around to the street corners. Just remember that you’re my friend. That’s all they need to know. I know these places and if I tell them you’re my friend, nobody will bother you. You just tell me what you want to see, and we’ll arrange it. . . . When you want some information, I’ll ask for it, and you listen. When you want to find out their philosophy of life, I’ll start an argument and get it for you. (Whyte 1989:72)

Doc was straight up; he told Whyte to rely on him and to ask him anything, and Doc was good to his word all through Whyte’s 3 years of fieldwork. Doc introduced Whyte to the boys on the corner; Doc hung out with Whyte and spoke up for Whyte when people questioned Whyte’s presence. Doc was just spectacular.

Or was he? Boelen (1992) visited Cornerville 25 times between 1970 and 1989, sometimes for a few days, other times for several months. She tracked down and interviewed everyone she could find from Street Corner Society. Doc had died in 1967, but she interviewed his two sons in 1970 (then in their late teens and early 20s). She asked them what Doc’s opinion of Whyte’s book had been and reports the elder son saying: ‘‘My father considered the book untrue from the very beginning to the end, a total fantasy’’ (Boelen 1992:29).

Whyte (1996a, 1996b) refuted Boelen’s report, as did another of Whyte’s key informants (Orlando 1992). We’ll never know the whole truth. Whyte certainly made mistakes, but the same can be said for all ethnographers. For some scholars, mistakes invalidate a positivist stance in ethnography. For others, it does not (box 7.4).

BOX 7.4


He's not even rare. All successful ethnographers will tell you that they eventually came to rely on one or two key people in their fieldwork. What was rare about Doc is how quickly and easily Whyte teamed up with him. It's not easy to find informants like Doc. When Jeffrey Johnson began fieldwork in a North Carolina fishing community, he went to the local marine extension agent and asked for the agent's help. The agent, happy to oblige, told Johnson about a fisherman whom he thought could help Johnson get off on the right foot.

It turned out that the fisherman was a transplanted northerner; he had a pension from the Navy; he was an activist Republican in a thoroughly Democratic community; and he kept his fishing boat in an isolated moorage, far from the village harbor. He was, in fact, maximally different from the typical local fisherman. The agent had meant well, of course (J. C. Johnson 1990:56).

In fact, the first informants with whom you develop a working relationship in the field may be ‘‘deviant’’ members of their culture. Agar (1980b:86) reports that during his fieldwork in India, he was taken on by the naik, or headman of the village. The naik, it turned out, had inherited the role, but he was not respected in the village and did not preside over village meetings. This did not mean that the naik knew nothing about village affairs and customs; he was what Agar called a ‘‘solid insider,’’ and yet somewhat of an outcast—a “marginal native,’’ just like the ethnographer was trying to be (Freilich 1977). If you think about it, Agar said, you should wonder about the kind of person who would befriend an ethnographer.

In my own fieldwork (at sea, in Mexican villages, on Greek islands, in rural communities in the United States, and in modern American bureaucracies), I have consistently found the best informants to be people who are cynical about their own culture. They may not be outcasts (in fact, they are always solid insiders), but they say they feel somewhat marginal to their culture, by virtue of their intellectualizing of and disenchantment with their culture. They are always observant, reflective, and articulate. In other words, they invariably have all the qualities that I would like to have myself.

Don’t choose key ethnographic informants too quickly. Allow yourself to go awash in data for a while and play the field. When you have several prospects, check on their roles and statuses in the community. Be sure that the key informants you select don’t prevent you from gaining access to other important informants (i.e., people who won’t talk to you when they find out you’re so-and-so’s friend). Good ethnography is, at its best, a good story, so find trustworthy informants who are observant, reflective, and articulate— who know how to tell good stories—and stay with them. In the end, ethnographic fieldwork stands or falls on building mutually supportive relations with a few key people.

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