The search for formal and systematic ways to select focused ethnographic informants— people who can help you learn about particular areas of a culture—has been going on for a very long time. In 1957, Marc-Adelard Tremblay was involved in a Cornell University survey research project on poverty in Nova Scotia. He wanted to use ethnographic informants to help the team’s researchers design a useful questionnaire, so he made a list of some roles in the community he was studying—things like sawmill owners, doctors, farmers, bankers—and chose informants who could talk to him knowledgeably about things in their area of expertise. Tremblay had no external test to tell him whether the informants he selected were, in fact, the most competent in their areas of expertise, but he felt that on-the-spot clues made the selection of informants valid (Tremblay 1957).

Michael Robbins and his colleagues studied acculturation and modernization among the Baganda of Uganda, using a more formal method to select informants who might be competent on this topic (Robbins et al. 1969). First, they ran a survey of households in a rural sector, asking about things that would indicate respondents’ exposure to Western culture. Then they used the results of the survey to select appropriate informants.

Robbins et al. had 80 variables in the survey that had something to do with acculturation and they ran a factor analysis to find out which variables package together. We’ll look a bit more at factor analysis in chapter 22. For now, think of factor analysis as a way to reduce those 80 variables to just a handful of underlying variables around which individual variables cluster. It turned out that 14 of the original 80 variables clustered together in one factor. Among those original variables were: being under 40 years of age, drinking European beer, speaking and reading English, having a Western job, and living in a house that has concrete floors and walls.

Robbins et al. called this cluster the “acculturation factor.’’ They chose informants who had high scores on this factor and interviewed them about acculturation. Robbins et al. reversed Tremblay’s method. Tremblay used key informants to help him build a survey instrument; Robbins et al. used a survey to find key informants.

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