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The Importance of Language

Most anthropologists (and an increasing number of sociologists and social psychologists) do research outside their own country. If you are planning to go abroad for research, find people from the culture you are going to study and interview them on some topic of interest. If you are going to Turkey to study women’s roles, then find Turkish students at your university and interview them on some related topic.

It is often possible to hire spouses of foreign students for these kinds of ‘‘practice’’ interviews. I put ‘‘practice’’ in quotes to emphasize again that these interviews should

BOX 8.3


Are these tricks of the trade ethical? Peter Collings (2009) asked Inuit hunters: ''Name all of the people you share country food with.'' The response was usually a very short list, so, when informants stopped listing names, Collings would ask ''What about your x? Surely you share food with your x,'' where x was a category of relative in Innuinaqtun, the local language. This, said Collings, reminded people that he had command of the kinship terminology and that he knew his informant had an x. Later in the interview, Collings would refer to one of the people whom the informant had named and say ''So-and-so is your older brother,'' using the Innuinaqtun term. ''Just as the fieldworker is studying the community,'' says Collings, ''so, too, is the community studying the field- worker'' to find out if he or she is culturally competent (pp. 149-50). By demonstrating cultural competence, Collings argues, phased assertion helps establish rapport—at least where he works (p. 139).

Still, getting people to open up creates responsibilities for your informants. First, there is no ethical imperative in social research more important than seeing to it that you do not harm innocent people who have provided you with information in good faith. Not all respondents are innocents, though. Some people commit wartime atrocities. Some practice infanticide. Some are HIVpositive and, out of bitterness, are purposely infecting others. Do you protect them all? Are any of these examples more troublesome to you than others? These are not extreme cases, thrown in here to prepare you for the worst, ''just in case.'' They are the sorts of ethical dilemmas that field researchers confront all the time.

Second, the better you get at making people open up, the more responsible you become that they don't later suffer some emotional distress for having done so. Informants who divulge too quickly what they believe to be secret information can later come to have real regrets and even loss of self-esteem. They may suffer anxiety over how much they can trust you to protect them in the community.

It is sometimes better to stop an informant from divulging privileged information in the first or second interview and to wait until both of you have built a mutually trusting relationship. If you sense that an informant is uncomfortable with having spoken too quickly about a sensitive topic, end the interview with light conversation and reassurances about your discretion. Soon after, look up the informant and engage in light conversation again, with no probing or other interviewing techniques involved. This will also provide reassurance of trust.

Remember: The first ethical decision you make in research is whether to collect certain kinds of information at all. Once that decision is made, you are responsible for what is done with that information, and you must protect people from becoming emotionally burdened for having talked to you.

produce real data of real interest to you. If you are studying a language that you’ll need for research, these practice interviews will help you sharpen your skills at interviewing in that language.

Even if you are going off to the interior of the Amazon, this doesn’t let you off the hook. It is unlikely that you’ll find native speakers of Yanomami on your campus, but you cannot use this as an excuse to wait until you’re out in the field to learn general interviewing skills. Interviewing skills are honed by practice. Among the most constructive things you can do in preparing for field research is to practice conducting unstructured and semistructured interviewing. Learn to interview in Portuguese or Spanish (depending on whether the Yanomami you are going to visit live in the Brazilian or Venezuelan Amazon) before heading for the field and you’ll be way ahead. (See the section on language in chapter 12 for more on using interpreters.)

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