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Hanging Out, Gaining Rapport

It may sound silly, but just hanging out is a skill, and until you learn it you can’t do your best work as a participant observer. Remember what I said at the beginning of this chapter: Participant observation is a strategic method that lets you learn what you want to learn and apply all the data collection methods that you may want to apply.

When you enter a new field situation, the temptation is to ask a lot of questions to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. There are many things that people can’t or won’t tell you in answer to questions. If you ask people too quickly about the sources of their wealth, you are likely to get incomplete data. If you ask too quickly about sexual liaisons, you may get thoroughly unreliable responses.

Hanging out builds trust, or rapport, and trust results in ordinary conversation and ordinary behavior in your presence. Once you know, from hanging out, exactly what you want to know more about, and once people trust you not to betray their confidence, you’ll be surprised at the direct questions you can ask.

In his study of Cornerville (Boston’s heavily Italian American neighborhood called North End), William Foote Whyte wondered whether ‘‘just hanging on the street corner was an active enough process to be dignified by the term ‘research.’ Perhaps I should ask these men questions,’’ he thought. He soon realized that ‘‘one has to learn when to question and when not to question as well as what questions to ask’’ (1989:78).

Philip Kilbride studied child abuse in Kenya. He did a survey and focused ethnographic interviews, but ‘‘by far the most significant event in my research happened as a byproduct of participatory ‘hanging out,’ being always in search of case material.’’ While visiting informants one day, Kilbride and his wife saw a crowd gathering at a local secondary school. It turned out that a young mother had thrown her baby into a pit latrine at the school. The Kilbrides offered financial assistance to the young mother and her family in exchange for ‘‘involving ourselves in their . . . misfortune.’’ The event that the Kilbrides had witnessed became the focus for a lot of their research activities in the succeeding months (Kilbride 1992:190).

The Ethical Dilemma of Rapport

Face it: ‘‘Gaining rapport’’ is a euphemism for impression management, one of the ‘‘darker arts’’ of fieldwork, in Harry Wolcott’s apt phrase (2005:chap. 6). E. E. Evans- Pritchard, the great British anthropologist, made clear in 1937 how manipulative the craft of ethnography really is. He was doing fieldwork with the Azande of Sudan and wanted to study their rich tradition of witchcraft. Even with his long-term fieldwork and command of the Azande language, Evans-Pritchard couldn’t get people to open up about witchcraft, so he decided to ‘‘win the good will of one or two practitioners and to persuade them to divulge their secrets in strict confidence’’ (1958 [1937]:151). Strict confidence? He was planning on writing a book about all this.

Progress was slow, and although he felt that he could have ‘‘eventually wormed out all their secrets’’ he hit on another idea: His personal servant, Kamanga, was initiated into the local group of practitioners and ‘‘became a practising witch-doctor’’ under the tutelage of a man named Badobo (Evans-Pritchard 1958 [1937]:151). With Badobo’s full knowledge, Kamanga reported every step of his training to his employer. In turn, Evans-Pritchard used the information ‘‘to draw out of their shells rival practitioners by playing on their jealousy and vanity.’’

Badobo knew that anything he told Kamanga would be tested with rival witch doctors. Badobo couldn’t lie to Kamanga, but he could certainly withhold the most secret material. Evans-Pritchard analyzed the situation carefully and pressed on. Once an ethnographer is ‘‘armed with preliminary knowledge,’’ he said, ‘‘nothing can prevent him from driving deeper and deeper the wedge if he is interested and persistent” (Evans-Pritchard 1958 [1937]:152).

Still, Kamanga’s training was so slow that Evans-Pritchard nearly abandoned his inquiry into witchcraft. Providence intervened. A celebrated witch doctor, named Bog- wozu, showed up from another district and Evans-Pritchard offered him a very high wage if he’d take over Kamanga’s training. Evans-Pritchard explained to Bogwozu that he was ‘‘tired of Badobo’s wiliness and extortion,’’ and that he expected his generosity to result in Kamanga learning all the tricks of the witch doctor’s trade (Evans-Pritchard 1958 [1937]:152).

But the really cunning part of Evans-Pritchard’s scheme was that he continued to pay Badobo to tutor Kamanga. He knew that Badobo would be jealous of Bogwozu and would strive harder to teach Kamanga more about witch-doctoring. Here is Evans-Pritchard going on about his deceit and the benefits of this tactic for ethnographers:

The rivalry between these two practitioners grew into bitter and ill-concealed hostility. Bogwozu gave me information about medicines and magical rites to prove that his rival was ignorant of the one or incapable in the performance of the other. Badobo became alert and showed himself no less eager to demonstrate his knowledge of magic to both Kamanga and to myself. They vied with each other to gain ascendancy among the local practitioners. Kamanga and I reaped a full harvest in this quarrel, not only from the protagonists themselves but also from other witch-doctors in the neighborhood, and even from interested laymen. (Evans-Pritchard 1958 [1937]:153)

 
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