Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Students Studying Students: When Do Interviews Become Too Formal? By Isabella Gillard and Yuyang Yuan (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Concepts and Methods.”

It is an interesting dynamic to be a student studying other students who attend the same university, an institution which is also your primary field site. This ethnography class offers students a unique opportunity to make a familiar setting unfamiliar by digging into the inner workings of the institution and documenting how students navigate it. This act of making the university ‘strange’ presents many unique insights but it also comes with specific challenges. One of these challenges is when interviews become too informal because you rely on close friends for data. When the interview is held over coffee or in your living room it can lose some of the formality of a ‘proper’ research interview. On one hand, this can increase the naturalism of the setting, prompting more sincere reflections about everyday experiences as interviewees feel more comfortable sharing personal stories that would otherwise not arise in more formal interviews. However, it can simultaneously undermine critical reflections when the interview falls back into familiar conversation patterns, such as complaining about campus food without questioning why students tend to be so dissatisfied. 

Isabella: Familiarity leads to Assumptions

In the early stages of my research, I relied on my close friends because they were the most accessible and their stories were the original impetus for my investigation into food diversity and how it makes students feel more or less included in campus life. However, by selecting friends based on my pre-existing knowledge of their experiences I fell into the trap of a psychological phenomena called “confirmation bias”. In other words, I wanted to find data that supported my suspicions that the culturally diverse cuisines prepared on campus are not authentic and the dietary accommodations limited in variety. Consequently, I may have ignored data that countered my assumptions. Despite the biases I carried into these first interviews, I was continually surprised by stories I hadn’t heard before and opinions I didn’t realize my friends held. In one interview with a friend who identified as Indian-Canadian, I designed my discussion questions to ask about their views on the Indian cuisine offered in the dining hall. Then she reminded me that she was a university tour guide and a different discussion opened up around how the university presents itself through scripted tours. If my interviewee hadn’t brought up their job I would have missed out on the opportunity to analyze how the university advertises its diversity. Following that interview, I became more aware of the narrow nature of my interview questions and I strived to open my mind to whatever arose instead of searching for what I expected to find.

Yuyang: Lost in Translation

My project investigates how writing assignments shape diverse students into a normalized U of T student.  One of the challenges I had when interviewing my friends is that since we were so familiar with each other, the conversation fell casually into topics we were both familiar with.  When I interviewed my philosophy classmates about philosophy writing assignments, they naturally talked about philosophy theories and ideas based on the assumption that the audience had a background in this field. For example, one of my friends mentioned that when writing a philosophy essay about existentialism and its core idea “existence precedes essence”, she felt liberated from the constraint of needing to be a person others want her to be. So it was ironic that she had to write an essay adhering to a strict rubric. It’s difficult to explain “existence before essence” so I had to bracket it in my field notes and put it into common words. After interviews such as this one, I had to do a lot of selection and translation work to make their opinions understandable for my audience who have no philosophy background. The drawback was some of their interesting opinions became less rich when I put them into common words, so I lost some of the thick description characteristic of ethnographic research. It felt like a painful trade-off. 

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