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

What the Survey Misses: the Value of Face-to-Face Interview, By Maya Banerjee (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.”

Most research projects, ethnographic or otherwise, involve some initial deliberation over methods; How will you gather participants? What methods will you use to extract data from them? In the early stages of my project I debated between interviewing students face-to face and sending out surveys. While the surveys would likely net more responses, I chose a smaller number of interviews over a larger set of survey responses. During the interview process I came to understand that this choice was the right one, given my specific interest in UofT student’s sense of belonging.

In November I spoke with a third-year student via zoom — For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her ‘April.’ April laughed when I asked her if she felt that she belonged at the university, “I get these questions a lot, on surveys and stuff.” In the past, different parties had asked April about her sense of belonging via surveys and questionnaires. But what did these surveys miss? During the interview process I found that, when asked the open-ended question “do you feel like you belong at UofT?”, student’s initial ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was of less significance than the qualifiers they would follow up with. “I don’t feel like I don’t belong,” Olivia, another of my interviewees, told me. Then, she continued, adding that when she saw her academic performance slipping she had to “step it up.” Despite asserting that she felt no sense of alienation from the university, this unprompted addition implied that her sense of belonging was conditional on her academic performance. After the initial ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘maybe,’ students tended to ramble, making evident the many tangled lines of thought connected to their sense of belonging. These ramblings linked student’s sense of belonging to economics, race, academic performance, student culture, and more. Allowing students the open forum to ‘ramble’ revealed a great deal about their conceptualization of belonging.

Further, student’s tone and body language also influenced how their responses were interpreted. One interviewee, “Anika,” told me that she did not feel a particular sense of belonging at the university. However, her tone was casual and light, and she answered quickly and confidently. The other students who expressed a lack of belonging tended to do so haltingly, in a far less upbeat tone. They were likely to follow up by sharing stories of struggle or feelings of inadequacy. Anika, meanwhile, cited a lack of ‘school spirit.’ Upon further inquiry, I found that Anika felt no real sense of alienation or exclusion — she was just not very involved in ‘student life.’ This nuance might have been lost in a survey, where Anika’s tone would be obscured. Similarly, if Olivia had less room to ‘ramble’ the conditionalities which she attached to belonging might have been missed. This is said not to discount the validity of less in-depth quantitative methods, but to emphasize the value of the face-to-face interview and to encourage the use of such methods; interviews might shed light on what the university’s survey efforts miss.

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