Leading questions

When constructing questionnaire items or interview questions, we can accidentally lead people to answer a certain way. How can we guide our respondents to the types of answers we hope to receive, but without also guiding them to the content of their answers as well?

Exercise: Imagine the different response to these questions:

  • Do you support our soldiers in Iraq?
  • Was the Administration justified in sending American military into Iraq?
  • What is your opinion of American military involvement in Iraq?

It is very likely that even those Americans who believe that the administration was incorrect in sending forces to Iraq would still support the troops and hope for their safe return. The third question is more neutral than either of the first two, because it allows the respondent to choose the aspect of the issue to which s/he wishes to respond, but it also leaves our research more difficult to interpret.

Biased researcher

Even when we set out to be completely objective, a lifetime of assumptions, beliefs and experiences colors how we see the world, record information, and interpret that information. How can we remain vigilant about possible bias sneaking into our work?

Exercise: Choose a topic related to your study. Then brainstorm everything you think you know about the topic. Once youGve done this, go back and analyze the list for the implied assumptions. Now trade lists with a peer. What assumptions did they identify? Did any surprise you, whether from your own list or your peers? How might these unintentional or unconscious assumptions affect your study of the topic you chose?

Biased informants

When working with local participants, we should begin from the stance of believing that what they say is true, but we should also think whether they have a natural reason to be biased about an issue. When studying local development, for instance, you might imagine that a real estate agent, a farmer, a current homeowner, and a county planner might all have different impulses for what they want. How can we think carefully about the underlying assumptions that our participants bring to the table.


  • One way to begin to identify and account for such bias is to make sure you have chosen a broad range of participants.
  • Once you have begun working with participants, consider their various roles and positions in the community. What assumptions might people in a particular position or role hold? What biases?

Humane Treatment

Establishing rapport

One of the most important and difficult steps in successful fieldwork is establishing rapport with informants. Without it, we will rarely be able to gather useful and accurate data. How can we get possible informants to trust us?


  • Be honest.
  • Reverse the power structure by making it clear why the informant is important to the study
  • Identify possible reasons the person might not trust you. How can you prove to them you are trustworthy? (Simply telling them wonGt cut it.)
  • Recognize that this takes time. DonGt rush things.
  • Brief, regular and frequent contact can often do far more than lengthy, sustained interaction, especially at first. Consistency breeds trust.

Learning local norms of conduct

As fieldworkers, we are guests in someone else’s community, and we should be attentive to the etiquette that governs their interactions. We could unintentionally alienate our potential participants by violating certain local customs, such as talking to children prior to getting their parents’ consent, or “talking shop” in a local tavern where workers go to leave their working day behind. How can we ensure that we are aware of local norms for behavior?

Exercise: Simply becoming aware of how pervasive and powerful such norms are can be useful to the fieldworker. Choose a social scene that you are a part of and develop a list of the norms of conduct or rules of behavior. To get you started, think about all the etiquette involved in riding on an elevator. How jarring would it be if someone got on the elevator and instead of turning to face the doors, remained standing and staring at the other passengers?

Ethical Hypothetical Scenario

Negotiation of defined harms – learning local concerns

Prior to going into the field, we attempt to enumerate the possible harms that our research might entail, and to prevent or minimize the chances for them to come about. But the community members themselves may have different concerns that had never occurred to us: they may be engaged in illegal activity that we discover; they may want to discourage knowledge of or visitors to their community in order to retain its peacefulness; they may want to continue local healthcare practices that would be discouraged or perhaps even forbidden by health authorities. How can we become more sensitive to the prevention of harms that the community may fear?

Tips: Remember that one of those community fears might be you. As an outsider and someone engaged in the study of their group, your presence may be disconcerting to community members. Your first step will be to gain the trust of at least one community member (presumably you will gain the trust of the rest of the community or at least your participants as you continue your fieldwork). While you cannot rely completely on that person, they may be very helpful in identifying community concerns and fears that might not be initially apparent.

Ethical Hypothetical Scenario

Participants as exemplified or exotic

It is often tempting to study a group because we perceive them as exciting or exotic (such as drug users, prostitutes, athletes, or specific ethnic groups), or to study a specific small group as an example of how all of “them” behave or think (such as including a single African-American participant as exemplifying “the Black perspective,” as though all African Americans have the same set of experiences, beliefs and habits). How can we help ourselves become more sensitive to the realities of specific lives as our participants themselves interpret them?

Tips: Part of the concern of having only one or a few voices speak for an entire group is the same concern with biased informants and sample size. However, part of the concern is tied to the fact that while general patterns can be identified, the individuality of your informants is still an important factor in the data you collect.

Exercise: Another concern here is the tendency to label what we ourselves do as normal while things done differently by other people as unusual. In order to understand how alienating this can be for our participants, describe a group that you belong to in two different ways: one, as you understand the group and would like to be portrayed, and two, as an outsider unfamiliar with your culture might.

Informed Participants

Power differentials in fieldwork

Especially when conducting research among the poor, oppressed communities, or those less educated than ourselves, we have certain privileges that we must be aware of. But even among those of our own social status, we have the power to interpret and write the findings, while they do not. How can we mediate our own power as academics and storytellers to not unintentionally harm or offend those we work with?

Tips: Identify how your participants are experts and hence powerful figures in your relationship to them. Encourage them to see themselves as your teachers or trainers.


  • Think about the times you feel intimidated by other people. What makes you feel this way? Then think about times where people in power have put you at ease. How did they do it?
  • Brainstorm the various roles and identities you might be labeled with by your informants (e.g. academic, college kid, rich kid, etc.). What kinds of values are associated with these identities? What kinds of power are often granted these identities? How can you avoid these stereotypes and assumptions? How can you avoid alienating your participants?

What and how much can we promise?

In our “informed consent” statements, we often outline what participants will be asked to do, how they can end their participation in the study, what they will receive in exchange for participating, and how we will protect their confidentiality. But as the conditions around us change, we may discover that we cannot adhere to all of the things we promised. Further, it may soon become evident that we have discovered new questions that are more central to our understanding. How can we keep our participants abreast of our current thinking and the shifts in our research questions or practices? What should we be prepared to ensure to our participants, and how do we keep them informed of possible breaches of those promises? How can we think of “informed consent” as being an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a one-time guarantee?


  • One way to avoid one-time guarantees is to ensure that you don’t engage in one-time fieldwork. In other words, your work with participants should generally extend beyond a single interview, even if it simply means a thank you note or a follow up phone call. Maintaining some degree of contact makes it much easier to alert participants to any important changes in the project.
  • There will also be times when the research focus changes but you feel it does not affect the initial consent that participants gave. Before assuming too much, you may want to check with one or two of your closest participants.

Necessity & Applicability

Learning local knowledge needs

As we work within a community, we may discover things that the community itself does not know or recognize in any systematic way. How can we make our work useful to those we work among, and who are the local people who can most effectively put this new information to positive use?


  • Have you identified any problems in the community that might usefully be addressed by your work?
  • Are people in the community already working to solve particular problems that your research can contribute to?
  • Does your research give voice to groups of people who have not been heard before? Are their concerns being addressed within the community? If not, are there ways for you to get their voices heard.

Learning locally desired applications or service

We may come to a community thinking that we can help them accomplish something that we might think is positive, only to learn that the community itself would prefer other outcomes. How can we be attentive to the kinds of applications or services that this community most desires, particularly when they do not mesh with our own assessment of what can or should be done?


  • Identifying community goals is generally not that difficult; often community leaders have a long laundry list of what they want to accomplish. The problem can come in having conflicting goals or a disagreement about priorities within the community. Chances are you cannot please everyone. Strive to establish a goal that is feasible, productive for the community, and interesting to you.
  • Another dilemma that may arise pits the interests of the researcher against the interests of the community. A question that is interesting to us, that we believe is important and will ultimately lead to valuable advancements, may not be important to the community. It can be very difficult to conduct fieldwork in a community that views your research as useless. However, it can be equally difficult to get motivated to do research that does not interest you. Again, try to find a compromise. And remember: the problem the community most wants solved may not be a problem you are trained to address. Set reasonable and appropriate goals for yourself.

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