About a year ago I did my first true ethnographic study and I wanted to read everything I could about conducting the research and writing up the results. So, I sent a note over to Grant McCracken and asked for some recommendations. One of the books I ended up reading was one of his: 'The Long Interview'.
It's a short book, less than 100 pages, and it was worth EVERY penny - it offers practical, real-world advice that proved useful in that project as well as subsequent ones.
One of the interesting sections was about the Objectives & Strategies of Product Selection:
The objective in investigating a topic like product selection is to "get under" the commonplace view of the activity and see how the individual really sees and experiences it.
One way to set about systematically gathering information to do this is to think about the process as a dramatic production. You must determine what the important roles are, who will occupy these roles, how well the roles are enacted, who the director and prompter of the proceedings is, what the stage is, how the action is organized and scheduled, who the audience is, who the critics are, what is accomplished for actors and audience when the production goes well, what happens, on the other hand, when the production goes badly, what kind of things can go wrong, how they will be set right and son on.
Again, the object is to get past the formal and ordinary description of the event into the hidden social and cultural realities. For instance, it would be easy enough to go out and collect a set of statements about what Christmas is. Respondents are willing to trot out a set of conventional descriptions. Christmas is a time to celebrate a religious occasion, get together with family, exchange gifts and look back at the year. But this would not tell us anything about Christmas and it certainly would not justify the time, difficulty, and expense of qualitative investigation.
But the careful investigator through patient observation, intelligent questioning and active listening can learn much more. What he or she wants to do is determine some of the following questions: what activities make up Christmas, when does each of them start, who undertakes them, what part does gender play here; what does Christmas decoration do to the character of the home, how do people decide what to buy for one another; what are the consequences of a good gift and a bad one; how do families plan for their time together; what diplomatic preparations are made to make sure that people get along and “Grandpa Henry and Uncle Rupert don't get at one another this year"; how the nature of family interaction changes in the Christmas season; how does participating in the ritual and gift exchanges of Christmas have short-term and long-term consequences for how the family defines itself and gets along; what family activities are particular to the Christmas season; what difference will it make to the nature of family interaction if the activity is (1) watching a football game, (2) going for a walk in the country, (3) going to a movie; sometimes Christmas means that men spend more time around the house than usual, how do they respond; what do children learn about their families and their societies at Christmas; what special role do women play in organizing Christmas and family life at Christmas?
It is worth pointing out here that most of these questions cannot be asked directly. The can be answered only be asking other questions, and piecing answers together.
The most useful sections for me was about how to conduct an interview - something I never really thought that much about before I read the book. You ask some questions, write down the users replies. Simple enough, right? Wrong. The book contains a wonderful section on how to prepare for an interview and conducting the interview in such a way that does not prime or bias the user.
All in all it is a really good book. Some of the stuff seems like common sense, however, if you spend time gathering information from people through discussions, this book is well worth the time and money.