From the desk of Alice Morgan
Bug spray. When conducting rural ethnographies with teenage boys in the end of August, bring it. Plus a sense of humor. And an open mind. And sit back and enjoy the ride. Because you will be spending hours in the car.
Method to the Madness
For a recent public health campaign targeting rural teenage boys, I traveled around rural Iowa and Kentucky conducting in-home ethnographies. For those of you who say rural ethnographies can’t be done, I beg to differ. Although there is a lot to be said for online work with teenagers (anonymity yields candor) and focus groups (a convenient venue for researchers and clients alike) there simply is no substitute for being in-home. Want to understand the lives of rural teenagers? Meet them on their terms. Meet them, well, at home.
As Usual, It’s All About the Recruit
Recruiting for in-homes is hard. Recruiting teenage boys even more so. Add to the mix recruiting teenage boys, in-home, in sparsely populated rural areas several hours from the nearest focus group facility, and you have the ingredients of an impossible recruit. Select your recruiter(s) carefully. Find out how they plan to identify and recruit people who live in remote areas. Give them extra time. Call frequently to check in. Send flowers. Pray. Our recruiters were able to pull rabbits out of hats but it was a nail biter of a recruit. In the end it was all good. Great, in fact.
Up Close? Get Personal
With all due respect to moderator training about the evils of interviewer bias, an interview creates an innate power imbalance. When a moderator deflects all personal questions in the interest of avoiding any bias, the power imbalance worsens. Add the potential privacy invasion of an in-home interview, plus a couple of client observers, and a sticky situation can arise. My goal is to interview the teenagers away from their parents. To achieve this goal, I speak Truth To Power (power = the parents). I say, truthfully, “I have 2 teenage boys, and I know for a fact that they watch what they say when I am around. So is there any way you can hang out in a different part of the house so I can interview Johnny privately?” Works like a charm.
Teens May Not Know Who They Are, But They Know Who They Aren’t
Some of the most penetrating insights about rural life were obtained not by asking about living in the country, but by asking kids to describe life in big cities. Kids in rural regions have a distinct sense of what it’s like to live in a city, and how they are different from “city kids.” (Personal tip: I employed a similar strategy with my daughter’s college selection process. She may not know what college she wants to attend, but she absolutely knows what colleges shedoes NOT want to attend. By identifying the schools she doesn’t want, we backed into the schools she is now considering.)
These far-from-a-cell-signal ethnographies were among the most interesting interviews I have conducted in the 20+ years I have been in the biz. I was fortunate to travel with fun, interesting clients, which was a godsend given how much time we spent driving around together. Best of all was the work itself, getting to know some remarkable teenage boys who live in remote regions and discovering their stories.