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Down with Discussion Guides!

Tossing Paper Shutterstock 2In many cases the time we spend on developing overly detailed discussion guides for qualitative research is what I call “client window dressing.”  In order to appease large project teams, clients feel compelled to make sure everyone’s “burning question” is reflected.  Qualitative research is not an interrogation.  A skilled moderator knows when to go “off script” and what to ask to satisfy the team’s appetite.

In ethnography, a powerful qualitative research approach, the formal discussion guide is useless.  By definition, ethnography relies on observation, interviewing, and a collection of artifacts.  The interview is prompted after the observation of a behavior.  You often go into an ethnography not knowing what questions will be asked.

How then do you plan for ethnography?  A skilled ethnographer relies on an observational framework.  At StandPoint, we are fans of the SPRADLEY FRAMEWORK, developed by Dr. James Spradley, a well-known anthropologist.  His approach relies on investigating nine domains:  the space, the actors, the activities, the objects, the acts, the events, the sequence of events, the goals of the actors, and emotions.  There are many different frameworks to choose from; we find the Spradley version to be the most comprehensive.

When preparing for ethnography, study the environment in advance by reading, watching video clips, or chatting with someone who’s been there.  You might consider a trial run with “friends and family.”  It is important to visualize the encounter and hypothesize about what might be observed in all nine domains.

Preparation is a mental process.  It’s enormously helpful to write down your hypotheses, but there’s no discussion guide.  If too focused on asking questions, the behaviors go unnoticed.  And, observations are typically a richer resource for new ideas compared to attitudinal feedback.

Our take:  for ethnography, forget about the discussion guide and clipboards.  They’re not necessary and will only get in the way of the cool secret agent gadgets we use like lapel cameras and concealed microphones.

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