What Good Is the Ethnographic Interview?

Authored by: John Weeks

The Routledge Companion to Anthropology and Business

Print publication date:  July  2020
Online publication date:  June  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138496422
eBook ISBN: 9781003052456
Adobe ISBN:


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Ethnography has long been associated with the method of participant observation, but for understandable reasons of practicality there is great interest in the idea of the ethnographic interview. Can we learn about culture through interviews? We might well ask how else we can do it. Participant observation is as much about listening as it is about seeing, and ethnographers report more of what they hear in the field than what they see. Interviewing is central to ethnography because to learn how people understand and account for their day-to-day situation, to learn what they think they are up to, we should ask them. To ask them and simply take their response at face value is naïve. But to not ask them at all is ethnographic malpractice. The main benefit of participant observation may be that it helps us to do interviewing better by allowing us to ask better questions, get better answers, and better interpret the answers we get. This benefit should not be underestimated and any ethnographer who can do participant observation, should. Organization studies, however, has many examples of excellent ethnographies which are based primarily on interview data and which did not involve a year of participant observation. I argue in this chapter that cleanly distinguishing participant observation and ethnographic interviewing is not as straightforward as it might seem, particularly when each is done well. Interview ethnography is possible, but it is not a shortcut; it is difficult and time consuming.

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