Reflections on Ethnographic Research: (Not) Asking Questions

“What is your favorite fruit?”

I stared in surprise at the younger relative who had just asked me that. There are a group of us eating breakfast and chatting; the question seemed odd to me, but I answered. Then I realized that I should ask “back.” So I asked her what her favorite fruit is.

Thinking about that exchange, I decided that I am out of practice for being asked questions. With my friends in Dhofar, I usually follow their pattern which is “if you want someone to know something, tell them.” Direct questions are rare, especially questions about expressing a preference.

At a friend’s house a few weeks later, I was talking to her son about of interest of his and ran into the opposite problem. I recognized afterwards that I should have asked what “his favorite” was – I had missed a good chance to hear his opinions.

Remembering those two moments in which I felt out of tune with American conversational tactics made me consider how I use and don’t use questions while doing research. Part of my hesitation about asking Dhofaris about their ideas and lives comes from trying to find a balance between a good friend and a good researcher. It’s not necessarily a tension, but it means (as Dhofaris say) “holding myself,” trying to think before speaking and choosing the right time and reason for asking for information.

As one example, a few years ago I asked one of the research guys (X) if he was free to have a picnic with the group on a Thursday night. He told me that his sister was getting married. I read that statement as a way of shutting down, not opening up, further conversation. If he had simply said, “I am busy” I probably would have asked if he wanted to meet with the group on Friday. I interpreted him telling me about the wedding, as if he was saying, “I and the people who you know in my family and extended family will all be busy all weekend” given that weddings are usually held on Friday or Saturday nights and in the days before, all members of the household are getting ready.

Dhofaris usually only talk about relatives when there is a specific need and usually only ask if there is a specific reason, such as asking after someone who you were told was sick or going to travel. Hearing that his sister was getting married made me want to ask a lot of questions; with Americans, asking about a sibling’s wedding is a positive sign of interest in your friend. But I couldn’t justify asking him. In my opinion, there was no need for me to know details. Even though I wanted to know, I felt that I had to accept Dhofari standards so I replied with the conventional statements about how I wished the couple well and hoped everything would be well. The next time I saw him I asked about “the wedding” in general terms. He affirmed that everything went well and that was the end of the topic.

Later, the situation changed. I was writing the section of my Houseways book about how Dhofaris move rooms (or don’t) when they get married or divorced. One facet that came out in interviews was whether a married woman would spend the night in her family’s home with her husband. I had information from a few women, but I wanted to get a man’s perspective.

So during a picnic, I told X that, if it was ok, I wanted to ask a few questions about where couples stayed after they were married. He agreed.

The next time I saw him, I pulled out my notebook and, even though I had done other interviews with him about topics related to houses, I started again at the beginning by explaining the Houseways project, then about my current focus about how people moved between houses. I said I wanted to ask some questions on that topic and that I would not write his name, tribe or any details that would allow readers to identify him or any family members.

When he agreed, I picked up my pen, opened my book and started in. I asked him about which houses he had spent the night in as a child and after he was married. Then I said, “Is it ok if I ask about your sister?” When he agreed, I asked a whole series of questions: How often does your sister come to visit your family house (where she was raised)? When your sister comes to visit, does she spend the night? How often? Does her husband stay the night with her? etc.

Then I moved on to general questions (do you know of any examples of married women who spend the night in their family’s house with their husband?) and hypotheticals. Then I paged back to a previous interview. I told him that I had asked a woman (Y) from Z group of tribes about this issue, I was going to read what she said and could he please give his opinion on her attitude.

I wrote up the interviews, tried to figure out the variables of the decision tree of who stays where in which house, then discussed what I had written with X, Y and other informants. At the end, I had a few paragraphs which I think accurately sum up the issue.

In the general context of talking between friends, asking X about his sister was not OK. But in the specific context of me trying to figure out how married Dhofari women maneuver through various houses, asking X questions directly related to my research was acceptable. He was helping me understand a world-view, i.e. what choices people perceived they had and how those choices were decided.

(picture is part of a photo from social media – yes Dhofar is very green now and, gentle reminder, please pick up your trash after picnicking!)