I’m transcribing my in-country interviews, and I’m thinking about the process of gathering ethnographic data. My data in Nicaragua relied heavily on the interview responses of community members. It’s been an undertaking within the transcribing process to interpret not just what interview respondents said, but also what they meant. In some ways, I expected this to be a challenge. True communication requires study and thoughtfulness. Shared understandings differ from community to community, and community members in Cuje have different understandings than American college students. My research group was aware from the start that our interviews in Nicaragua would challenge us to bridge differences in language and dialect, as well as distinct understandings of culture and day-to-day life. During the day we carefully shaped our interviews, and at night we met for grueling, sometimes hilarious hours to scour pages of notes and piece those interviews back together. Working as a team, we thought critically about the information that we had gathered, brainstormed ideas, and grew together as researchers. My team did an excellent job, and I’m proud of the work that we did. I know that I couldn’t have gained as much as I did without their insights and support.
Still, even with hours of compiled interviews– conversation is complicated and difficult to understand! Reading over our interview notes has led me to look at the many fitted parts of a conversation. I think about what we asked interview respondents, and how those respondents probably heard a slightly different question than what we believed we were asking them. Statements definitely emphasize very different points depending on culture and a given situation, as well as the memories that speakers and listeners associate with the statement itself. For example, one interview respondent developed at length the idea that people within the community needed to become more aware of surrounding resources. He said that the mountains of Cuje may have gold hidden beneath their surface, and if we could discover this gold the whole community would become rich. Some of our team members were perplexed and others thought he must have been offering an abstract example. We laughed yesterday, when one of our team members found a report which states there actually is gold in Cuje! Was our interview respondent speaking literally? The story brings to light another paradox that ethnographers must balance. Researchers need a certain awareness of culture and circumstances in order to ask the right questions and expand their knowledge base. At the same time, assumptions can easily prevent an ethnographer from asking a crucial question, or push them to dismiss valuable information.
I am particularly surprised by the choppy flow of conversations, even once they’ve been carefully reconstructed. The respondents in our interviews, like all real people, don’t speak linearly. They toss around ideas, become distracted, have conversations to the side and lose track of the topic being discussed. An interview can easily get thrown off course, breaking from a point before an interviewer has the time to think of a critically important follow-up question. People also think in surprising ways, and in the moment it’s very difficult to predict the direction that a conversation is headed.  An ethnographer strives not just for thoroughness, but also to foster clarity and frankness, encouraging interview respondents to speak freely and pursue their points. Another idea that the unpredictable nature of transcribed interviews has revealed to me how personally I interpret everything, especially in the moment. Looking back on interviews and searching for patterns, I can see the degree to which my memory reconstructs statements, finding purpose and smoothing out a conversation’s rough edges in order to conclude a speaker’s meaning. It’s no wonder that people leave conversations with different impressions and goals.
The experience of transcribing interviews has challenged me to examine the complexities of gained insight through conversation. It has also impressed upon me the importance of cautiousness and mindfulness in carrying out any kind of social study—particularly if you expect to eventually produce lasting results.


  1. Jackie: This is exceptionally thoughtful and insightful. You have touched upon some of the most important issues in doing ethnography. At the same time, you offer an optimistic prospect for (1) gaining reliable and valid information; (2) developing through training and experience the skills and techniques needed to optimize understanding through this method.