Qualitative methods: Street ethnography and the “go-along”

Photo by Jay Westcott

One of my friends moved recently.  She really likes her new digs in an historic house and loves the proximity to town center.  My friend is a walker, so it was no surprise that she now makes regular jaunts to “her” coffee shop, a miniscule (by corporate standards), independently owned, convivial space with the requisite collection of slightly quirky customers.  She’s come to know the servers and is starting to say hello to regulars, some of whom are her neighbors.  In her personal life, my friend is gentle, quick to laugh, and a sympathetic observer of her fellow humans.  In her professional life, she is a qualitative researcher, perceptive and well-versed in the art of eliciting other people’s perspectives and lived experiences in naturalistic settings.

Interviewing and observing participants where they work or live are staple tools of qualitative researchers.  Often, interviews and observations take place in interior spaces; in offices, classrooms, or homes.  Frequently, one or all parties are sitting down, engaged in a somewhat formal and dialectical exchange. In other words, the environment and actors are relatively static.  By contrast, the tools of “street ethnography,” such as neighborhood walks and go-longs, are less frequently used.   They take place in exterior spaces; sidewalks, neighborhood paths, or public spaces.  Frequently, both or all parties are ambulatory, engaged in a much more informal and somewhat more egalitarian exchange.

In my last post, I described some of the benefits of neighborhood walks for school personnel, as a way of coming to understand the viewpoints of people who live and work in the community surrounding a school.  The “go-along” is a related tool, with real benefits (and relatively few drawbacks) for qualitative researchers.  A neighborhood walk allows observers to make leisurely and often detailed observations.  However, the outsider status, level of familiarity with the physical environs, and very positionality of the researcher may reveal little about how insiders view the neighborhood.   It is only when neighborhood walkers venture into places where people congregate that they begin to engage and elicit the perspective of people living and working in the community.  In some senses an extension of this type of engagement, the “go-along” refers to the practice of accompanying participants as they go about their daily routines in the neighborhood.

University of South Florida researcher, Margarethe Kusenbach, describes “go-alongs” as “opportunities to capture the stream of perceptions, emotions, and interpretations that informants usually keep to themselves.”  Among other benefits, she argues that go-alongs allow researchers to observe, not only how participants interact with but also how they interpret their environments, often in ways that a sit-down interview could not.  Noticing what other people notice allows the researcher to learn the other’s perceptual filters, especially as they relate to the natural environment.  As well, go-alongs can reveal the social architecture or the “complex web of connections between people …their various relationships, groupings, and hierarchies.”  On a practical note, she recommends a time window of between 60 – 90 minutes, although has conducted full day go-alongs in her research on Los Angeles neighborhoods.   She gives as little direction as possible, but will prompt subjects to comment on what they see in the go-along if necessary to spur conversation.

In the planning stages of a mixed methods study, I can see the what and why of go-alongs, but am not quite sure of the how.  Like most things you learn, it’s a matter of getting in there and doing it.  (In building one of those pieces of student-grade IKEA furniture, I’ve often thought that it was a pity there wasn’t a second bookcase to assemble; the second time through would be so much easier.)  Happily, my friend has invited me to her local coffee shop.  I think I’ll go along.

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