Unusual methods, marginalized people

This is a text I thought about for a long time. I hoped that I would find a nice theory that someone else suggested for the observations I made, but I was unable to find one or maybe unable to see the ones I know from a perspective that made them useful.

The standard method (aside of participant observation) to collecting ethnographic data is the research interview. This means the researcher asks open questions, the research participant tells their answers. The researcher makes notes and usually the interview is then transcribed, this is translated into a text.

However, not all data aside of observation notes is collected in interviews. There are other methods that result in other data that can be analyzed. However, they are much rarely applies. They are marginal, unusual methods. Looking at the fields where I found them used, it seems that they are mainly used in research with marginalized people. In these fields there seems to be a much wider range of methods. While researchers there still use interviews, there are also creative exercises, diagrams, story continuation etc. The diversity of research methods seems to increase inversely to the power the research participants can exert.

  • A fellow researcher suggested that methods for researching the situations of minorities needed to be invented, implying that the standards methods were not helpful in the research intended. This implies that research methods need to be seen as very contextual and that the “standard” might cover only a fraction of imaginable research situations well.
  • Non-interview methods seem also be used if not only the participants are marginalized but also when the topic is marginalized, that is something that (at least dominant groups in western society) do not make the center of their everyday social activities: Such topics might be sexuality, illness, death, abuse, or discrimination. These are topics which are “difficult to talk about”. Aside from the struggle to emotionally confront these topics, people might actually lack words and experience in talking about these topics, thus it makes sense to use other means of communication. This is a very plausible. It does not challenge that the interview is the “normal” method, though.
  • Standard methods have been developed by and for powerful people and subsequently have been inscribed in the academic infrastructure, making an interview normal and other methods unusual and in need for justification. This is strengthened by the field’s frequent assumption that what is social is mainly communication using language, a convenient assumption in a discipline already based on writing and discourse 1.
  • The conversation-like interview is a very non-threatening situation at least for male, white, middle-class people: Meeting-like, being asked as an expert on a topic to share experiences 2. Any introduction of elements that are seen as unusual can be seen as threatening. The non-interview method is unusual and the related artifacts (lets say crayons for a creative task) are obvious markers of the power the researcher has over the situation. The artifacts of the methods might remind people that are seen as less powerful (e.g., use of creative, art-like methods = negatively judged as childish and illiterate). An interesting research question would be how participants from dominant and minority groups reflect on research situations with different methods.


  • Related Posts: “Images in qualitative Research: A (very brief) review of reasons of non-use ”.
  • (Added 2022-02-05) Two observations that feel related to this topic: Behavior of dominant groups might, in some areas, be strongly constrained. Cis-heterosexual men in Germany are usually expected to wear a limited range of colors, mostly dark ones, whereas women can choose from a wider range of colors. Kids are allowed to imagine an animate world imbued with powers; there is Santa Claus, magic, speaking animals.
  • (Added 2022-03-11) Mary Douglas, in Pollution and Danger (2002 [1966]), suggests that things that what not fit in categories is seen problematic. The ambiguous things can be handled in different ways: Labeling as actually belonging to another clear category, eradicating, frame as affirmation of a rule, frame as danger, or as enriching meaning (like ambiguity in art) (p49, Ch. 2, Secular Defilement); In many cases, marginalized people are seen as dangerous but also as bringing particular powers that society in its ordered state can’t hold (p.118, Ch6 Powers and Dangers). These powers bring risks: “…those holding office in the explicit part of the structure tend to be credited with consciously controlled powers, in contrast with those whose role is less explicitly and who tend to be credited with unconscious, uncontrollable powers, menacing those in better defined positions” (p126). This can also be used to control the marginalized people, for example with the accusation of witchcraft, “…a warning to bring their rebellious feelings into line with the correct situation” (p127)
  • Update 2022-10-21: Some spelling mistakes removed.
  • Update 2023-01-20: Added link to Graeber’s “Anthropology and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class.”
  • Update 2023-01-31: Not directly related to research methods and in relation to my comment on 2022-02-05: maybe this is can be generalized as high status is defended by strict explicit and implicit restrictions; violating them knowing or unknowingly leads to loss of the status (which obviously is rather abstract and should be thought as a help for thinking and analysis rather than an insight-by-itself)
  • 2023-07-27: Not related to methods but to uniformity and expression (see also notes 22-02-05 and 23-01-20) is David Graeber’s “Dickheads: The paradox of the necktie resolved” Graeber suggests that the formal uniform attire is communicating that the men in the suit is defined by his actions not by the look, in contrast to women, who primarily are, and not act in this symbolic system (that only works in modernity, has he points out, Kings dressed up fancifully. The necktie is what you think it is; to find out how exactly it fits together with the theory, read Graeber’s article.)
  • 2024-04-05: Addition of Taylor (1996) and Bee (2018) to related publications

Related Publications

Some research I came across is for example drawing methods in qualitative health research:

  • MacGregor, Andrew ST, Candace E. Currie, und Noreen Wetton. „Eliciting the views of children about health in schools through the use of the draw and write technique“. Health Promotion International 13, Nr. 4 (1998): 307–18.,
  • Jones, M. Gail, und Melissa J. Rua. „Conceptual Representations of Flu and Microbial Illness Held by Students, Teachers, and Medical Professionals“. School Science and Mathematics 108, Nr. 6 (1. Oktober 2008): 263–78. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1949-8594.2008.tb17836.x,
  • Guillemin, Marilys. „Understanding illness: Using drawings as a research method“. Qualitative Health Research 14, Nr. 2 (2004): 272–89.

Diagrammatic representation in therapy:

  • Czuchry, Michael, Donald F. Dansereau, Sandra M. Dees, und D. Dwayne Simpson. „The use of node-link mapping in drug abuse counseling: The role of attentional factors“. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 27, Nr. 2 (1995): 161–66.
  • Dansereau, Donald F., Sandra M. Dees, Jack M. Greener, und D. Dwayne Simpson. „Node-link mapping and the evaluation of drug abuse counseling sessions.“ Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 9, Nr. 3 (1995): 195.

Drawing in psychology/gender/presentation:

  • Braun, Virginia, Gemma Tricklebank, und Victoria Clarke. „“It Shouldn’t Stick Out from Your Bikini at the Beach”: Meaning, Gender, and the Hairy/Hairless Body“. Psychology of Women Quarterly 37, Nr. 4 (1. Dezember 2013): 478–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684313492950.

Method collections and case studies.

  • Braun, Virginia, Victoria Clarke, und Debra Gray. Collecting Qualitative Data: A Practical Guide to Textual, Media and Virtual Techniques. Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Benzon, Nadia von, Mark Holton, Catherine Wilkinson, und Samantha Wilkinson. Creative Methods for Human Geographers. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2021.

These method collections are interestingly not from sociology or anthropology, but from fields that are not strongly associated with qualitative methods – geography and psychology.

Academic articles about the problems of focusing on interviews only (added 2021-12-28):

  • Atkinson, Paul, and David Silverman. “Kundera’s Immortality: The Interview Society and the Invention of the Self.” Qualitative Inquiry 3, no. 3 (1997): 304–25.
  • Silverman, David. “How Was It for You? The Interview Society and the Irresistible Rise of the (Poorly Analyzed) Interview.” Qualitative Research 17, no. 2 (April 1, 2017): 144–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794116668231.
  • Hirschauer, Stefan. (2006). Puttings things into words. Ethnographic description and the silence of the social. Human Studies. 29. 413-441. 10.1007/s10746-007-9041-1.

Assumption that using no textual media will support irrationality:

  • Taylor, Lucien. 1996. „Iconophobia“. Transition, Nr. 69: 64–88. https://doi.org/10.2307/2935240 and its discussion in Bee, Julia. 2018. Gefüge des Zuschauens: Begehren, Macht und Differenz in Film- und Fernsehwahrnehmung. Medien - Kultur - Analyse, Band 9. Bielefeld: transcript. on the fear that the visual (but not text) will overwhelm the viewer. For the assumed rationality of text see also: Harris, Roy. 2009. Rationality and the literate mind. Routledge advances in communication and linguistic theory 7. New York: Routledge.

  1. Hirschauer, Stefan. "Ethnographic writing and the silence of the social-Towards a methodology of description." Zeitschrift Fur Soziologie 30.6 (2001): 429-451. 

  2. See also Greabers discussion of self-narration and reflexivity in: Graeber, David. 2014. “Anthropology and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 73–88. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.007.