Monday, July 12, 2004

The Rough Guide to Ethnographic Research

So I’m in the opening rounds of conducting some interviews. What I thought would be a rather simple matter of hanging out and talking to people has turned into something requiring a fair bit of rigour.

While there is a fair pile of information concerning how to conduct the interview and how to code the resulting transcripts, there are a few over-looked steps along the way i.e., “get a tape recorder”, and “transcribe”. What information there is seems to be rooted in a very mid-80s technological mind set. I’ve decided to put together an update with some of my observations.

1. Tapes Suck. It’s exceedingly hard to get decent sound from a tape recorder. The onboard microphones are generally quite poor and the background noise excessive… often due to the sound of the machine itself! Digital recording seems to the way to go (provided you’re comfortable that the machine is actually picking up your interview!). That said, there are a lot of varieties of digital recording. The CBC provides a great review of various ways of capturing, digitizing, and editing audio: Contribute to Outfront. While the CBC recommends using an external mic and a minidisc or DAT machine for capturing audio, I’ve had some success with digital voice recorders. I’m particularly partial to iRiver’s combo MP3 player/voice recorder/radio. There are a variety of models at different price points. The entry model (iFP-180T) has 128MB of onboard memory—enough for about 2 hours of voice recording. The onboard microphone is pretty good and the recording quality is also pretty good. While certainly not up to the calibre of the CBC’s recommendations, the iRiver provides a decent, cheap, and unobtrusive solution for recording interviews. Given their dual role as MP3 players, these recorders also make it easy to get the interview off your portable and on to your computer. While the default record format is the proprietary .REC, there are a variety of tools to help users to convert .RECs to .WAVs. From the .WAV format, you can easily compress the files as MP3 formats.

2. Disadvantages of digital files. Tapes are fairly secure: you can lock them up in a filing cabinet at night. Digital files, however, may cause some concerns about security with various ethics reviewers. Here are a few ideas of how to keep your files secure. First, keep your computer secure. Set up a researcher profile on your OS, make it accessible only via password, don’t share your password, and be sure to logout of your machine. If you use an OS with root privileges, be sure to keep that password secure as well. As for securing the machine itself, stay up to date with security patches from the OS provider, use a firewall (ZoneAlarm for Windows is a good start), protect against viruses (AVG for Windows) and other associated mal-ware (Ad-aware for windows). It’s also possible to protect your files by keeping the encrypted on your hard-drive. A tool such as freePGP (Pretty Good Privacy) is a pretty good start. Another option is to just keep the files off your hard-drive. Store them (encrypted if possible) on removable media located in a locked filing cabinet.

3. Transcription. Transcribing files is a pain in the ass. It takes a long time and it’s boring as hell. Using a tape recorder with a start-stop pedal makes things a bit better but there are easier ways. One great tool is the freely available software Express Scribe. The piece of software enables the user to listen to a variety of different sound formats (e.g., MP3, WAV, etc.) and has a typing pad for making the transcription. Since Express Scribe was made for professional medical transcribers, it offers a whole pile of other features such as volume control, playback speed control, and the ability to directly email completed transcripts. The key feature of Express Scribe, however, is the support for function keys and pedals. For transcribers who don’t use foot pedals, common pedal features such as stop, start, backup, etc. are available as function keys. A beauty of a feature enables the user to set how much the recording should backup every time it’s stopped i.e., during transcription the recording is started and stopped quite often. To maintain context, Express Scribe will automatically backup the recording by say half a second. Very useful!

4. Foot Pedals. As noted, Express Scribe supports foot pedals. These things are very handy if you have a lot of transcription to do. The professional ones, however, can be quite expensive. I was not about to pay US$70 for some pedals which are essentially just switches! While Express Scribe supports professional pedals, other types of pedals can also be used. The gear used by car driving simulators, for example, can be adapted for transcription through the use of a wizard in Express Scribe. Basic game pedals can be found for quite low prices due to recent changes in game technology. Personally, I’m not a big fan of even the game pedals so I decided to make my own… it’s really simple. The Express Scribe online help function gives some guidance and suggests using the tape recorder foot pedals available through Radio Shack. Unfortunately, the Canadian Radio Shack catalogue has discontinued their foot pedals but I was able to make due with two momentum switches (C$3.50 for 2), some telephone cable, and an old serial cable I had kicking around the house. Following the Express Scribe instructions, I attached the ground for the two switches to pin 4 of the serial cable and then connected the other switch terminals to pins 1 and 6. I then mounted the switches in some planks of wood. It worked perfectly!

If you have any other ideas for ethnographic interviewing, please let me know.


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