In further readings about ethnography I came across a fascinating piece by Kathleen M. Blee who studied white supremacist women. She sought to understand what led these women into a cult of hatred. She faced several challenges in her research, from identifying potential subjects to how to conduct the interviews.
Blee took the approach of full transparency. She clearly stated that she disagreed with the views of her subjects but wanted to accurately tell their stories. With those guidelines she conducted “unstructured life history interviews.” This technique allowed more leeway in the conversations to draw out specific events that shaped personal histories. Blee began with a single neutral question: “Can you tell me how you got to where you are now?”
Blee’s subjects used fear to intimidate, and Blee found that managing her own fear during the research process became critical. Her activist subjects used fear to try to limit the scope of her research. Blee herself had a keen awareness that the emotional relationship between researcher and subject can influence both interpretation and analysis.
Researchers must strive to suspend their own beliefs to interpret behavior of individuals who are radically different than themselves. How do we even know the right questions to ask? How do we know what’s significant and what’s immaterial? I appreciated the technique of the unstructured life interview to elicit authentic stories. When studying violent groups, though, how do we know if we’re actually in danger?