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Sacha Hilhorst

January 8th, 2024

An ethnographer’s guide to not losing trust

0 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sacha Hilhorst

January 8th, 2024

An ethnographer’s guide to not losing trust

0 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

How can ethnographers build and maintain the trust of the community they are studying? How open should they be about their research? Scholarly manuals offer guidance, but when faced with mistrustful research participants, these are of limited practical use. Drawing on her own experiences in the field, Sacha Hilhorst offers some guidelines for aspiring ethnographers, and, at the very least, an example of what not to do.


“[E]very other ethnographer”, writes sociologist Iddo Tavory, “seems to feel the urge to write methodological tracts about the epistemology and practice of fieldwork.” He is not wrong, and I am afraid I am no exception. Having returned from the field, I have found myself brimming with unsolicited advice on taking notes, finding guides, and how to build and maintain trust. Like so many ethnographers, I have made horrendous mistakes over the course of my fieldwork, from which I can only hope to shield others. I conducted my fieldwork in two post-industrial towns in England, where I sometimes faced suspicion. I had read many of the textbooks and manuals produced by other ethnographers, but when confronted with the mistrust of some of the people I was trying to speak to, I found myself ill-prepared.

The trouble had started with a brief message which I had posted in a local Facebook group. The post explained that I was new to the area, that I was a researcher and that I had been taking long walks around town. I invited anyone to join and mentioned that I would be happy to take along a dog, if any dogs needed exercise. When I logged back onto Facebook the next day, I was greeted by many bright red notifications. Most were from locals accusing me of attempting to steal their dogs. As it turned out, many people had clicked on my Facebook profile, which listed basic information about me but not much more, as I had restricted strangers’ ability to find my private photos and information. People in the Facebook group had concluded that I must be a dog thief. First and foremost among the accusers was the deputy mayor, who asserted he would never let me within a mile of his dog. He had every right, of course, to bar me from walking his pet. When we make living humans the subject of our research, we must respect their autonomy. More worryingly, it seemed like the members of the Facebook group would rather I did not come within a mile of their town.

The response to my post suggests a form of mistrust which is itself an interesting social fact. But this is little consolation to researchers who find themselves unable to continue their work. Ethnographer Insa Koch, who produced a beautiful monograph about another post-industrial community in England, has written about the mistrust she faced in her first field site. “[A]n anonymous letter was circulated to various community activists on the estate and on neighbouring estates. […] The letter accused me of working undercover for the local authorities, mentioning my lurking around the community centre and my eagerness to talk to so many people without any apparent reason, and questioned whether I was really a ‘student’ given that I never seemed to be spending any time in the library.” Accusations such as these could severely hamper an ethnographer’s ability to stay in their field site. For Koch, the letter spelled the end of this period of fieldwork. “While I had heard people joke about the fact that they thought I was an undercover police officer, a missionary church worker, or a social worker before, this was the first time that I heard these accusations articulated in a threatening way. By the time the community centre had shut its doors about nine months after I first arrived, my relations had become so estranged that I felt forced to discontinue my work on the estate and start again in a new place.”

Over time, I drew on the dog theft saga to write memos about how ethnographers ought to do fieldwork in places where people might be wary of outsiders (often for good reason). The first, of course, is to proceed ethically and cautiously. But this alone does not guarantee trust. In her methodological reflections, Koch counsels ethnographers to be careful about who they rely on for access. Researchers may find it easiest to gain access to a community via formal or informal authorities, who are often our first calling point in a new place. Nevertheless, we should carefully consider where this places us in relation to the local community, not just from the perspective of ethics but also with a view to building and maintaining trust. Conversely, the right local guides can establish you as someone worthy of people’s time. I found that once I had been introduced by mutual acquaintances, people saw me not as a threatening outsider but as an amusing oddity. The people who generously offered me their time did so out of kindness, because they had something to get off their chest, out of curiosity, out of convenience, or as a favour to mutual friends. Some of them asked me to clarify my motives for the research and appeared to be reassured by frank discussions of what I stood to gain from it.

In striking a balance between being transparent and being unobtrusive, I lean towards the former. Ethnography handbooks commonly advise aspiring ethnographers to consider when and where to take their notes, for reasons of trust. In some field sites, taking notes might inspire hostility. “[The ethnographer] may feel that taking out a notepad or smartphone will ruin the moment and plant seeds of distrust”, write Emerson, Fretz and Shaw. “Participants may now see her as someone whose primary interest lies in discovering their secrets and turning their most intimate and cherished experiences into objects of scientific inquiry.” My experience was different. Taking jottings openly while I joined conversations in local community venues and pubs felt like the most honest way to conduct research. It also seemed to make people trust me more, not less. Over the course of my fieldwork, people expressed suspicions that I wanted to steal their dogs, steal their husbands, or, worst of all, become a politician. The thought that I might be mining people’s lives for research materials was the least of their worries.

In the end, I did not have to leave my field site. Some of my local interlocutors stood up for me in the Facebook comments. They explained I was not in fact a dog thief, which quieted the chorus of accusations. Months later, I spoke to a local business owner who was very active in the community and in the community Facebook group. After a useful and pleasant interview, he asked whether the local community had been good to me. I said that yes, they had, except for the accusation of attempted dog theft. “That was you?!” he asked. I nodded guiltily. He shook his head and apologised for the incident. The community was much kinder than this, he assured me. He took a selfie with me, asked me to explain my research project and proceeded to post a long message on the community Facebook group, explaining that I had been mortified to have come across as a dog thief. He reiterated that this was no way to showcase the kindness and hospitality of the community, and if anyone would be willing to be interviewed to help me with my research? To my surprise, people responded. Having been vouched for so publicly, many people were willing to speak to me and involve me in their lives. “Though to be fair”, the business owner told me, “You did look like a dog thief.”


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Department of Sociology, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Nathaniel White

About the author

Sacha Hilhorst

Sacha Hilhorst is a PhD student at the London School of Economics. She is currently finishing a political ethnography of two post-industrial towns in England.

Posted In: Doing Sociology | Ethnography | Studying Sociology

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