Native individuals who provide information to an ethnographer during fieldwork are referred to as informants. The term implies a procedure during ethnographic interviewing in which semistructured or informal in-depth questions are asked in a naturalistic setting, and informants answer. Recently, other terms such as consultants or collaborators have been preferred, indicating the greater participatory and equal role of these key individuals in the modern period. Since 1971, the American Anthropological Association has published guidelines that set out the ethical responsibilities anthropologists have to informants. These include avoiding harm or wrong, respecting informants’ well-being, safety, dignity, and privacy, actively consulting in order to establish beneficial relationships, and protecting anonymity if that is desired. Increasingly, ethnographers submit proposals to institutional review boards, which examine research involving human subjects. Like other scientists, ethnographers then are required to obtain the informed consent of their subjects.
A trusting, reciprocal, and cooperative relationship between informants and ethnographers develops gradually throughout the fieldwork period. Since ethnographic interviewing often involves financial payments, informants benefit from their participation directly. Informants also may gain respect and prestige from working with anthropologists. They may expect friendship, favors, or gifts. As relationships change and deepen, ethnographers gain additional insight into the culture from the emic or native point of view. Eventually, informants provide cultural interpretation and analysis, not only cultural information.
Ethnographers select different kinds of informants depending on their research design and goals. If the ethnographer is seeking to write a general cultural description, a variety of informants, old and young, men and women, may be necessary. Each of these has ordinary knowledge that the ethnographer combines through a series of interviews, building them into the account of the culture. If the ethnographer is writing a description that requires expert knowledge, such as a study of shamanistic beliefs and practices, then perhaps only those who have this kind of knowledge become informants. Many ethnographers find that they develop special rapport with only one individual and that person becomes the key informant and often the focus of a person-centered ethnography. Research projects may interest certain people more than others, and some topics may be ignored or devalued. Thus, ethnographers interested in gender and women’s experiences may be disregarded by the men of a particular culture. Such circumstances may enhance the relationship between women informants and women ethnographers.
Ensuring the accuracy and validity of informant provided data is an important methodological problem in ethnographic research. In contrast to survey-based inquiries, where replicability and comparison to outside data may be possible, informant-based data are critically assessed via a different process. Ideally, increasing rapport should produce increasing accuracy, but this is not always true. Informants may lie, avoid sensitive issues, or just not know. Ethnographic research offers the possibility of repeat interviews in which information can be checked or clarified. In addition, checking data via multiple informants may indicate whether the informant is “typical” or “idiosyncratic.” Ethnographers also check informants’ statements against their own observations. Informants’ misrepresentations or avoidances provide cultural information just as their accurate statements do.
- American Anthropological Association. (1998). Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association. Washington, DC: Author.
- Brettell, C. B. (Ed.). (1993). When they read what we write. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
- Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.