How the sociologist interacts with important respondents

As a sociologist I am often asked how to behave in the company of important respondents. I thought I would take this opportunity to provide an example of some typical fieldwork dilemmas. I use this example in teaching, and here I simply present the class exercise that I hand out at the end of the session on advanced fieldwork techniques.

Fieldwork Exercise No. 17: Long Day in Lagnaro

H. M. Collins

(with special thanks and apologies to Luca Taffarello)

Answer all Questions in your own time then discuss your conclusions with your advisor

Scenario 1:

One sweltering July, Professor `X,’ an experienced sociologist of science, was to conduct an interview in a laboratory near `Busytown,’ in Italy. During the night before the interview Professor X awoke with strong burning sensations in his stomach. In the morning he found himself to be suffering from a typical traveller’s indisposition.

Questions: Should Professor X have

(a) telephoned his interviewee and called off the interview?

(b) eaten breakfast anyway because it was already included in the bill and consisted of three cups of cafe-latte, yogurt, fruit juice and croissants?

Scenario 2:

Feeling increasingly distressed Professor X drove into Busytown in a small and noisy car without air-conditioning. He missed his way several times. Following the map provided by his hosts, and with luck and perserverance, Professor X located the physics department where he believed he was due to conduct his next interview. He was five minutes early. The attendants at the door told him that the people who he had come to see worked somewhere else.

Questions: Should Professor X have

(a) realised that the map he had been sent, while it showed the physics department, also showed arrows directing him from the physics department to the satellite location some 15 miles outside Busytown and that, therefore, he need not have entered Busytown at all?

(b) written a learned paper on the deep ambiguity of maps and their essential cultural relativity?

Scenario 3:

Feeling steadily more uncomfortable, Professor X drove to the satellite location and met professor `Youngman.’ Professor Youngman and Professor X began to talk about the technical details of the apparatus that Professor X had come to see. They did this by referring to some diagrams and photographs hanging on the wall of a narrow corridor. Five minutes into the session Professor X explained to Professor Youngman that he could no longer support himself; leaning backward against the wall, he slid slowly down into a sitting position. Entering into the spirit of things, Professor Youngman also slid to the floor so that he and Professor X, still talking, sat side by side against the corridor wall with their legs stretched out in front of them.


(a) Is it ever permissible to sit on the floor while carrying out an interview in a professional setting?

(b) Is it a good or a bad thing if the interviewee adopts a similar unconventional position?

Scenario 4:

A further ten minutes into the discussion Professor X, realising that he was about to topple into a fully recumbent position, averred to Professor Youngman that he – Professor X – was losing his grip on himself as a human being.

Questions: Should Professor X have

(a) lain down immediately hoping that Professor Youngman would once more follow his example and lie down himself while continuing to talk as though nothing unusual was happening?

(b) explained to Professor Youngman that his body was to be about to dissociate itself into random cells floating in liquid pools?

(c) changed his profession?

Scenario 5:

Professor X struggled to his feet and asked Professor Youngman to show him to the washroom. He explained that he would gone for some time.


(a) Is extended use of the washroom in a Western scientific laboratory compatible with good fieldwork practice?

(b) Does it make a difference that this was a small laboratory with resonant acoustics?

Scenario 6:

Emerging, professor X requested of Professor Youngman that he be shown somewhere where he could `sit down for a few minutes.’ Professor Youngman took Professor X to a couch in his office. Professor X lay down on the couch and slept for about an hour, snoring loudly.


(a) Is it ever good practice to take a `nap’ during the course of an interview with a respondent?

(b) If `yes,’ is an hour too long or about right?

(c) What is the role of snoring in the sociological fieldwork interview?

Scenario 7:

Waking up, Professor X averred to Professor Youngman that he must now leave and that he looked forward to many fruitful meetings in the future. Professor Youngman did not try to detain him and Professor X departed promptly.

Questions: Should Professor X have

(a) tried to continue with the interview at the risk of further embarassment?

(b) sworn a solemn oath to Professor Youngman that he would never return to Italy?

(c) demanded that Professor Youngman swear an oath of `omerta’ or `silence’ in respect of the incidents he had witnessed on pain of `vendetta’?

Scenario 8:

Professor X drove for a further five hours to get to Airporttown. Driving in unbearable heat he found it vital to relax at every service area – not every one of which was spotlessly clean.

Questions: Was this an example of

(a) a typical days fieldwork?

(b) a bad day’s fieldwork?

(c) the way social scientists misuse taxpayers’ money?

(d) the futility of a relativistic approach to the sociology of science in that the involuntary character of certain of Professor X’s actions thoroughly refutes social constructivism and indisputably demonstrates the existence of a real world exterior to, and independent of, cultural forces?

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