In this course, we are considering the realities and perceptions of death from a cross-cultural perspective, and it is time to venture into the world “out there” where it all happens, including death: into our own culture. This is your field research focus for this course: the “out there”, and its articulation into a report, also as a “Signature Assignment” required by PCC. Our intention is to get an overview from interviewees towards some indications of how the USA views death today. This of course is an elaborate topic and we will shamelessly and simply reduce it by intention and design into one simple question, which gives us methodological consistency (reliability), an imperative for the research, and some interesting data. You are not expected to define death or expectations about death from this or produce a summary statistical statement, but simply to search out any themes and possible consistencies that may be present from your interactions and the resulting data from a selection of people, and to present them as a report. Accordingly:
1. INITIAL WORK: Select 8 people however you wish: one female, one male, or one other gender category in each of four age cohorts: 30-39 years old; 40-49; 50-59; and 60-69. These age categories are intentional: they are consistent and do not include young adults or those over 69, which gives us a set of individuals should be still substantially active in their public lives (working or not); this is the social aggregate we are using here. This exercise is also a field experience as much as a formal study, so select your interviewees as you will with attention to gender, ethnicity, education and social status: you can work out what is reasonable and balanced for you. This excludes, for example, using only one immediate member of family if the ages fit, since experiences there are directly shared and could condition their statements; keeping a sense of “operational randomness” – this is an application of what is termed “opportunistic” or “purposive” sampling in statistics and is not “grab and run”, it is guided selection and includes randomness. If you have someone who is 28-ish and a good interviewee, or similarly someone 70-ish, that’s acceptable.
2. INTERVIEWING: Having introduced yourself nicely and chatted a bit, (a) tell them you are doing a study for a college course, and (b) that you want to ask them a question. (c) Once you have have spoken with them a bit and have their agreement (a casual, discursive one; don’t be too formal; it’s a discussion), (d) ask each interviewee this question LITERALLY:
“In the USA, do you think views about death have changed over the past years?
ASK THIS QUESTION EXACTLY AS IT IS GIVEN HERE; DO NOT CHANGE IT. This provides the methodological consistency for our collective data. You can repeat it (you will probably have to, since it will surprise them) and be supportive but do NOT modify the question, and definitely do NOT answer or suggest answers; this is a ability you will pick up quickly; you are directing this. Give them some time, watch how they react, and note how they reply to the question. Record their replies in a succinct way. Death is not minor, and it is also a major avoidance and denial matter in the USA (as some choose to say now, “death is optional”), so your informants may react at first or they may get very interested; just stay with it. If there is no respond or reply after your effort, or they seem too reactive or confused, thank them politely, record the response and move on; we still have some very valuable data there in its own right, so keep your notes going.
3. PROCESSING: Write these results up (i.e., summarize your results for me) in a paper of no more than 4 OR 5 double-spaced pages. Have an introductory paragraph (in real life, it’s called an “Executive Summary”); Use any table, chart or grid your may wish (e.g., a “matrix” or box of 2 columns, with 4 rows for each of the four cohorts (age-groups), i.e., one column for Male and one for Female and 4 boxes for the age-categories is very effective). Be sure to provide an Appendix succinctly listing what you can about your interviewee backgrounds; this can be itemized as words and numbers,, not sentences or paragraphs; it tells us something about the sources of your data.
4. CONCLUSION: The conclusion of this write-up of your report should end with a paragraph that give a summary of any themes, patterns and recurring similarities (or the lack thereof) that you observed from your interactions and in your data overall. This is very important: in fact, it’s the essentially qualitative result from your essentially quantitative fieldwork. Overall, we do not need a long report elaborately footnoted; this is not that sort of assignment. You are doing it for the actual experience, yourself, me, in effect us and not the New York Times. we want it to be readable, interesting and succinct.
The challenge is to get their responses (you may find that once you get them going, it is hard to stop them) into a theme or themes from your data, since this is the core of the assignment. Notice the “themes”, to give you some stretch, not “I just can’t”: you can indeed get their response to the question and assess their sense of position on it; it’s a conversation about a specific question. I understand the complexity (hey, this is fieldwork). You can do this, others have, and it’s a better alternative than yet another Assignment paper (and N.B., with far more points). Also, it is very real and ever timely. We are not looking for overall statistical affirmation; but we do want themes and patterns, whatever they may be: that’s the gold.
Realize that in effect, you represent both yourself and PCC. Tell your interviewees that it is for an unusual course and a demanding anthropology prof, and be attentive, polite, and not pushy. IF it gets at all complicated, just be diplomatic, excuse yourself politely and firmly, and find another person. I could go on at great length but will not; do it, enjoy it (believe it or not), and write it up. You will learn much, and you will have done some real fieldwork and in your own way, become a specialist however limited the exercise. You could even add it, properly titled and formatted, to your resumé (everyone should have a resumé these days); it’s a bona-fide research paper!
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