Governing Council Today: Nancy Gillis: The Fine Line Between Building Rapport and Maintaining Neutrality

As I write this blog post, I am not sure if there is an answer to this conundrum.

I am currently conducting fieldwork for the North Texas Food Bank. They have developed The Hunger Center, a think tank for understanding food insecurity and poverty while developing innovative strategies to combat the root causes of the issues.

My part in this research is to gather the emic perspective of low-income north Texans in relation to their experiences struggling with food insecurity and managing chronic health conditions or a disability. I do this by visiting north Texans in their homes and discussing these topics with them.

Before I begin the interviews, I reiterate the information provided on the consent form by telling the participant the topics we will be discussing and that if they do not feel comfortable answering a question, they are not obligated.

During the interviews, I ask participants to discuss their health and their expenses, among other topics. It is not surprising that for an individual with a chronic disease and a very small income, these can be difficult subjects to discuss. These discussions often include expressions of anger, frustration, and tears. According to the ethnographic method, I must maintain neutrality in order to allow the participant to share their perspective without being biased by my reactions or opinions.  However, I have also just recently met this person and I am asking very personal questions. In order to maintain rapport with this individual I have to make efforts to make him or her feel comfortable.

In these moments, it is very difficult for me not to reach out and grab a hold of their hand or tell them some words of encouragement. But what is the “right” action to exhibit in these situations? There is not one simple answer to this of course. These are the moments when science becomes art and no level of discussion or literature can provide the best course of action. It simply takes practice.

Ultimately, we do not want participants walking away from the interaction feeling distraught and emotionally exhausted (thought this may happen at times). We, as anthropologists, need to remind ourselves that (despite our best efforts) we, too, possess emotions and empathy and that it is O.K. to exhibit these characteristics during fieldwork. And as we continue to work in our communities and reflect on our actions, we will each find our own “right” balance.


What are your thoughts? Please share a time when you had difficulty balancing building rapport and maintaining neutrality. What advice do you have to share?

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