Building Rapport

I recently finished a week of immersive fieldwork at our research sites in Vancouver. I parachuted in for the week, and just as I was getting comfortable, parachuted right back out. Although my visit was short, the ethnographic experiences were rich and provided me with much food for thought about the fieldwork process itself. I would like to reflect here on one of the most significant insights that I gained from my time in the field.

On my last day in the field one of our participants was explaining to me how much of his work is about building rapport and trust with the patients. He stated that “for a person to open up and start talking about personal thoughts and ideas, about stuff that gives their life meaning, is quite a vulnerable thing to do, which all presupposes rapport and trust.” One does not just jump right into deep, spiritual conversations the first time one meets a patient. Instead one builds a foundation of connection, friendship, safety, warmth, etc. Once the patient trusts you, when they see that, according to this participant, “you actually care about them, what they’re going through, then they may choose to open up.” I think as ethnographic researchers, especially those who explore spiritual and/or religious subjects, we engage in very similar processes to the Spiritual Health Practitioners of our study in this regard. Before we can jump in and ask the tough questions of our participants, we must build rapport, and establish trust with them. James Spradley defines rapport as the “harmonious relationship between ethnographer and informant” that through the development of trust, “allows for the free flow of information” (Spradley 1979, 78). Sometimes this happens over a period of time; often the result of just being “present,” not pushing one’s research agenda, but simply building connection. Sometimes we are not afforded the luxury of time and this work must happen relatively quickly.

My week in Vancouver was definitely proof of this fact. Having just one week to be immersed in data collection, I was plunked down into the middle of the field, conducting interviews with participants within the first moments of meeting them. It felt a bit overwhelming, perhaps even a tad invasive; after all, I was asking people about the “stuff that gives their life meaning” without a whole lot of lead up, small talk or deep rapport. As the moments went on and I spent more time with my participants, as I walked with them and talked with them, I could see how their responses often became richer, fuller, and ultimately more vulnerable. Rapport and trust were being established with every email interaction, every smile in the hallway, every moment of conversation, whether addressing the sacred or mundane. This experience really highlighted for me the value in the moments outside of structured fieldwork. It showed how building rapport and trust is essential to what we do as ethnographers, and can develop sometimes thanks to long periods of time in the field, and sometimes thanks to a single, personal moment of connection. It made me realize that it is our job to create those moments with the time that we have, whether that is months, days, or minutes.


James P. Spradley. 1979. The Ethnographic Interview. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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