Understanding Ethnography: Interviews About Outdoor Recreation During COVID-19
In January of 2021, I started a course at California College of the Arts called Ethnography for Design. I chose to take this class because I wanted to develop my research skills as they relate to design, and this class, taught by Patricia G. Lange, seemed like an excellent opportunity to do so.
At the start of the class, I identified a topic for a semester-long ethnography project based on a list of acceptable categories. I chose to focus on an area as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The topic of my ethnography project is outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, I am studying how the amount of time that people spend outdoors has changed compared to before the pandemic, as well as what the different factors that motivate them to do outdoor activities are. Lastly, I am curious about the benefits people get from activities like hiking and biking, as well as the concerns that they have while doing outdoor activities.
The topic of my ethnography project is outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic
For my first foray into ethnographic work, I was tasked to complete two one-hour interviews with people who fit my audience (people who have taken up outdoor activities during the pandemic). To work on building rapport, I did not meet with friends or family, but instead found interviewees based on “friend-of-a-friend” types of connections.
Based on the activities that had been approved by CCA’s review board, there were certain ethical standards that had to be adhered to. Primarily, no vulnerable populations could be involved in the research — meaning no children, no one who is under the influence of drugs, etc. Additionally, participants must have their identities protected by being assigned pseudonyms when they are referenced in my research.
I prepared a list of questions to guide me in the interviews, but based on past experience from design research interviews, I knew that I would surely deviate from my script to ask follow-up questions and allow the interviewee to dictate the direction of the conversation.
I knew that I would surely deviate from my script to ask follow-up questions and allow the interviewee to dictate the direction of the conversation.
Questions started out general, asking about the pandemic, how life has changed, and hobbies. It gradually got more specific and relevant to my topic as the interview went on and more rapport between myself and my interviewees had been developed. I asked about what outdoor activities they do, what supplies/gear they might have, what their motivation for going outside is, how safe they fee, what the benefits and drawbacks of their activities are, and more. My favorite question (and one that the interviewees seemed to enjoy sharing, as well) was asking them to think back to a time when they spent the day outside and walk me through it. This yielded, by far, the most insightful comments from the interview participants.
Here’s an overview of what I found:
Both interviewees have found nature to be a great escape from the stressors of teleworking and online school, both significant changes to their lives as a result of the pandemic. Jane, a long time recreational cyclist, has found that hiking is a way for her to get healthier, spend more time with her daughter, and get some fresh air. Bethany, on the other hand, has found hiking to be a reliable way of de-stressing and alleviating headaches after long Zoom sessions, finding that being outdoors is “therapeutic.” Neither had much access to nature prior to the pandemic, but for different reasons. Jane, a working mom, was always busy and tired from her full-time job and commute to and from work; at the end of the day, she just wanted to sit and relax. For Bethany, attending college meant living in the city without natural spaces close by, but living at home with family during the pandemic has put her in a smaller town with more hiking trails near her home.
There are safety concerns that have arisen for both interviewees, but they aren’t COVID-19-related. Neither of the two interviewees wear masks while doing outdoor activities since the areas they’ve been in have not been crowded. Both have seen signage at trailheads recommending social distancing, and Bethany has seen some trails closed off due to overcrowding. The primary concerns are not necessarily pandemic-specific; they’re concerned about wild animals and other people. Jane’s biggest worry is about encountering a wild animal, so she never hikes alone, saying “I would be terribly worried that I would be lost — eaten by a wild animal.”
While Bethany is less concerned about wildlife, they both cited the risk of criminal activity on rural or remote hiking trails as a major safety risk. Bethany referenced multiple reports from her local area of women being raped or assaulted while hiking or jogging, which was enough to make her temporarily stop hiking. Jane is currently in the process of getting pepper spray and a knife in case she comes across an aggressive animal or a person with criminal intent. Both interviewees were familiar with these risks prior to when they started hiking, but for Bethany, it took a “wake up call” of a close encounter with a coyote to realize that she wasn’t taking her safety seriously enough.
How did the interviews compare?
I was surprised by how similar the two interviewees were in some aspects, since they have dissimilar life circumstances. The love for nature being a big motivating factor for both of them was very much expected, but I hadn’t predicted the way that hiking became a “self care” activity for Bethany as she tried to balance schoolwork and free time. I also found it intriguing that Jane was motivated to get outdoors once she started working at home and no longer felt exhausted by her commute. The thing is, her commute wasn’t that long — only about 20 minutes depending on traffic conditions. It was fascinating to me how just removing that part of her day resulted in her having so much more energy and desire to be active, set and achieve fitness goals, and get out of the house.
I think this has implications for the prevalence of remote work positions even after the pandemic, since it appears to be a significant boost for workers’ morale. Bethany was similar, in a way; after spending hours in front of a screen for school, she felt extra motivated to get outside at the end of the day. It seems like traveling and lots of face-to-face interaction tires people out over the course of the week to such an extent that they have no energy left for their passions, which the pandemic has finally given them the chance to explore.
Were my assumptions correct?
Another thing that contradicted what I had expected was the lack of concerns about the spreading of COVID-19. While I did expect that people would feel much safer outside than indoors, I thought that interviewees would have witnessed more instances of overcrowded trails to the point that social distancing wasn’t possible. I’d read some articles about these occurrences and heard from friends who’d seen it firsthand, but both of the interviewees said that they had always felt comfortable being mask-less, and they hadn’t encountered large crowds of people. Further, for both Jane and Bethany, social distancing was almost always made possible by just stepping aside to create some distance as other groups of people passed by.
Another area that I had expected to receive different answers about was about the COVID-19 response from the government. Jane hikes on trails that are owned by her county. She’s seen some public health signage, but she believes that the county “doesn’t have an obligation to keep people safe,” and that people should be able to choose to engage in risky behavior during the pandemic if they choose. Bethany, on the other hand, has a different view, saying that in instances where trails and parks become so overcrowded that social distancing is no longer feasible, then it’s reasonable to start to restrict access to certain places. With many more people visiting natural spaces during the pandemic than before, I think it’s relevant to discuss the preferred responses to overcrowding popular outdoor destinations, as well as how different people define “a good response.”
Reflecting on my interview process, the first thing that stands out to me is that I may have spent too much time on questions that weren’t entirely relevant to my topic. I had planned to start with generic questions about how the pandemic has affected the interviewee’s life and how they’ve been spending their free time. I wanted to gradually get into the main topic and use the more unrelated questions to build rapport. However, my interviews ended up going over the thirty minute limit. On some questions, I also asked quite a few follow-up questions that deviated from the list of questions I’d written beforehand. On the one hand, I did glean a lot of good information from this; on the other hand, it made the two interviews a bit more difficult to compare since I asked different questions and addressed some different topics with each interviewee. In both instances, even though I went off my script and asked additional questions, the interviewees were happy to stay a bit longer and answer the rest of the questions I had initially planned to ask. Although I got to ask all of the questions I wanted to, I did still end up rushing through the last few to be mindful of my interviewees’ time.
However, now that I can look back on my interviews, I see that some of the topics I wanted to get at with my questions were not as interesting as I had thought they would be. One of the questions interviewees seemed to enjoy talking about the most was when I asked them to walk me through a day that they spent outside hiking. Questions that were more straightforward like, “What do you feel are the benefits of spending time outdoors?” seemed to elicit a less passionate response from the interviewees. In hindsight, these might have been questions that could have been omitted. In some instances, it might have even been a bit repetitive to try to ask these questions, since that information ended up being volunteered organically by the interviewees while talking about other things. I also spent some time talking to interviewees about the equipment they’ve bought for their outdoor activities, but I think this information is less interesting and compelling than the other things that I uncovered, and I probably could have left this out and used that time to continue the more productive conversations we had.
Why is it important?
With businesses being closed and travel being restricted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever are turning to the outdoors to get away from home and have fun in their free time. As such, it’s important to understand what peoples’ circumstances and motivations are so we can plan for the future of recreational spaces. Are there enough spaces to meet demand without overcrowding? Do people in cities have enough options to recreate without traveling outside the city limits? Do parks have enough funding to support this many visitors if this trend continues past the end of the pandemic? With many new hikers and bikers taking to the trails, how do we educate them about potential risks and dangers of being in nature? Is it possible that COVID-19 is currently being spread in outdoor recreation spots? What would we do to combat that? I think these are all critical questions we are currently facing or will be facing in the near future, and I believe that the information I collected from these interviews will help us answer these questions.
I’m excited to continue my research project throughout the semester. The next phase of the process is conducting observations. However, due to the pandemic, I’ve been restricted to online observations only. This is a rule put in place by the professor for safety reasons, so I am currently searching for an innovative way to observe outdoor activity online!