“Over the following week, I regularly hung out at Warung si Mpok and conducted interviews. This approach allowed me to combine interviews and observations in a natural social setting.”
The intense heat scorched Kramat Jati that day as I pondered on how to start a conversation with the students of Hayam Wuruk Vocational High School (SMK). It was Monday, January 9, 2023, the first day of my preliminary study on smoking and the lives of adolescents in Jakarta. I attempted to apply an ethnographic approach within a very short period of time.
I received a tip from local residents: visit their hangout spot (tongkrongan), a small shop next to the school known as “Warung si Mpok.” I went to the spot during the lunch break, around 11:30 a.m. I was greeted by a thick cloud of smoke from the cigarettes smoked by almost all the students on that place. I observed a group of students sharing a single stick of cigarette, each taking turns—referred to as “joinan” or “seteng-seteng.” Cigarette butts were scattered on the parking lot next to the shop. Students were coming and going, purchasing cold drinks and snacks. This was the perfect setting, I thought. Here, I met and introduced myself to some students who would later become my key informants*.
From the beginning, I told them that I was doing research on adolescents lifestyles, including smoking. This meant that I had to have extensive conversations with them. Of course, they didn’t immediately trust or open up. In situations like these, I needed a gatekeeper. In ethnography, a gatekeeper facilitates access between the researcher and the informants, typically someone with social influence. I tried to identify potential gatekeepers based on their enthusiastic responses when I attempted to engage in conversation. This is where I found Gilang and Rahul, both 10th-grade students at SMK Hayam Wuruk. I explained my intentions and objectives to them more extensively. They were willing to help me. We exchanged our contacts, and Gilang even asked for my Instagram account. After that, I stopped discussing the research topic. Instead, I had casual conversations with other students in their tongkrongan.
Warung Si Mpok, a small shop next to SMK Hayam Wuruk
The story above was my gateway into the world of students at SMK Hayam Wuruk. In ethnographic terms, this technique is often referred to as “building rapport.” It is a technique where the researcher attempts to build friendship and trust with the research subjects. During this phase, I didn’t gather much data. Instead of discussing the research topic, I talked more about trivial matters that I thought would be relevant to them, from the online game Mobile Legends to the latest football match updates. In traditional ethnographic studies, this phase could take weeks or even months. However, due to practical constraints, I condensed it into a day and a half. Over the following week, I regularly hung out at Warung si Mpok and conducted interviews. This approach allowed me to combine interviews and observations in a natural social setting. In subsequent interviews, the relationships that had already been established made the students willing to take me to their hangout spots near their homes, the kampung-kota1 neighborhood where they grew up.
Capturing the Natural Conditions
Behind Kampung Rambutan Terminal, houses were tightly packed in labyrinthine alleys. Gilang gave me a ride through this labyrinth on a scorching day, right after school. He guided me to two hangout spots: a tongkrongan in his neighborhood and his favorite warung kopi (traditional coffee shops). Thanks to Gilang’s recommendations, I conducted interviews with several SMK Hayam Wuruk students at these locations.
By entering the environments where they socialized daily, I could better grasp the broader context of the lives of the adolescents I was studying. For example, by visiting the kampung areas where my subjects live and discussing everything around them, I was able to catch a glimpse of the social, economic, and cultural context of the people I studied and how it influenced their lifestyles, perspectives, concerns, and aspirations. Moreover, by participating in these ‘social spaces’, I was able to examine the social relationships and values in their lives. For example, I observed how seniority played out not only at school, but also in their kampung neighborhoods. These “seniors,” often referred to as “abang-abangan,” played a significant role in shaping their life choices. I also noticed how the values of masculinity determined the way they interacted with each other. In the context of this study, these observations helped me understand how their choices regarding smoking were influenced by these factors.
Most importantly, ethnographic approaches provide researchers with the opportunity to observe research subjects in their natural social setting, which results in obtaining authentic data. Obviously, this claim is debatable, as the presence of the researcher does influence the responses and behaviors of the research subjects to some extent. Nevertheless, the researcher’s attempt to follow and blend in with the subjects’ way of life is expected to minimize this influence and produce more objective and natural data.
Limitations and Lessons
The strength of ethnography lies in the unique and particular information it provides. Paradoxically, this strength is also its weakness. Ethnographic data is closely tied to its specific context and therefore tends not to lend itself to broad generalizations. For instance, it is obvious that the data I collected from adolescents living in the kampung areas of East Jakarta cannot be used to explain the lives of adolescents in the urban elite area of South Jakarta.
Another limitation is that ethnography tends to be most effective when conducted over an extended duration with intensive interactions. In programs with limited time and resources, this option becomes challenging. The solution is to conduct ethnography briefly, with the risk of reducing data depth. In the academic context, especially among anthropologists involved in traditional ethnographic research, what I did is generally not accepted as ethnographic research. I am aware of this. However, in this context, the ethnographic approach was solely used as a preliminary study to understand the world from the perspective of adolescents, which would later become the focus of the main study. The data that emerged was used selectively to adjust the position and design of the main study.
*To protect the anonymity and privacy of the informant, the informant’s name and the name of the school mentioned in this article have been redacted.
1The term “kampung-kota” is commonly used in social science and urban studies to describe densely populated kampung areas in urban settings.