An Example of a Qualitative Social Experiment

Last block, I took a course called, Qualitative Research Methods, where we learned how to use scientific methods to better understand the human world. During this course, we used a variety of qualitative methods, including ethnography, interviews, and participant observation. Such methods came in handy when conducting our own mini-ethnographies, linguistic autobiographies, and finally, a qualitative social experiment, about which I will write more on this blog post.

La gare du Sky Train
Making our way to downtown Vancouver.

The main theme of this course was Linguistic Anthropology, thus, throughout the block we did several readings on linguistics, autoethnography, acculturation, speech communities and areas, and racialization. In addition, to better understand these topics and study them, we conducted several REB (Research Ethics Board) approved experiments at Quest with our peers. In addition, our tutor, Bianca Brigidi, had planned another qualitative experiment towards the end of the class, about which we did not know anything except that we were going to Vancouver on particular day and needed to bring $5 in cash. This experiment turned out to be quite challenging, continuously pushed me out of my comfort zone, and also it allowed me to learn and understand the struggles that new and old immigrants often face.


Faire les plans
Rosa and Ametisse, my family members, making plans in the bus.

We all got in the bus and were very excited to begin this journey; however, we were all quite nervous since we did not know where we were going and what we were about to do. Once in the bus, Bianca, distributed several papers which had the assignment details – ah, so excited! In this experiment, we were going to partake in an out of comfort-zone scenario in which we were expected to face linguistic and cultural barriers for not being able to use the dominant language around us. As a result, from that point on, we were not allowed to communicate in English. This assignment, following the themes of immigration, labour, and language, allowed us to experience and consider some of the main readings of the course, including language barriers, language ideologies, linguistic profiling, and language minority.

Planning the trip! Photo credits – Barbara Fernandes.

Bianca divided us into four families made up of five students and invited us to talk to our families on the bus and make plans for the day. My “family” consisted of Noah, Rosa, Ametisse, and Ilana. Fortunately, all of us could somewhat speak a second language; unfortunately, almost none of those second languages were the same. I think it is quite easy to imagine how challenging it was to make plans for the day through different languages that I could barely understand or speak. Eventually we ended up using hands and gestures to communicate, which was rather challenging. Before being dropped off at Vancouver International Airport (YVR), we were once again reminded of the rules of this experiment. We had to find a way to make it from YVR to downtown Vancouver (using our $5), find food from an “authentic” restaurant in exchange of a service, speak in any language but English, and, within three hours, make our way to a Starbucks café located in Denman Street.

The qualitative experiment officially began at the Vancouver International Airport – my family members and I were looking forward to the next three hours.

Once dropped off at the airport, each family went their separate ways. We decided to take the Sky Train to go to downtown Vancouver since that was going to be the cheapest option. In the train, we used French, Spanish, and hand gestures amongst us in order to make plans for the day. Our use of minority languages and weird gestures caught the attention of many people who were franticly listening and trying to make sense of our words. Their bizarre looks made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, and it allowed me to understand the struggles that people who do not speak English in this city face everyday. Eventually, we made it downtown and at that point started to think of ways that we could obtain food for free or in exchange of a service.

Another family made of Mike, Ellis, Bianca, Andrew, and Barbara planning their day. They also took the Skytrain to go downtown; however, we never saw them until the end of the project. Photo obtained from Barbara.

Once at the city, we started to look for ways to obtain authentic food for free or in exchange of a service like dance, artwork, or song. Unable to fully communicate with my family, I began to feel frustrated and lost. I realized that language barriers prevented me from understanding the messages, ideas, and thoughts that others were trying to convey. We went inside many authentic restaurants like Belgian, Lebanese and Mexican ones. We soon, however, learned that when introducing ourselves in a minority language, we were eventually turned away. We were not viewed as costumers, but simply as foreigners who could not speak the local language. We were getting really frustrated with out inability to get food and also the constant rejection.

Chocolat Belge
So much chocolate!

Fortunately we ended up finding some restaurants where the employees spoke French. Since I  took French 1 & 2 at Quest, I was able to communicate with them and tell them that we were new immigrants, that we had no money, but were willing to do something in exchange of food such as doing the dishes of cleaning the tables. A few times we were turned away; however eventually we managed to find a French bakery where we were able to get free raspberry pastries using French to communicate. I was really excited! I learned how hard it is to find food when you have no money and do not speak the dominant language, something that I never faced before.

Notre nourriture - Français pate
Our “authentic” French food – cranberry baked goods.


Barbara’s family managed to get a burrito!

This experiment, like I said, was very challenging and it continuously pushed me out of my comfort zone. However, I learned so much from it – I felt lost, out of place, and fundamentally learned that not being able to communicate is a challenging and tiring experience.

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