Definition

Freelisting involves asking the participant “list all of the X you know” or “what kinds of X are there?” where “X” can be stressors, movie stars, healthy foods, unhealthy foods, types of exercise and etc. Freelisting is a powerful method for collecting culturally relevant information on a particular domain. This allows the researcher to explore common understandings of a domain, how items in a domain relate.

Relevant Characteristics

Freelisting sessions can be performed individually or in groups, or can be done as part of a focus group session. Ideally, freelists provide the researcher with culturally salient items that make up a given domain.
Freelisting is an exploratory qualitative method that is usually used as a precursor to more systematic methods such as pilesorting, survey design, and structured methods, or for developing focus group questions. During a freelisting session the focus is on gathering qualitative information. Quantitative information on the items in the domain of inquiry can be gathered during a separate session. Keeping the sessions specifically focused on the qualitative aspects of the domain of inquiry allows the researcher to:
  • define and limit the domain in question.
  • define the contents of a domain.
  • gain familiarity with the local vocabulary, ways of thinking about and talking about a domain.
Freelisting sessions can be conducted on smaller sub samples of the study population, but the sample should be large enough that the responses show saturation.

Method Made Easy

The researcher begins by asking the respondents questions about the domain of interest. For example, if the researcher wanted to know what types of foods were being eaten in a community, they might ask “What kinds of food do people eat here?” Bernard (2006:302) suggests using probes to increase recall: 1) redundant questions, (2) nonspecific prompting, (3) asking respondents to give alphabetical responses, (e.g., “list all the foods that people here eat that start with the letter “A”, etc.) (4) associative questioning (e.g., “You mentioned mangos. Think of some foods that are like mangoes, where mangoes are the first item on that list.”).
An example of a freelisting session might be to begin with simple questions about the domain itself. If the researcher wanted to know about local domains of mental health, after a brief introduction stating the purpose of the sessions, the researcher might begin with questions like “What is depression?”, or “How does someone know when they are depressed?”, “What are some symptoms of depression?”, “What do people do to cope with depression?”.
Freelisting responses do not always have to be one-word items. Depending on the domain of inquiry, respondents may respond with discrete items, sentences or phrases to answer the questions. For example, questions about types foods that are commonly eaten or drugs common to the area are more likely to generate lists of discrete items, where questions concerning phenomenological domains such as experiences with stress, depression or anxiety are more likely to generate a mix of discrete items and phrases. In exploratory sessions, sentences and phrases can be just as illuminating as lists of discrete items; however, discrete items are more suited to cultural domain analysis than phrases (see Borgatti 1998)
Items in the freelisting session can be listed out loud by the participant and written down or recorded by the researcher. However, if the domain is of a personal or culturally sensitive nature, for example drug use or sexual behavior, the participant may feel more comfortable writing down the items themselves.

Advantages

Freelisting is a simple, yet powerful way to learn about culturally specific domains. Researchers new to the field can use this technique to quickly gain an understanding of a domain. This data is valuable in developing questions for formal and informal interviews, probes during interviews, survey data and focus group questions and pilesort exercises. It requires no special skills or equipment, and very little training and experience to conduct.

Limitations

There is no way to mathematically predetermine how large a freelisting sample size should be; however, freelisting sessions should be done with a varied, randomly chosen group of participants large enough so that the data shows a homogeneity of responses among multiple participants. Homogeneity in the data suggests that the items being mentioned are salient and suitable for analysis. A large sample size also helps the researcher to work out inconsistencies in the responses by triangulating the data against multiple response sets.

Analysis

Although no quantitative data is collected during Freelisting session, freelists data can nonetheless be analyzed for salience, frequency and rank. Rank refers to the order in which items are listed, and frequency refers to the number of times items appear across multiple lists. Rank and frequency are related in freelists, and Bousfield and Barclay (1950) have shown that the number of times an item is listed across subjects is correlated to how early in the freelisting session items are listed, and how important they are to daily life. Thus, more culturally salient items would appear at the beginning of the sessions, and in higher frequency than less salient times. For example, for the question, “list common animals”, “cat” may be mentioned more often and earlier in the session than “rat”. This suggests that cats are more culturally salient than rats.
In order to determine is an item is truly culturally salient, and not just an outlier, the research can make a graph of all of the times according to their frequency of being mentioned. If there are no idiosyncrasies or outliers the graph will have a downward slope. Idiosyncrasies can be identified by a sharp peak in the data.

Method in Context

Freelisting is robust to both saliency and rank of culturally salient items. This is a useful first step tool for a number of other methods. In addition to the methods already mentioned, freelisting is also the first step for cultural domain analysis. William Dressler popularized this method for elucidating the health consequences associated with cultural dissonance (see suggestions for reading below).

Online Resources

http://boxesandarrows.com/beyond-cardsorting-free-listing-methods-to-explore-user-categorizations/
http://petergiovannini.com/ethnobotany-methods/how-to-analyse-freelisting-with-anthropac-tutorial-cultural-domain.html
http://www.libarts.wsu.edu/anthro/pdf/Considerations%20for%20Collecting.pdf
http://www.analytictech.com/borgatti/etk2.htm

Further Reading


Borgatti, S 1998. Elicitation techniques for Cultural Domain Analysis. In J. Schensul & M.LeCompt (Eds.) The Ethnographer’s Toolkit, Vol. 3. Walnut Creek, CA: Altimira Press.

Ross, Norbert. 2004. Culture & cognition: implications for theory and method. Thousand Oaks, Calif. [u.a.]: Sage Publ.

Ross, Norbert and Douglas L. Medin 2005. Ethnography and Experiments: Cultural Models and Expertise Effects Elicited with Experimental Research Techniques. Field Methods. 17. 131-149

De Munck, Victor C. 2009. Research design and methods for studying cultures. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Bernard, H. Russell. 2011. Research methods in anthropology: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Lanham, Md: AltaMira Press.
Dressler, William W, Gerald A.C. Grell and Fernando E. Viteri.
1995 Intracultural Diversity and the Sociocultural Correlates of Blood Pressure: A Jamaican Example. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 9:291-313.

Dressler, William W.
1996 Using Cultural Consensus Analysis to Develop a Measurement: A Brazilian Example. Cultural Anthropology Methods 8:6-8.

Dressler, William W, Mauro C. Balieiro, and Jose Ernesto Dos Santos.
1998 Culture, Socioeconomic Status and Physical and Mental Health in Brazil. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 12:424-446.

Dressler, William W and James R. Bindon.
2000 The Health Consequences of Cultural Consonance: Cultural Dimensions of Lifestyle, Social Support and Arterial Blood Pressure in an African American community.
American Anthropologist 102:244-260.

Dressler, William W, Mauro C. Balieiro and José Ernesto dos Santos.
2002 Cultural Consonance and Psychological Distress. Paidéia: Cadernos de Psicologia e Educação 12:5-18.

Dressler, William W, Camila D. Borges, Mauro C. Balieiro, and José Ernesto Dos Santos.
2005 Measuring Cultural Consonance: Examples with Special Reference to Measurement Theory in Anthropology. Field Methods 17:331-355.

References:
Bernard, H. Russell. 2011. Research methods in anthropology: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Lanham, Md: AltaMira Press.

Bousfield, W.A. & Barclay, W.D. (1950). The Relationship Between Order and Frequency of Occurrence of Restricted Associative Responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Dressler, William W.
1996 Using Cultural Consensus Analysis to Develop a Measurement: A Brazilian Example. Cultural Anthropology Methods 8:6-8.

References

Bernard, H. Russell. 2011. Research methods in anthropology: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Lanham, Md: AltaMira Press.
Bousfield, W.A. & Barclay, W.D. (1950). The Relationship Between Order and Frequency of Occurrence of Restricted Associative Responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Dressler, William W.
1996 Using Cultural Consensus Analysis to Develop a Measurement: A Brazilian Example. Cultural Anthropology Methods 8:6-8.