Does ethnography put the breaks on applied research?

A chapter I found to be really interesting while putting my project together is, ‘Ethnography and housing studies revisited’ by Adrian Franklin (2008). Franklin argues that ethnography is important in housing studies, but it is mostly undertaken by PhD students – perhaps because it is not usually funded – and the solutions are not funded anyway.

 

Aside from making explicit the share of this work undertaken by (‘in training’) PhD students, this chapter is also likeable because Franklin starts off with an account of a movie I have long wanted to see, Kitchen Stories (2003). This movie is seen as demonstrating ‘that the relationship between researchers and respondents become more productive over time, resulting in more reliable data, better understandings of that millieux and what their problems (and therefore often ‘ours’) actually consist of.’ (Franklin 2008: 272).

 

  • If a productive relationship of understanding is to develop, it follows that it would be harder to see any outcome that leaves people worse off in any way that is likely to matter to them. Does this mean it becomes difficult to make any recommendations?

 

‘… whereas extensive approaches merely enable you to understand the distributive nature of an issue, how it is spread across a variety of social and spatial parameters, only methods such as ethnography are capable of investigating and interrogating causal mechanisms (how and why things work the way they do).’ (Franklin 2008: 275).

 

  • Once we understand how and why things work in certain ways often change seems even more disruptive. If people are getting on with life then it is unlikely that any part of their context is left as simply ‘bad’. Does this make it difficult to advocate for change?

 

Franklin observes the clustering of articles which use the key terms of ‘housing and ethnography’ around homelessness, elderly in care, and public housing focusing on the racial/ethnic. He draws from this the claim that ‘… when the issue is focused on the care and well-being of (certain groups of) people, ethnography becomes imperative, essential, whereas when housing is seen as a provision of the more abstract idea of service or policy and/or in more concrete terms the supply of (affordable) housing products again to certain types of groups (particularly to poor and underprivileged people) it is less so.’ (Franklin 2008: 279)

 

  • Following this, ethnography is unlikely to be popular where governments, NGOs and other parties hope that if they just build things ‘right’ it will be cost effective in the long run. (Not that I am mounting an argument here that is necessarily what is happening in Australia.)

 

Clearly there are many instances where ethnographic research does not lead to policy paralysis. However, what if in my case it does?

 

Franklin, A. (2008). “Ethnography and housing studies revisited.” Studies in Qualitative Methodology 10: 271-289.

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