Do you want to think about ethnography or not?

‘Ethnography forum rage’ was described by one colleague the other day as the usual reaction they have to the monthly informal presentations and discussion.

As one of the angst-ridden ‘hand wringers’ found so frustrating by those people who have the skills to just get on with their research, and as somebody who is not even really doing serious ethnography, I probably should not talk. However, one of the things that means I am becoming rather ambivalent about the ethnography forum is that we seem to act as if the most important thing is to be nice.

Being supportive is important, but who benefits when we sit through papers which have a massive issue at their core and try to salvage it with questions that dance around the edges rather than calling the speaker out? Clearly there is some immediate face saving going on, but surely it would be worse for that person to take their paper to a conference where it will be ripped to shreds? Also, isn’t it a bit embarrassing to fail to engage with issues and errors at a stage in your studies where you are supposedly qualified to begin assisting in teaching and evaluating other students?

One of the strengths of ethnographic methods (although I could cite a bunch of people who disagree with me) is that each researcher gets to reinvent the method for him/her self. Through this process of discovery and growth through a research method, rather than simply operationalising a plan, I think you are able to learn something about your self and the social world that goes well beyond the research question you set out with.

Reflections on ethnographic methods, whether in print or presentations, are very often repetitive and highly personal. The lack of newness is probably a sign that ethnography is onto something, and you learn that thing through the practice itself (nobody complains that maths students learn through doing the same proofs that people have done many times before). That the material is highly personal means a critique of methods is necessarily bound up with comments on the person.

As a ‘hand wringer’, who wastes much of my thinking time while cycling places listing stupid things I said and punches out all these blog posts, I would say I am rather self critical. However, I am not sure how I would deal with honest outside criticism. It seems rather scary that I can get this many years into life and have really had so little critical feedback.

Critical feedback does not mean finding a reason to rubbish everything said, and it does not mean that the person receiving the feedback is rubbish because there is something they have presented which can be looked at in another way. However, a few more verbal confrontations seems to be a good thing, even if they mean you have to agree to disagree over drinks afterwards.

I would like to have the confidence to challenge people to justify why they call their project ethnography. I would also like to challenge people to justify why they think their project should be treated seriously from an ethnographic point of view when it has clearly been designed to meet other criteria (e.g. having a huge number of thin case studies to be taken seriously in another field). I think there is value in hand wringing when it comes to, ‘Am I getting it right?’ However, (I think) people need to get serious enough about dealing with the complexities of the real world to move beyond expecting to be able to be taken seriously as somebody trying to ‘get it right’, when clearly they are trying first of all to be taken seriously in a certain disciplinary, methodological, or policy context.

I am not claiming to be an authority on ethnography and reflecting on research methods, but I think there is a lot to be gained through more rigorous disagreement.

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2 Responses to “Do you want to think about ethnography or not?”

  1. Bryonny G-H Says:

    As someone who bitches immensely about Ethno Forum, I think what came up for me on Friday is the realisation of my own complicity in perpetuating things which I don’t like. So, you are right; there needs to be some serious and quite critical thought around how we continue to approach this.
    That said, we have all bought into the idea that we make people comfortable (even when feeling very uncomfortable about what they’ve said). If that is effectively what coheres the group, how do we change that? Is it about taking individual or collective responsibility? And, if change does happen, how do we keep enough of a sense of safety so that it doesn’t become a mauling session?
    I’m worried that I’ve offended you by drunkenly raving about hand-wringing, and I want to say that I don’t think that of you. (Anyway, I have cried over morris dancing; I can hand-wring with the best of them.) As graduate students, I think we often have this sort of second teenager-hood when we can easily convince ourselves that our problems are enormous and no-one else understands. It’s good to talk about our woes in a supportive way so that we can, if not feel better, then feel that at least we’re not alone. But is the Ethno Forum that place?
    (I want to add that we are lucky in having a hard-working facilitator and I wouldn’t want her to think that any criticism reflects on what she is doing.)

  2. Tracey Says:

    A teenager-hood is a great way to describe it, although I think my post was a bit too dark.

    There is a lot I enjoy about the ethno forum, or I would treat it like my school’s painful ‘research roundtables’ (talks organised by staff for students, held in a lecture theatre, that I do not attend). I love that there are people who can get on with research, as otherwise I would not have anything interesting to read.

    I like to think it is possible to have that sense of not being ‘alone’, and also be challenged to extend our thinking. However, I am a bit insensitive and have yet to develop many strong convictions I feel the need to seriously defend.

    Asking good questions is very hard, maybe harder than giving a good presentation. It is also hard to get that balance right between people making comments/ sharing their own experiences and having a conversation which moves on when the audience is bigger than the number of people you would usually have in a conversation.

    Maybe on a practical level we could trial having somebody give a short paper and somebody else lined up to give a response before we move into a question and answer session? On the other hand, I think it is worth keeping a forum organised by a very busy volunteer as simple as possible.

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