Home > context, Ethnography, Process > It’s not a contradiction. It’s an insight!

It’s not a contradiction. It’s an insight!

We left our last conversation talking about narrative and how we get to learn a whole lot about people by dropping our assumptions about their experiences. In other words, we let them guide our process of understanding through their narrative, and it’s through our analysis of their experience we can really put existing knowledge about them in the proper context.

Which brings us to the second assumption taken from Nurture Shock , the book that recently blew my mind as a parent and an ethnographer. I find the authors’ recommendation to drop a second assumption really relevant in our work.

Bronson and Merryman say, “We tend to think that good behavior, positive emotions, and good outcomes are a package deal: together, the good things will protect a child from all the bad behavior and negative emotions…”

The book pretty much offers a slew of evidence that shows how this is not always true. In the end (and this is the part I really love, the part that makes me jump up and down) they said, “The researchers are concluding that the good stuff and the bad stuff are not on opposite ends of a single spectrum. They are what’s termed orthogonal–mutually independent. Because of this, kids can seem to be walking contradictions.”

Again, we could substitute the word “kids” with “moms with toddler girls” or “people with diabetes” or “men losing their hair.” And again, we can really place what seems like contradictions in the proper context through…wait for it…wait for it…our analytic process.

See, we always tell our clients that a lot of people who say they do ethnography actually don’t. Doing an in-home interview is great, videotaping it and editing a summary of all those interviews is great, but that alone isn’t making it ethnography. It’s the systematic analysis of our fieldwork, those in-home visits, as well as how we contextually map our topic of study in the places we do fieldwork, that helps to make it so.

We actually start doing analysis once we start recruiting, all along during our fieldwork, but the really intensive systematic analysis occurs after we have left the field. To do it right, it takes about 4 to 6 hours for every hour we spent in the field, to really understand what we learned.

And here’s why. Remember that assumption we just talked about. People can seem like walking contradictions. We typically find that there are disconnects between what people say and what people do.  If we rely simply on what they say, it will look like a contradiction. Or it will be taken at face value through literal interpretation, thereby discounting all the observational stuff (and ultimately, what explains what’s really going on) we may not have noticed during that precise moment.

By going back and systematically analyzing not only what was said but what was done, how it was done and why, and looking at it across all our participants to find pattners in similaries and patterns in differences, we can say “Aha! This is what’s happening.” We simply cannot overlook any subtlety or nuance. Otherwise, it’s just not insight.

So, try dropping a couple of assumptions. Like my seventh grade math teacher said, “It just makes an ass out of u and me.”

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Categories: context, Ethnography, Process
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