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A lesson on going native and naivety

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment

A few years ago we were hired to help our client understand what it was like to live with schizophrenia.  We were given the unusual luxury of time, so we got to spend an entire year with our participants and really get a deep look at the challenges they faced in dealing with their condition.

One of my participants, we will call him Dave, was a very kind and spirited man who lived in a group home and struggled each day to be productive and build community.  Each time I visited with Dave, I would ask him the same question ‘what have you been up to?’  His answer was always the same ‘Running the streets, drinking coffee, and smoking cigarettes.’  And that was literally how he spent his time.  Each morning, he would get up early, drink coffee, smoke a cigarette and hit the streets.  Dave would walk all day long, drink more coffee and smoke more cigarettes.  On his travels each day, he met a lot of people.  He knew everyone.

As he traveled about, he was constantly making micro exchanges.  He was always bartering and exchanging goods and services. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t really about the value of the thing he was getting or receiving, it was about the exchange.  The exchange allowed him a mode of interaction and also allowed him to build community.  This meant he was often taken advantage of by others who were more invested in the value of the thing, but this didn’t seem to matter to him.  Dave didn’t feel taken advantage of because he was getting what he wanted and needed from the exchange.

It was sometimes hard for me to remember to see the action from his point of view and I worried about how others seemed to take advantage of him.  He was an easy mark.  But my job was to try to understand what life was like FOR HIM and so I did my best to stay focused on seeing things from his perspective.  After a few months, it became evident that I was succeeding in this goal, when I finally met Dave’s girlfriend.

One of the objectives of the project was a better understanding of how schizophrenia impacted family members and the social networks of the person with the condition.  Dave had been telling us about his girlfriend for several months and we were finally going to meet her.  Dave was clearly enamored with her and talked about her all the time.  In my mind, I had imagined an equally sweet, generous, and trusting partner for him.  That seemed to be how he saw her and I had such high hopes for him.  I think I wanted to believe he had a soft place to land because daily life was so hard for him.

On the morning we went to meet her, my partner, Steve and I rode with Dave to her house.  When we were introduced, we were both pretty surprised, she didn’t seem very friendly and actually seemed a little bit annoyed that we were there.  What’s more, she didn’t seem to like Dave very much.  When Dave left the yard (we were outside the house), his girlfriend turned to Steve and asked ‘Do you want me to do you too?’  As Steve was struggling to find the word ‘No’, I was struggling to believe what was clearly true.  Dave’s girlfriend was not a girlfriend in the traditional sense.  She was a sex worker.

I really couldn’t believe it.  During all of the time we had spent with Dave, and during all of the conversations we had had about his girlfriend, I had not once considered the possibility that this relationship, this exchange, could be like the others.  Although I was sad for Dave, I learned an important lesson that day.  I learned that fieldwork and ethnographic analysis is often a delicate balance of trying to understand things from the point of view of your participant, while at the same time, triangulating that vantage point and looking for patterns in the data that provide a holistic understanding.

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Leopard print bikinis and body exfoliation: Living outside my comfort zone

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Usually the things that I get to do in the field are sooooo cool. But my job also often requires me to do things that are outside of my comfort zone.  Seriously, I do things when I’m working that I would never do otherwise. It is almost like I have an alter ego that sometimes takes over when I’m in the field.  Outside the field I’m a somewhat antisocial, risk-averse, fussy vegetarian that likes the creature comforts of life.  But my alternate, fieldwork persona, we will call her Mel, is crazily social, fearless, impervious to embarrassment, above gastrointestinal upset, and generally unflappable.

When we were studying hair loss, I visited hair salons, talked to stylists and got my hair cut FOUR times.  When we studied tourism in Atlanta, I visited the Cheetah, a high-end gentleman’s club and also a world famous tourist spot.  I conducted in-context fieldwork while naked women danced all around me.  When we were studying infant nutrition in the Philippines I was offered an expensive delicacy for lunch that just so happened to be congealed cow’s blood!  Although I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve consumed cognac, homemade berry liquor, limoncello and lots of wine during fieldwork.

But last summer, I had one of my most interesting and challenging contextual mapping assignments.  It all began with a trip to Istanbul and a desire to understand hygiene rituals.  A logical stop in this trip was the local hamam (Turkish bath).  I was woefully uneducated about what to expect (this is actually a job requirement—taking an inductive approach so as not to have too many pre-conceived thoughts).

When I arrived in Istanbul, our local ethnographer called to arrange my visit to the hamam.  She told me they said I would need to bring a bikini.  It had been many years since I had owned a bikini, so I asked if it would be possible to do the exfoliation treatment nude (that is how I sometimes get massages and I thought this would be a similar experience).  I was imagining a private room, with towels and blankets to cover me.  My colleague informed me that the hamam was insisting that I wear a bikini but that I could purchase one there.

When I arrived at the hamam, I was given a box full of potential bikinis.  The one that fit best was a leopard print number that barely covered the essentials.  At this point I should tell you that non-fieldwork Melinda dresses pretty conservatively, usually in black.  No worries, however, Mel was there to put on the leopard print.

Once I walked into the room where the exfoliation experience was to take place, I realized why they had insisted that I wear a bikini.  It turns out that the exfoliation treatment happens in a communal area!  As I sat in the pool and waited for my turn, I experienced a rush of thoughts and emotions.  I went from being embarrassed and resentful of the leopard print bikini to being SOOOOOOO thankful that I had been forced to wear it.  I had rapid images of what WOULD have happened if they had granted my request to do the treatment nude.

My elation was short lived, however, once I had a good look at what was going to happen next. . . .  The exfoliation took place on a large marble slab where 2-3 women could lay at once.  The spa workers prepared each woman for her exfoliation by removing her bikini top and fashioning the bikini bottom into a thong.  Did I mention that my client was with me?  Yes, sitting in the pool, with my client, waiting for the eventual removal of the bikini top and conversion of the bikini bottom into a thong, Melinda and Mel began to have an internal dialogue.  Melinda was saying ‘this is so inappropriate and unprofessional.’  Mel was saying ‘don’t be ridiculous, this is fieldwork, you are just doing your job, pay attention to what is happening.’

Have you ever been so embarrassed that you felt like you were having an out of body experience? The exact moment this happened was during the actual exfoliation process.  There are a lot of details that I won’t share here, but did you know that when you visit a hamam, the exfoliation is so intense and vigorous that everything, and I do mean everything, is in motion?   Laying on the slab, without the shield of my leopard print bikini top, everything was wiggling and jiggling, every which way.  I had jiggles in places that I was well aware of, but also jiggles in places that I had no idea.  Luckily Mel wasn’t bothered.  She was fascinated by the whole experience. We left the hamam with a new leopard print bikini, perfectly smooth skin, and a bunch of interesting observations about hygiene, culture, and tradition.

How do you become an ethnographer?

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been a professional ethnographer for more than a decade and there are recurring themes in the questions I’m asked about my work.  When I tell people what I do for a living, the first response is generally ‘I didn’t know that job existed.’  This is usually followed by ‘exactly how does someone becomes an ethnographer?’  It is true, ethnography is not a common career choice, but my path toward this work was perfectly logical.

I was always a nosy kid and now I’m a nosy adult.  I like to know the details. The details about what is going on.  The details about what people are doing.  The details about why they are doing it.  The details about their thoughts and feelings.  This sometimes makes me a little bit difficult to live with, but makes me ideally suited to be an ethnographer.

There were several key moments leading to my eventual career.  I don’t remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a sociologist, but I do remember the exact moment I got the label for what I wanted to be.  I was in my 11th grade sociology class and my teacher, Marcellus Reed, was explaining social stratification.  A light bulb went on and I remember thinking ‘oh, I want to be a sociologist’.  From that point on, I never waivered in my career choice.  I started college and immediately declared myself a sociology major.  I finished undergraduate school without ever considering a change.  I went to graduate school and held fast in my decision.  Never mind that EVERYONE was asking what I planned to do with a degree in sociology.  I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make a living ‘doing sociology’, I just knew I was supposed to be a sociologist.

I had noted a glimpse of my eventual career when I was taking an undergraduate qualitative methods class.  We were assigned an ethnographic research project and I decided to do mine on local police officers.  The assignment was some participant observation for a few weeks and then a written report.  But I was having so much fun, so I continued fieldwork for a couple of years.  I thought at the time ‘this is what I should be doing for a living.’  But that thought was quickly followed by ‘no one will ever pay me to do this, so I better have a back up plan.’

Once I got to graduate school, I realized I could teach and do ethnographic research on the side so that became my plan.  I would work in academia and do ethnographic research for fun.  I got my masters degree and then decided to go for my PhD.  Things had changed a little bit and I was gravitating more toward applied work.  I began doing ethnographic research projects in the not-for-profit arena and found that people WOULD pay me to do ethnography.  So I revised my plan.  I would still teach and do ethnographic research on the side, but I now knew that I could use ethnography to supplement my income.  Eventually, my not-for-profit work segued into full time ethnographic research for big corporations.

I tell my kids that their most important job is to identify their dharma.  They should try to find the thing that they are ideally suited to do and they should do that for a living.  Doing ethnographic research is my dharma.  How lucky am I? I have the coolest job in the world. I get to be nosy for a living.  I get to ask the ‘what is going on’ question about everyday, and not only do I not get in trouble for it (well, rarely), I get paid to do it.

Categories: context, Ethnography, Process