Home > context, Ethnography, participant observation, Process, Uncategorized > Getting real: Life IS messy!

Getting real: Life IS messy!

Remember a few years ago when Bissell came out with the tag line ‘Life is messy, clean it up’?  I LOVED that campaign and also the sentiment behind it.  Because the truth is, life IS messy.  And consequently, real answers to questions about daily life are often not very cut and dry.

I’m sometimes asked about how ‘reliable’ or ‘valid’ ethnographic research is.  Validity is easy to address because you can’t get more ‘valid’ than real life.  Sure, people don’t always act EXACTLY like they would if you weren’t there.  Almost all research impacts how people behave, and ethnography is no exception.  But, over the years, we have collected lots of evidence (participants yelling at each other, people telling us about things even their spouse didn’t know about them, etc.) that we do get closer to real life than most other research methodologies.

But when it comes to reliability, ethnographers approach the issue a little bit differently.  For example, think about the last 10 times you went grocery shopping.   There were probably some patterns in the way that you did it.  You probably went to the same place (at least most of those times), you probably started at the same end of the store, you probably had a list (or didn’t have a list), etc.  But, there was probably a good deal of variation too, and a lot of the variation was probably attributable to the context of the trip.  For example, did you go shopping alone or with someone else? Did you go shopping on a Tuesday evening or a Saturday afternoon?  Where you stopping by to pick up an ingredient you had forgotten or were you going to the store for the first time in a month?  All of these trips to the store can constitute ‘typical’ grocery shopping within a single household, but each can demonstrate very different types of patterns, and therefore can produce results that can appear a little bit unreliable.  But that is because real life is complex and variable.

There are actually very few behaviors that get routinized to the degree that there is little or no variation in the way they are done.  So for me, the question is not ‘is your ethnographic project reliable’, it is ‘how well does your ethnographic project capture the way(s) this thing is done’?  It is obviously important to make sure we get to see what is typical, but we also want to make sure we get to see variation and why it exists.  And this is important to try to understand both within and between households/people.

One of the things that concerns me a lot about my discipline (business/corporate ethnography) is that many people are now doing ‘ethnographic research’ without any real attention to the importance of context and the range of complexity that context brings to behavior.  They assume that ‘context’ is covered by being there and watching people do something.  But for me, context is so much more than that.  Obviously the place where the thing happens is an important context to see and understand, but there are generally hundreds if not thousands of other contextual variables that come into play around any particular behavior. The skilled ethnographer will be cataloging and trying to understand as many of those as possible.  And as you can see, this can get very messy, very quickly.  But there is no reason to panic, the skilled ethnographer is also really good at systematically organizing those variables into an understandable story. I believe that the REAL value of ethnography is in its ability to explain the messiness of life and human behavior and to pull out the patterned similarities AND the patterned differences in how a thing is done.

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