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Notes on being a cultural chameleon and a pied piper

April 17, 2012 Leave a comment

In my business it is important to try to blend in.  No matter who we are hanging out with, it is essential that we look like we belong and are able to put our participants at ease.  Each ethnographer has her/his own way of achieving this goal, but generally we have to be comfortable in a variety of different types of situations and the natural ethnographer does this, well naturally.  Most of the best ethnographers I’ve known don’t have to work at blending in, they just do.

At Ethnographic Research, Inc. we started referring to ourselves as cultural chameleons a few years ago, because that is really who we are.  We have spent time with doctors as well as people who have been unable to work for years due to chronic pain.  We have hung out with academics as well as sex workers.  We have worked along side high-end sales folks and inner city social workers.  We have learned from people diagnosed with mental illness as well as suburban soccer moms.  And in each case, we have usually been invited to come back and hang out again.

It’s true that traditional ethnographic work provides ethnographers longer periods of time to work their way into a setting and into relationships.  But for those of us who work in business contexts, the time we get to make others comfortable with our presence is sometimes only a matter of minutes.  Hence our cultural chameleon abilities are even more important.  And for the most part, I’ve been very successful as a cultural chameleon.  But there was that one time. . . .

When I did fieldwork in the Philippines a few years ago, I got to experience what it feels like to really stick out.  For starters I am very white, the kind of white that glows in the dark.  In fact, my nick-name in high school was Casper.  Also, at five foot four, I’m not particularly tall, but compared to the average Filipino woman, I am gigantic.  Since I spent most of my time in neighborhoods where most westerners don’t go, I stuck out EVERYWHERE.  In many neighborhoods we created such a spectacle that people would lean out of their windows or even come out of their houses to watch us go by.  Often they called out ‘Hey Joe!’ (a reference to American GIs).  Several times, the neighborhood kids would form a pack and follow us down the street, creating a carnival like atmosphere.  I felt like the pied piper.

In this particular setting, there was no ‘blending in’ so I just embraced my status as an outsider and made observations from that vantage point. It was as the pied piper that I did most of my contextual mapping in the Philippines.  Walking around from neighborhood to neighborhood, I met up with and had the opportunity to observe hundred of people.  I was in Manila trying to understand how moms take care of their babies, so it was convenient for me that many parents brought their children outside to see me as I walked down the street.

In the end, whether we are able to blend in and be a cultural chameleon or whether we stick out like a sore thumb, the skilled ethnographer uses each status to their advantage.  The best understandings of any subject or context come from examining and analyzing data from both an insider and outsider perspective, so although ethnographers generally don’t like to stand out, acting as the pied piper once in awhile provides a nice change of pace and a nice change of perspective.

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Sociological Theory Comes to Life

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

When I was earning my undergraduate degree, there was a required class called Sociological Theory.  The first time I became aware of the class was when a bunch of my classmates were sitting around, talking about what they were going to take the next semester.   They all agreed to avoid Sociological Theory as long as possible.  None of them WANTED to take the class.  They said it was boring, difficult, and essentially a waste of time.  It sounded awful.  So, I put the class off too (even longer than statistics).  When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I enrolled in the class.  Boy was I surprised.  I LOVED the class.  It was interesting.  And so useful.

Imagine that you are trying to solve a difficult puzzle without a picture of what it looks like.  You are having trouble getting started.  But then suddenly the outer edge of the puzzle comes together and you begin to see how the inside might look.  Social theory often provides that type of tool for ethnographers.  It gives us a framework or a starting point to organize data or to understand a pattern.

I’m a little bit of a social theory junkie and I’ll admit that sometimes, for fun, I take random experiences and try a few different social theories on for size to see how well they can explain what I have seen.  It is very interesting to see how a single event can be understood in a variety of ways.  Admittedly, some social theories have more explanatory power and a wider scope of applicability than others.  One of my favorites is social exchange theory.  You know this one.  The premise is that all social relationships are based on exchanges between people and that these exchanges are based on a careful cost/benefit analysis of what each party is getting/receiving.  This particular theory is widely applicable and explains a great deal.

A few years ago I saw this theory in action when I was asked to help a client understand the lives of women at high risk for HIV infection.  I was spending time learning from a group of women who worked in the sex trade industry, hearing their stories, and learning more about how sex and protection fit into their work lives as well as their personal lives.  It was during these conversations and afterwards during analysis that I saw social exchange theory at work.  Many of the women I talked to summed up their decisions to not practice safe sex in terms of the costs and benefits they paid and reaped from their sexual exchanges.  It turned out that NOT using condoms helped them to shift the power balance of the exchange in their favor.  Obviously, at work they could demand more money if they didn’t use a condom.   But less obvious was the exchanges that they often made in their private relationships.  Not using a condom during sex with their significant others signaled trust, which was an important commodity that they paid into the relationship bank.  Using a condom would signal lack of trust and would put them further into the negative when it came to power within the relationship.   Although this seems counter-intuitive (i.e., using a condom SHOULD and does generally increase the power position of the woman), within this particular population, there were other, contextual variables at play that impacted the exchange.  For example, among this population, there was not a surplus of eligible partners and every potential partner entered into the relationship in a one up position, just by virtue of being scarce.  Also, there were cultural biases that made ‘cheating’ normal for men, but unacceptable for women.  Cheating was something that female partners were expected to not only accept, but essentially pretend not to see.  If they asked their partner to wear a condom, they were violating the agreement by pointing out that there was anything to be concerned about.  Finally, because their partners could usually leave the relationship and more easily find a replacement partner than they could, the value of ‘more pleasure’ that not using a condom provided allowed my participants to add another benefit to what they were paying into the relationship.

Social exchange theory provided a framework by which to organize the data and to explain the seemingly counter-intuitive and self-destructive behavior that my participants reported. It also encouraged me to try to understand the motivations for their decisions from a more rational perspective based on their social and cultural context.  Although I didn’t spend enough time in the field to really know whether the patterns I saw would be trustworthy in a larger population, social exchange theory provided a very interesting potential explanation for risk-taking behavior within this population and one that would probably indicate less traditional approaches to sex education and STI prevention efforts.

Are you studying me right now?

April 3, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the first things people ask me when they find out I’m a sociologist is ‘Are you studying me right now?’  And if I’m being honest, the answer is usually ‘yes.’  I think people are fascinating and I wonder why everyone doesn’t people watch, all the time.  There are so many people data points to ‘study’ in fact, that even if I collected data 24 hours a day, every day for the rest of my life, I would never run out of things to note.   So obviously, I can hardly afford to take time off.

When I was in high school and college, I had a part time job at a local grocery store.  The store was located in a neighborhood with lots of socio-economic, racial, and ethnic diversity.  One of the things that I loved about the job was the opportunity to meet and ‘watch’ so many different people.  As I look back on that experience, I realize that I was essentially doing participant observation every day.  I wish I had taken field notes!

I learned a lot about people by being a cashier. I got to peek into customer’s daily lives and got to know what happened in their kitchens without ever visiting their homes.  Being a teenager who had a working mom who didn’t cook much, I was amazed at the variety of foods that people bought and apparently cooked and ate.  During my first several months on the job, I was forever asking customers what a particular produce item was because there were so many things I had never seen or heard of (jicama, kumquats, etc)!  And many times as I was introduced to a new food, I was also introduced to a new dish or a new way of cooking or eating.  Many of my customers took the time to explain to me how they prepared a particular food or where they had learned about or gotten a particular recipe. Many of these stories told me a lot about the person’s history, subculture, and family traditions.

But it wasn’t just produce, there were tons of other clues to household norms that passed through the grocery store each day.  For example, there was a lot of variance in the amount of food people purchased and the frequency with which they visited the store.  Some customers came grocery shopping virtually every day and others tried hard to keep their shopping confined to weekly, if not monthly visits.  These habits obviously effected what they bought and therefore what they ate.  But their habits were often grounded in ideas and values about food and about time.  Some customers always came in in a rush and others seemed to never be in a hurry.  Some customers bought the same items each visit and others varied their purchasing according to season or occasion.  Some customers paid via food stamps and others paid with cash.  All of these data points told a story about daily life, routine and ritual.

And each time I interacted with each customer, I learned a little bit more about who they were, where they came from, and what was going on in their lives.  Although I had received very little training in sociology at the time, I was always trying to put together their ‘story’ by using the pieces of data that I got during our conversations and also the clues that I got from seeing what they purchased and what their shopping habits were.  It was then that I realized how much you could learn about a person by just listening to what they were saying, and paying attention to what they were doing.  I was fascinated by their stories and also a little bit surprised by how much I could learn by showing a little interest.  I often asked a simple question about a particular produce item and got a very descriptive narrative about daily life.

People tell me a lot that I’m intuitive, but I think it is closer to the truth to say that I’m really curious and a pretty good observer.  It is amazing what you can see when you are really looking, and what you can hear when you are really listening.  So, if we ever met and you wonder if I’m studying you, the answer is probably yes.  BUT don’t be offended, instead ask yourself, ‘when was the last time I had such a captive audience interested in me?’