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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.

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

Tales from the field: India

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

We’re doing our collaborative analysis this week for our study on the luxury lifestyle in India. In honor of that, here are a few more tales we haven’t told from John’s and Kazuyo’s weeks in Mumbai, Ludhiana and Bangalore.

Hospitality of Indian People
I was pleasantly surprised how hospitable Indian culture is.  As a part of our fieldwork, we are to go to a place they frequent. But the thing is that we ‘invited ourselves’ to do this, so of course, we are going to pick up the bill. How many times I had to insist to pay!  With one participant, he ended up taking us to dinner because we paid for other things!

How Quickly The Store Comes Down on the Price
Yes, it’s a bargain culture.  It’s a part of culture, but the level of bargaining is quite different here in India. One day, John and I are doing our context mapping and going to various stores.  We have gone to a few stores, including some carpet stores.  We are shown all silk hand-made carpet in various sizes, some wool/silk combo carpet, etc. They are feast to my eyes for sure.  I ask for the price, they ask me whether I want to know in Rupees or in US dollars.  I tell them Rupees.  They start rattling price of all those carpets.  Well, it’s a bargain price compared to what people pay in the US.  As we are there for about 20 minutes looking at it, and we are not making any commitment to buy any carpet.  They suddenly tell us that they will sell us TWO carpets for the price of one. I look at him and had to repeat the same sentence to make sure.  They say yes, but they say that we have to make a decision AT THAT MOMENT. Of course, we didn’t take their offer, but was surprised how quickly they came down on the price. They are a good price, BUT it’s not inexpensive.

Toilet in India
First day in Bangalore, I check into my hotel.  I had no sleep coming to Delhi and I ended up not sleeping at all when I checked into the hotel in Delhi and I had to take a very early flight out to come to Bangalore.  So mind you, I am pretty tired.  I check in and go to the bathroom, I am very confused.  There is no bathtub, but a little hand-held shower head next to my toilet. I think to myself, “Is this the shower? Really?”  So I go out from my room and find a housekeeping person and ask, “Does any of your room have a bath tub?”  They say no.  I ask “So, I am supposed to use a little shower next to toilet?”  They say yes.  I am thinking OMG.  Well, it turns out that little shower head next to toilet is their version of bidet! Apparently, it’s very easy to use, but I was afraid I would make a mess on myself, so I was not brave enough to try it.  It’s everywhere—public restroom, etc.  I am sure that it’s a lot more hygienic than using just toilet paper.  In Japan, we have a built in bidet and they are nice.

It’s a Male-Dominant Culture
Indian women I met are strong.  They are smart and they speak up. But when it comes to public space, it’s still a male-dominant culture.  When I went to context mapping with John, at several stores, they completely ignored me and only spoke to John—especially when it came to price.  At restaurants and bars, they ALWAYS bring a bill to a male who is in our party.  They look very confused when I bring out my credit card to pay a bill. Even though I am the one who is putting down my credit card, a server often brings a bill to John (or a male person who is together).  They just do not seem to get it!

Service Sector is Superb in India—except at the airport
Service in India is something to be said.  I wish that it is like that in America.  At a restaurant, hotel, bar, shops (even though they might be trying to sell things with higher prices), people are very nice, polite and pleasant.  They say “Yes, Mom”, “No, Madam”, and they do pay attention to your needs and fairy quickly to meet our needs.  Even at one hotel I was not even a guest, they gave us several recommendation to where we should go, made some calls for us, etc.  Unheard of in America, right?  Do not expect from airport staff though.  It’s kind of a huge downer especially as the last stop to leave India.  Maybe it’s because it is an international airport and there are just simply too many people. But airport guard almost sent me away because I didn’t have an itinery which made me frantic because I was catching a flight to come home!  But another guard came to rescue me after hearing me screaming at him and straightened a matter.  I think it would have been difficult for ERI to come bail me out from a jail in India.

Spain winning the World Cup: “Once in a life time…”

July 13, 2010 Leave a comment

By Laura Tejero Tabernero, an ERI Partner in Madrid

I’ve never really been a football fan but I cannot be more amazed with all that’s happening with Spain winning the World Cup for the first time in its history. I have never seen so many people so collectively happy! Everybody saying, teenagers and elders alike, “This is just once in a life time…, the happiest day for Spain in decades…”

And I wonder for myself, how is this possible? What’s the real social power of football in contemporary societies? It seems to be much more than just pure leisure; much more than a simple competition; much more than just pure business.

Yesterday there was a huge party all around Madrid, a welcoming party for the team players organised by the government. It was one of the biggest concentrations of people in the entire contemporary history of the country, hundreds of thousands of people partying in the streets, all dressed with red shirts. Spanish flags all over the city, everybody waving the national symbols, feeling (or at least pretending to feel) united.

It is just something nobody could expect. Yesterday it seemed like there weren’t any kind of social distances, any kind of regional nationalisms. It was the first time you could here people from all different political ideologies, immigrants who are structural and politically marginalised, screaming out loud: Viva España!

Viva España, one of the most common expressions associated with our own historical past, with Franco’s dictatorship, with a kind of nationalism that is being constantly disapproved by an enormous amount of people who still feel the necessity to fight against fascism.

But, two days after the finals, we came back to real life again. We came back to our one political and economical situation. Nowadays Spain is one of the European countries where the current crisis has had its more perverse social effects, where unemployment rates are the highest and where the political system has lost most of its social legitimization. But it seemed that, at least for two days, this was something people could forget about. It seemed as if people could, once again, feel proud of their country.

But what about the way in which the government has strategically used this fleeting social amnesia? It is not a coincidence that the government decided to make public the new labour market reform the same day in which the Spanish team made its debut in the World Cup. It is not a coincidence the enormous amount of money invested in this victory.

And I ask myself again, what’s the real social power of football in contemporary societies? How can we feel proud of a country that it is being socially devastated? Maybe we, as anthropologist, should start asking people what football really means to them so as to know more deeply the social implications it has. It seems to be much more than just football, more than just mere business….

Categories: context, International

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

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

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.”

Categories: context, Ethnography, Process