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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.

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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.

Hitting the Mark

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday I spent three hours with a local realtor considered a key opinion leader in her field.

Towards the end of our time together, she gave me one of the biggest compliments you can give an ethnographer. “I forgot you were filming. You got me eating,” she said. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but toot toot! In fieldwork, it’s really important that we are as unobtrusive as possible. Because that’s how we learn what we learn!

Just in case you’re wondering, here are some indicators you are hitting the mark in fieldwork:

“I forgot you were here.” I had a nurse say this to me after I had been shadowing her all day to learn how she administered chemotherapy to patients.

“My husband doesn’t know about those.”
Sometimes family members will share things with us they don’t even share with each other. We were actually there for the moment a husband told his wife of more than 30 years that he had overactive bladder. He had kept it from her for a long time, and she was a nurse!

“Let me show you.” It’s really important that we see what our participants are talking about, so having them show us how they do something means a lot more than having them simply tell us.

“Oh yeah, I forgot about the money.” There is an incentive involved for our participants. It’s not a lot, but it does thank them for allowing us to spend time in their lives. We can’t tell you how many times at the end of fieldwork this has happened.

“This was fun. I never get to talk about myself!” Every one has a story to tell, and most people actually thank us for letting them share about themselves without dominating the conversation.

Categories: Ethnography, Interview

Taking It All in Stride: An Ethnographer’s Guide to Grace in the Field

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

We had just finished spending two hours with a handsome, lovely young couple in Boston for our study on facial hygiene. We got a tour of their home and spent a good chunk of our time in their bathroom as we got the skinny on how they each took care of their faces, how they organized the bathroom space and how they navigated the universe of cohabitation. We laughed heartily as they made plenty of jokes and told stories about boogers and nose picking. “I guess it’s good to know you pick your boogies with a Kleenex,” said the wife.

“Well this was fantastic fieldwork!” I thought to myself. Something just clicked with this couple. My colleague and I were excited about visiting them for our second round of fieldwork, which we would use to better understand the patterns that had started to emerge. For our first round we were getting a broad understanding of facial hygiene and how facial tissue fits into that. For the second, we would hone in on some of the themes that would be most beneficial to our client’s business objectives. It was a really fun project.

We gathered our little camera and engaged in the appropriate goodbye. I started out the door but it stuck. “Oh, you just have to give it a tug,” said the wife. In any participant’s home we take the path of least insistence, so I quickly moved out of the way to let her open her door. I certainly didn’t want to break anything. She opened the door. “Bye, thanks again!” I said, and I took a fervent step forward.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you feel like, “Hey, I’ve got it going on today. I look good, I feel good, I am the [wo]man!” only to trip on the sidewalk in a very compromising sort of way?

I do. My fervent step forward launched me head first into their screen door, the one I know existed because I opened it to walk into their house when we arrived. Like a caterpillar caught in a spiderweb, the more I tried to fight my way off the screen door the more my head, arms and legs entangled. I ripped the door, and not just the screen but the entire door, right off its frame.

Have you ever enjoyed that scene from the movie Old School where Will Ferrell gets shot in the neck with a horse tranquilizer dart and then falls in the pool? On his way down everything juuuuuussst ssssllllloooooows doooowwwnnnn. That’s what it felt like for me, because it was only 5 seconds of real time, if that, but I experienced a slow reel of humiliation.

My video camera, cell phone and tapes went flying. I fell flat on my face. “I’m so sorry, I will replace it!” came out of my mouth. My fellow ethnographer stood behind me next to the wife. “Are you ok?” they asked. I looked over at the husband, who stood wide-eyed in the doorway with a mixed expression of utter shock and stifled laughter.

I just kept repeating over and over, “We will replace this, I am so embarrassed.” And we all laughed and laughed. My fellow ethnographer grabbed me by the arm and we walked to the car. I couldn’t contain myself and once we got in the car, neither could she. She laughed for the next 15 minutes as she drove me back to my hotel in Brookline.

We replaced the screen door for our participant. And, they invited us back for the second round of our study. Talk about breaking down barriers to rapport!

Categories: Ethnography, Interview

You do what? Building Rapport with Participants

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

People often wonder how we’re able to go into people’s homes for several hours, with a video camera, and talk to them about their lives–not to mention that they are willing to show us inside their cupboards, trash cans and other spaces generally considered off-limits to the general public. We often get asked, “How do you get them to do it?”

Well, we don’t. At least we don’t ‘get’ anyone to do anything. Here’s the thing about ethnography and ethnographers. We genuinely are very, very interested in the people we visit, and we cherish what they have to tell and show us.

We’re not just interested in specific information about specific products or services. In ethnography we go into each experience with eyes and ears wide open, and without an agenda about what we expect to see, hear or experience. When we do that we get a whole lot of information that helps us really understand what our clients want to know. And if we did have expectations, the people we visit would surely pick up on that and not be as likely to share with us.

So if you want some tricks of the trade, we can share a few. It won’t necessarily make you an ethnographer, but it will help you understand the ethnographic approach.

1. Have a-wear-ness. If you show up to a participant’s house wearing dress slacks and a tie, you might not learn as much as you would have had you arrived in jeans and a sweater. On the flip side, show up to a physician’s office wearing those same jeans and you might not learn much at all. In ethnographic fieldwork aim to blend in to your surroundings. You’ll make people feel comfortable but also give yourself credibility as someone who can navigate different cultures.

2. Have a slice of humble pie. A lot of us are used to having to be the expert in daily life (how else would we do our jobs!). But when it comes to ethnography, our participants are the experts. Remember, we are trying to understand daily life to really get at how products and services are conceptualized and experienced. So what you may typically think of as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ just isn’t so during an ethnography. Stifle that urge to tell someone, “You’re not doing that right.” There’s no quicker way to stop a conversation dead in its tracks and trash the opportunity for learning.

3. They’re not subjects, they’re participants! We talk with and learn from the people we spend time with during an ethnography. Not the other way around. Remember, they are the experts.

4. We never, ever get carte blanche. Just because someone has invited us into her home, it doesn’t mean we have free reign. It’s not only impolite to wander off into spaces we haven’t received permission to see, it’s downright unethical. Especially when the use of video is involved. Honoring the privacy and confidentiality of our participants is important and something we take very very seriously.

5. Less said is best. If it’s done right, an ethnographic interview looks a lot like two people having a conversation over coffee. Normally when there is a pause in conversation people have a tendency to fill it with words. If you can resist the urge, your participant will likely tell you something you never would have known had you added your two sense.

Categories: Ethnography, Interview