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Old school ethnographers moving to online research

August 3, 2020 Leave a comment

In early 2019, one of our clients asked us to do an interview and video diary study for them entirely online. We were open to the idea but a little skeptical. We had never done online research before and it seemed almost sacrilege to go against the long tradition of ethnographers immersing themselves, physically, in the research setting. We wondered exactly how far removed it would it be from our typical work. The interviews would lack much of the context of an in-person interview, and that is a real sacrifice. Still, we reasoned that if we weren’t getting much contextual, observational data from the interviews, we’d still be getting it through online video diaries. We had done similar video diaries for years where we send our participants cameras and ask them to document their lives, and we never doubted the soundness of these diaries. After all, Sol Worth and his colleagues were doing similar work over 50 years ago, handing their film cameras over to their participants to make movies. It isn’t much of a stretch to argue that video diaries, whether you’re using film, a camcorder, or a mobile phone, is an established ethnographic method.

After a little hemming and hawing, we decided that although nothing beats doing research in context, we could still get great data online by approaching it ethnographically. Once we actually got the project up and running, we were pleasantly surprised at just how good that data could be. This article will explore some of the practical and methodological challenges we experienced during our first foray into online research, and why we believe that ethnography online is a great option when in-person research may not be practical.

Diving in

Diving into this new way of doing research was a little stressful. With ethnography you want to feel like you’re at least in control of the process since what we’re studying, real life, is often so chaotic. Some of the transition to online research was easy. Participants typically go through a screener prior to the research so we can make sure they’re a good fit for the project. With our in-person research, we do this over the phone and often, at least parts of it, through an online questionnaire. Moving this screener entirely online was just a matter of learning the ins and outs of this new platform’s questionnaire tool. Transitioning to online interviewing was fairly easy too. Some nonverbal cues are different when talking to someone online, but being longtime users of Facetime, Skype, and the like, we adapted quickly.

Other aspects of moving our process online proved a little more challenging. Creating the video diary guide required a reset in our thinking. Where we typically could ask anything in a video diary guide, we had to be a little choosier—the particular platform we were using allowed only a certain number of open-ended video questions so we had to design the questions carefully make sure our data was as rich and as ethnographic as possible. We could fill in the blanks with text-based questions for the more straightforward data, but it took some consideration to construct the guide in a way that produced data that was as full of the vitality we’re accustomed to and that our clients expect from us.

There was a learning curve with the technology too. The vast majority of our sample had never used the platform and despite its general ease of use, tech issues did arise. When participants ran into a snag, they tended to come to us and not the platform’s official support channels. This was fine, but it caused a shift in our communication with participants. Typically, our interactions with diary participants are mostly about what they should be recording and when they should be sending back their memory cards. Although we were still having conversations about content and timing, we also were spending more time providing tech support. We relied on our contact at the platform to help with tech issues at first, but after a while we were able to address most questions ourselves.

The limitations

With the platform we used, each video that participants recorded could only be two minutes long. This limitation can be problematic and was a main reason we had strayed from online video diaries in the past. Our video diaries typically include activities like, “Show us every time you do this,” and this project was no exception. Luckily doing “this” was using our client’s device—something that would typically take less than two minutes to do. In contrast, if we wanted them to show us how they prepare dinner, we might have had an issue (unless a frozen pizza was on the menu). Other online platforms allow you to record more than two minutes at a time, but if we needed a diary that included long stretches of recording whole acts, sending participants camcorders might be the better option.

The other major limitation with doing research online is obvious—you’re not there. Here, having the observational data from the video diaries is a life saver, but if you are just doing online interviews? You can still collect a little contextual data by having your participant do a “show and tell” or take you on a house tour if you’re using a platform that supports mobile devices. There’s also no harm in just relying more on interview data. It’s hard to argue against the value of observational research, but there is a lot of insight to be gained through interviews alone.

The benefits

After getting past the learning curve and getting a handle on some of the limitations, we believe online research provides incredible value. Here are a few of its advantages.

Speed. In theory you could decide to do research in the morning and have data coming in by that afternoon, compared to a traditional, camcorder diary where it takes a participant a couple of days to get a camera, they record for a period of time and then we only get their recordings back a couple of days after they drop their memory cards off at FedEx. Online research is much faster.

Participant progression. Since you can see data as it comes in, you can give participants direction if they aren’t recording the quantity or types of entries you need. You can send them a friendly note offering advice and reminding them to stay on track. Online research also allows for in-the-moment follow-ups on their recordings to dig deeper.

Although ethnographers aren’t inclined to like set, structured questions, the structure of online research is another way that ensures that participants are progressing and recording the kinds of data you need them to. These platforms typically have a series of questions for the participants to complete, and the researcher can tell exactly what they’ve done and what they still need to do. It might lead the participant to mentally tick off a box and not record more than they might have otherwise, but it also ensures they tick off that box to begin with.

Client involvement. Clients can be more involved in online studies. Attending in-person research might not always be practical, but online research is more accessible since no travel is required. The data from online video diaries is also immediately available to clients, and they can interact directly with diary participants if that’s something they want to do. As insiders to their business, they’ll have different perspectives and questions than we do as ethnographers. They might see participants use their products in ways or contexts they’ve never seen before and want to learn more about their motives and rationales. Online research makes that easy.

Although nothing can replace in-person research for us, old school ethnographers, we see tremendous value in doing research online. You can still meet real people, hear their stories, and observe them going about their daily lives, even if it might come in shorter snippets. We always say that ethnography is more of an approach to understanding than a specific method, and if online platforms allow us to get a real-life, inductive glimpse into people’s lives, isn’t that the point?

Categories: context, Ethnography, Process

Forming connections in the field: Three case studies on the bonds that ethnography builds

July 21, 2020 Leave a comment

The bonds ethnographers make with their participants can come in unexpected ways. Years ago I was in Australia studying hair loss, and my participant’s apartment looked like it would be walkable from the hotel. This was back when we used paper maps, and I would measure distance by how many thumb-widths point A was from point B. What I thought might be a twenty-minute walk turned out to be more like an hour jog in the Sydney heat, so I showed up late, sweaty, and panting like a dog. Fortunately, the guy was as nice as could be, and it ended up being very rich, surprisingly intimate fieldwork. As much as I’d like to, I can’t really attribute that to my highly refined skills and astute questions. Rather, I think that by arriving a disheveled mess, by showing this very human side of myself, it gave him free rein to do the same.

That day we connected over dripping sweat and blistered toes, but often our bonds with participants are deeper and longer lasting. It’s only natural that ethnographers in academia who spend years with the people they’re studying might build these bonds, but it can happen in business ethnography too, where we might only have a few hours with participants. You don’t always develop intimacy with participants, and it isn’t always necessary in order to walk away with good data, but it’s still great when it happens.

All ethnographers, including my co-workers at Ethnographic Research, Inc. will likely have similar stories of the connections they’ve made in the field. Here are a few of mine, along with a few ideas of how the methods and contexts of ethnography might have fueled the bond-building.

Watching fireworks with the Wilsons

A travel and leisure company hired us to understand families on vacation—a fun topic for sure. We did all of the fieldwork in Orlando, going to both the lesser-known attractions, like the Titanic Museum and the Holy Land Experience (a religious theme park), to the bigger names like Universal and Disney World. Our job was to become ethnographic tourists and temporary members of the families in the sample, popping in for participant observation multiple times throughout their trips. I was “Uncle Steve, the one that keeps staring at us.”

Each family was great, but I really bonded with one in particular, the Wilsons. The mom, Marianne, has a personality that can light up a room and is one of the funniest people I’ve met. The dad, Paul, is much more reserved, the “strong and silent” type. He had fun, but I always got the sense that his biggest joy was seeing his family have a good time. Marianne and Paul have two teenage daughters: both good, smart kids who share their parents’ love of all things Disney. They are the kind of people who would have gotten along with anybody, but we really hit it off. On our last day, together we hung out for hours longer than we were slotted for so they could show me Epcot’s fireworks show, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. We still send each other Disney-themed Christmas cards every year.

Why did we get on well? The Wilsons were very friendly and that’s certainly helpful, but there’s probably more to it. We got along well with all of the families in the sample, probably more so than a typical project. Some of it might have been transference: we were observing one of the happiest times of the year for the families, and those good feelings about their vacations became good feelings about us ethnographers along the way.

The context also provided the families an ideal “looking glass self,” a way of gauging how they think they appear to others. With an ethnographer at your side, you might be more self-reflective, more aware of how this outsider is perceiving you and your kids. Sometimes this can be a good thing, sometimes not so good. On vacation, your family might put aside its typical troubles for a few days, everyone might stop quibbling for a minute. Seeing the ethnographer there, observing you and your family in all of its glory, can feel great. You might think, “Yeah, we are pretty awesome.” Still, not all of the trips were as fun and fancy-free as the Wilson’s trip. Some continued to quibble and some didn’t leave their problems at home—those families don’t send me Christmas cards.

Gaining mana in game shops

A games company wanted to learn about teenage boys who were into collectible card games (CCGs) like Pokémon and Magic the Gathering so we dove headfirst into the fascinating world of the local game shops they hung out at. More than just retail stores, these shops were gathering places where people played all varieties of games: mainly CCGs, strategy games like Warhammer, and tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. The shops served as many players’ core social hubs, where they went to be with their friends, chill out, and have fun.

Although I didn’t keep in touch with the participants I met during the study, they welcomed me into their world with open arms, and I became a part of their groups remarkably fast. I did the weekly Friday Night Magic events with my pedestrian starter decks and won a game or two. I competed in a Pokémon tournament and lost miserably. Dungeons and Dragons is hard for a newcomer to jump into without grinding everything to a halt, so we just sat in on those sessions. All in all, they enjoyed us being there, and we enjoyed it too, the culture and the games themselves—I still play Magic to this day.

But why did we have these synergies? Simply showing interest went a long way. Collectible card games serve a niche audience and CCG players don’t have many people outside of their inner group willing to talk about games with them. I know I’d be thrilled if someone asked me how my Ooze deck was coming along.

The research was also a great example of something we talk about a lot: the value of letting the participant know they’re the expert. There was a distinct hierarchy at the shops. There were the adults and older teenagers who had been playing these games for years and were often more skilled and had more expendable income to spend on the best cards. The old timers often mentored the younger kids (our primary participants), teaching them the ropes, raising the next generation of CCG players. Our arrival meant that the younger kids could turn the tables. The students became the masters, and we became their students. That sort of role switching can be fun and empowering for a kid.

Henry and his chauffeur

A pharmaceutical company hired us to learn about the experiences of people living with schizophrenia. The plan was to see each participant four times times over the course of a year, but I ended up hanging out with one participant, Henry, for several years (until he passed away). When we met Henry, he was living in a transitional home in a rough part of Kansas City. His thoughts could be hard to follow at times, so we never really did any sort of formal interviewing with him. Instead we learned through observation, experiencing his very unique life alongside him.

Henry was a character: charismatic, a 24/7 Lothario, kind of a hustler, but an all-around good guy. Henry walked most places out of necessity, so when we first showed up, we weren’t so much researchers to him, we were a ride. I couldn’t count how many times I drove him to Dollar General and the smoke shop so he could resupply. As time went by, our destinations expanded, and I never knew what I was in store for when he invited me out to lunch. Cigarettes and snacks continued to be on the docket, but we might go to sell some stuff at the pawn shop. We might go to see one of his girlfriends (who had interesting stories too). One time I even took him to vote (and saw how problematic voter access can be).

With Henry, the bonds of fieldwork might have had an economic origin (I had a car and paid for lunch), but he developed a genuine fondness for not only for me but my co-workers, Melinda and Shalonda too. It was probably a rare treat for someone to be as attentive to him as we were, for someone to really listen and care about what he had to say.

Henry’s situation was unique but regardless of who you are or where you’re from, it is unusual for people to show you the sort of genuine interest that’s central to an ethnographer’s work. Whether we’re asking someone about their life story or how they do their laundry, the “it’s all about you” focus of an ethnographer is refreshing and makes fieldwork wide open to these kinds of bond-building moments. Ethnographers don’t necessarily remove themselves from the environments they work in, rather they work to help others shine, to share themselves in ways they often do not. Part of it is simply people “clicking” with other people, but there is also some special magic in the ethnographic context—our methods produce a setting ripe for the kinds of deep connections that develop between us and the people we learn from.

Categories: Ethnography, Process

Analysis at Ethnographic Research, Inc.

July 13, 2020 Leave a comment

Analysis is a sacred and labor-intensive element of our work at Ethnographic Research, Inc. Sometimes we hear about ethnography timelines that have reporting slotted just a couple of days after the end of fieldwork and we aren’t sure how that is even possible. Ethnography is about bringing people and culture to life; it gets to the heart of what’s really going on with a depth that is simply impossible to achieve in a couple of days. Good ethnography offers what Clifford Geertz called “thick descriptions.” More than just reporting some top of mind ideas, it goes much deeper into context and culture. To get there, we rely on (1) analytical rigor, (2) theory, and finally, (3) years and years of experience.

1.    Analytical rigor

Doing analysis right takes a lot of work and a lot of time. We spend around six hours doing analysis for every hour of video we collect, and we collect tons of video. We often provide some “early insights” to clients who need something to work from immediately, but to do a complete analysis that makes the most of the data? That takes time.

Still, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend doing analysis if you don’t spend it wisely, so we use methods like Glaser and Strauss’s Grounded Theory, an inductive approach to analysis where data is coded and categorized until insights begin to emerge. People tend to picture analysis as this magical process where a wild-eyed, crazy-haired social scientist is thumbing through notes and watching video until some brilliant idea pops in their head. And yes, there are “Eureka!” moments (and sometimes crazy hair), but in reality, we follow fairly structured steps. If we didn’t, those big ideas might never show up and if they did, we wouldn’t be sure that they were trustworthy.

2.    Theory

Our team is academically trained in ethnography, and we learned that using theory to help inform research is not only helpful, it is required. It just makes sense. Brilliant minds have been wrestling with similar topics for years. It would be silly not to take advantage of that, and although we’re all sociologists by training, we also use theory from anthropology, psychology, and sometimes economics and philosophy.

Our use of theory has a meaningful impact on our results. It is vital in making sense of data, and it helps so much in understanding the social and cultural drivers behind the behaviors we observe. Research that ignores culture comes out flat. For social scientists, by definition, if you want to understand people, you have to look at the society and culture they live in: the people they interact with, the institutions they are a part of, the information they consume, and any other outside influence that shapes the way they see the world. Theory provides the scaffolding for organizing and understanding all of that data.

3.    Years of experience.

Ethnographic Research, Inc. opened its doors back in 2001, long before the iPhone, long before Facebook. Back when we started, ethnographers didn’t do in-homes, they did in-caves.

We’ve been observing people in-context for nearly twenty years, and we’ve picked up a few things along the way. This gives us a leg up whenever we start a new project—we go in with a strong understanding of how households have evolved over the last couple of decades and can use this to give projects an analytical jumpstart. We can approach new topics with a certain maturity and sophistication that would have been impossible were we just starting out. For instance, we do a lot of work studying how illnesses impact people’s daily lives. We’ve studied the daily lives of people with cancer, heart disease, arthritis, chronic pain, lupus, epilepsy, and many others. When someone comes to us wanting to learn about the patient experience of a condition we haven’t studied, like multiple sclerosis, we have all of this past work to help us learn, right away, what is unique and different about living with MS.

This experience is just as helpful for our other projects too. We have years of experience watching people shop, work, cook, groom, clean, play, parent, travel, and more. This allows us to place our research topic into a much larger database of insights into daily life habits and rituals. It helps us in every aspect of the journey that is ethnography. We can avoid common pitfalls in sampling and recruiting, we can get the most out of our in-home visits, and our analytical processes are refined and streamlined. We have also learned that it is our analytical processes that add the most value for our clients. All of the time and rigor we give to analysis are absolutely necessary when your research aims for deep, rich insights.

Developing empathy and understanding with ethnography

July 6, 2020 Leave a comment

The political divide in the United States has been a stark reminder of how people can experience and interpret the world in very different ways. No matter what side you are on, it can be hard to see where the other side is coming from, what they’re feeling, and what drives them to think and do what they do. Developing this sort of empathy is essential to ethnography and to each part of our research process. We need empathy to ensure that we gather data that is deep and trustworthy. We need empathy to help us organize and sort that data in a way that accurately reflects the experiences and viewpoints of our participants. We need empathy to hold ourselves and our clients accountable and grounded during the reporting phases of our work. Still, maintaining empathy is sometimes easier said than done. Although most of the time we can connect with people and their stories right away, sometimes we just can’t relate to their experiences and viewpoints. Let’s explore some ways that ethnographers can develop empathy and understanding, especially in contexts where those might be hard to come by.

History, physical space, and relationships

Spending time with people is obviously the first step for ethnographers. Developing empathy is typically just a matter of really listening and hanging out with participants, trying to walk in their shoes as much as we can. Usually this goes a long way towards gaining insight into their perspectives. Even if it isn’t directly related to what we’re studying, investing time to learn a little bit about where they come from and about the context of their daily life pays dividends in helping us walk away with an empathetically grounded understanding of our research topic.

Touring a participant’s home or workspace provides another great opportunity to build empathy. Going room to room, sharing stories about their recent purchases and favorite belongings, there’s a good chance that we will run into something that will help us understand what their life is like and what’s really important to them.

We also try to involve our participants’ friends and families in the process whenever we can. They may show a different side of themselves when they’re playing with their kids or when they’re talking shop with a colleague. This can help us see them in a whole new light. People play many different roles in their lives, and the more roles we can observe, the more complete our understanding will be.

Public discourse, media, and marketing

We can also build empathy if we step back and look at the impact of the larger cultural context on our participants’ attitudes and actions. Macro sources of behaviors and beliefs are often ignored, but they can be quite powerful in molding and shaping individuals. Tracing the influences of marketing messages, information sources, government systems, religious structures, and social media all help us gain a better understanding of who our participants are.

We usually do this through “contextual mapping.” This means we examine how what we’re studying is represented in public discourse. If we want to understand cat owners, for example, we’ll dive into social media to see how cat care is discussed. We’ll survey ads about cat care, looking at the messages they convey and the symbols they use. We’ll explore the world of cat care influencers, like Jackson Galaxy, to see what they’re teaching others. We’ll also watch lots of cute cat videos just for the heck of it, but the goal is to understand how all of this background noise impacts and shapes people with cats in their lives. Contextual mapping would help even the most die-hard “dog person” empathize with their cat-loving neighbors.

Colleagues and theory

When we’re having trouble getting our heads around what’s going on with our participants, sometimes it helps to get another perspective. Getting a colleague’s input is great. Sometimes we need someone else to remind us to be more empathetic and to stop letting our own baggage get in the way. Social science theory also helps us reposition our thinking and see our data and our participants from a different angle. As odd as it may seem, reading theory can even help when the theory has nothing to do with the research topic. You can read Foucault when you’re studying paper towels, and it still might spark a big idea. Theory is an ethnographer’s yoga—it resets your mind and leads you straight towards empathy and enlightenment.

Induction and reflexivity

A good ethnographer is always working inductively, but sometimes we put the cart before the horse and start making assumptions. This can prevent us from developing empathy and getting at the heart of what’s going on with our data. If this happens, we need to take a deep breath and brush off those assumptions as quickly as we can.

The whole process requires self-reflection. When what someone thinks or does seems a little confusing, we try to remind ourselves that our thoughts or actions would probably be just as confusing to them. If we continue to have trouble understanding someone’s behaviors or motives, there’s a decent chance that we might be our own roadblock; a prejudice of one sort or another might be standing in our way. It helps to take an inventory of our own beliefs and practices, being critical of their origins and how they shape our viewpoints. This is a key step in developing empathy. If we want to walk in the shoes of the people we’re trying to learn from, we’ve got to take our own shoes off first.

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.

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?’

Getting real: Life IS messy!

March 27, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Getting to two cups of tea

March 13, 2012 6 comments

A few years ago we were hired to observe doctors and nurses inserting central venous catheters in hospitals and clinics in order to identify opportunities for reducing the possibility of infection.  We had been working on the project for a few months and had observed in several areas within hospitals and clinics, but were really needing to understand how things might be different in the pre-surgery area of hospitals.  We had worked hard to go through all of the proper channels and had finally secured permission to observe in the pre-surgery area.  We had institutional review board permission and had spoken to the nurse in charge of the pre-surgery area several times and thought we were ready to go.

We arrived at the hospital bright and early, excited for our first day of fieldwork.   After meeting the head nurse and being given a tour of the area, I asked who actually did the catheter insertions in the pre-surgery area and was told that the department of anesthesiology did the insertions.  I asked if they had been informed about what we were doing and was told ‘I don’t think so.’  Years of experience washed over me as I realized this was NOT GOOD, so I headed for an impromptu meeting with the chair of the anesthesiology department.  He was cordial and listened intently about the goals of our project and the process we had gone through to obtain permission.  When I was finished, he exploded.  He let me know that this was just the latest in a long line of events that proved how little his department was valued by the hospital.  He assured me that he didn’t hold me responsible and told me that I seemed like a very nice lady.  BUT he could not allow us to observe any catheter insertions on that day because he needed to do some research, see who had dropped the ball and inform the other doctors about what was going on.  He promised to touch base with me later to update me.  That afternoon, I received a call from the department chair’s assistant telling me we were cleared to observe insertions the next day. She said a memo had been sent out and everyone would be expecting us.  I was thankful to only have lost one day of fieldwork.

The next morning, we arrived at the hospital early and when the first catheter insertion hit the floor we were ready. We had asked permission of the patient and the resident who was doing the insertion.  We were in the middle of the insertion when the attending physician walked in and motioned for us to step into the hall.  He asked what we were doing and I told him it was fine, we had permission from the chair of the department and that there had been a memo circulated about the matter.  He informed me that he had read the memo and asked me if I had (I had not).  He pointed out that the memo clearly stated we were not allowed to observe residents.  My heart sank.  I walked outside and called the chair of the department who was working off-site on that day.  It was then that I discovered the value of inserting someone’s name during a reprimand.  Dr. X said ‘I hold you responsible, Melinda.’  ‘You should have read the memo, Melinda’ (I hadn’t been given a copy of the memo). ‘I will call you later to discuss whether we can work this out.’  We left the hospital completely deflated.  We had now lost two full days of insertion observation, approximately 24 hours of data collection.  That afternoon, the department chair called me and told me we could return the next day.  His assistant had forwarded me the memo and we reviewed the perimeters and rules of our observation.  I took some Advil and tried to refocus my thoughts.

On the third day, we arrive at the hospital earlier than before, we wanted to get settled in and be ready for any and all opportunities for insertion observation.  On that day, because the caseload was low, there was only one doctor performing insertions.  It just so happened this was the same doctor who had exposed us on the second day and he was NOT interested in participating in our study. We again spent the entire day observing the comings and goings of the pre-surgery area, but no catheter insertions.

On the fourth day, we returned, hoping against hope that things would be better.  The first few doctors doing insertions declined to participate in our study, so we had another couple of hours to make general observations.  I was beginning to panic.  What if we didn’t get to see any insertions.  How was I going to explain THAT to the client.  Just before noon, one of the doctors came and sat down next to me and asked me to explain exactly what we were doing.  I gave him my 3-minute elevator pitch on our work, the project, etc.  He seemed to relax a little bit and asked me if I had ever read the book ‘Three Cups of Tea’.  I told him I had not and he gave me a quick overview of the book.  He explained that it was written by a guy who got sick while mountain climbing and was forced to remain in a village with strangers until he recovered.  The title of the book came from the Balti proverb that explains how tea rituals move you from stranger status (first cup) to honored guest (second cup), and then to family member (third cup).  The doctor patted me on the back and said he had just wanted to share that idea with me and then invited me to watch him do an insertion.  For the rest of the afternoon and into the next day, my partner and I couldn’t keep up with the insertions that we were invited to observe.  We were invited to watch virtually all of the insertions that were happening on the floor and were also invited to watch insertions that occurred in other departments and in patients’ rooms.  We were invited into the break room and asked to have lunch with a few doctors.  We ended up with more instances of observation and interviews than we had originally planned.

As I left the hospital on the last day, I was relieved and excited to begin the process of breaking my observations down and figuring out the patterns that separated catheter insertion in the pre-surgery area from the other areas that we had observed.  But it wasn’t until a few days later as I was reviewing my fieldnotes from the first three days that that I realized what a wonderful gift I had been given by things not going according to plan.  I had been given the opportunity to observe the context of the pre-surgery area for hours without having to focus on the technical aspects of catheter insertion.  I had noted a lot about the patterns of interaction and the flow and movement of patients and staff within the pre-surgery area.  This allowed me to really place my specific observations about the challenges that doctors faced in inserting catheters in the pre-surgery area into a more understandable context.

When I reached the point in my fieldnotes where I had written about the doctor telling me about ‘Three Cups of Tea’, I realized that there had been a hidden message.  At the time, I thought he was telling me about the book because I was a sociologist and he thought I would appreciate the story.  It was only later that I realized that by telling me the story, he was inviting me to my second cup of tea.  While sitting in the pre-surgery area for days, we had become a fixture and had transcended the ‘stranger’ status and became if not an honored guest, at least an ‘okay observer’ (as evidenced by the number of invitations we received for observation and interviews).

This experience taught me two things:  1) Never forget to look for the opportunities that are presented when things go wrong.   2)  Remember how different your access and perspective is when you are having the first cup of tea versus the second cup of tea.  And always try to get to the second cup of tea before leaving the field.

I’m often asked if it is really possible to do ‘real’ ethnography while working within the kinds of timelines that working in business contexts require.   That conversation will be saved for another blog post, but for now I will say that it is often possible to get to the second cup of tea pretty quickly if you are a skilled ethnographer.  In fact, I’m often at two cups of tea within the first few hours of spending time with someone.  You would be really surprised how much rapport and intimacy can be built when someone realizes that you really ARE interested in their story.

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.

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.