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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.

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.

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