DREaM event 2: Introduction to ethnography
Dr Paul Lynch from the University of Strathclyde presented a workshop session providing an introduction to ethnography at the the first DREaM workshop on 25th October 2011.
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Lynch defined ethnography as the study of people in cultures, and the text written based on that study. He quoted Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater, who described culture as “an invisible web of behaviours,” and noted that we are often in danger of looking at other cultures through our own world view. Ethnographic study requires that we unpack our own cultural baggage and allow ourselves to investigate phenomenon in their natural setting in order to collect what he described as “naturally occurring data.” This method is particularly useful where behaviours and interactions need to be understood in their real world contexts.
Lynch outlined the practicalities of fieldworking, which involves close looking and listening skills, and is often much likened to people watching. He observed that programmes like Big Brother can make us all into amateur ethnographers, but we need to bring a systematic approach to our observations and listening skills as we study people and their customs.
Lynch detailed the techniques associated with participant observation, including overt and covert observation, when a researcher joins the study culture to record observations as field notes. He highlighted the challenges for the researcher as they consider what to select and capture whilst they are immersed within a culture. He noted that capturing field notes close to the event without being obvious can be a particular problem, with some researchers reporting that they have to excuse themselves and go to the toilet in order to record observations without attracting notice. He also discussed the issue of contamination, and recommended serious consideration to determine whether a study should be overt or covert. Covert observation has inherent ethical issues, so there needs to be a strong justification for a study to be conducted covertly.
Lynch spent some time discussing note taking techniques, including free writing and free talking, which encourage researchers to effectively download their thoughts for analysis at a later stage, without filtering them in anyway. He observed that our interpretive skills may create parody when we make notes in this way, but this is not a problem. You want to capture the emotions and feelings you have at the time, as when you analyse that data later you will be removed from the culture. Lynch described his own observational research within the tourism sector and the work of one of his research students, who lived the life of a chef, including the cuts and burns and long hours, all of which were an integral part of the culture he was studying and needed to be recorded to obtain a more complete picture.
Lynch emphasised that ethnography involves making the familiar seem strange when we are studying our own culture, and making the strange seem familiar when analysing others. However, we need to be cognisant of our own bias, making personal reflexivity really critical. Lynch warned that our own politics of identity can surface as an influence on our research, so he would expect to see personal reflection included in any write up using this method.
This led to a discussion of the issues associated with writing up an ethnographic study, which involves objectively reconstructing data from the raw observations. He stressed that it is important to recognise that we are focussing on the interpretation of social meaning which may involve multiple versions of writing. One may often have to give different interpretations for different audiences, and consider the feelings of the study subjects and the story they want to tell about their own culture.
Lynch concluded by observing that many of the issues he described during his presentation may not be evident at the design phase of the research, so it is important to recognise that fieldwork often involves reworking your plan as what is important to study emerges from the research.
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