Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]

Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new year with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Ethnography Suck?” where she described academics’ critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate. In her second post, Sam proffered methods for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In this, her final post, Sam discusses how to maintain reflexivity in ethnographic practice.

Maintaining Research Quality Through Reflexivity

In his wonderful short book On the Internet, Hubert Dreyfus (2009) argues that online learning differs from face-to-face in one significant way: online learners are physically removed from the learning environment, making it hard for them to feel their discomfort physically. Dreyfus argues that this discomfort is a key aspect to learning; we must be uncomfortable to learn.

If discomfort is learning, then ethnography offers a wealth of learning opportunities!  Ethnography necessarily entails becoming immersed in that which you study. This immersion presents a wonderful – if sometimes uncomfortable – opportunity to continuously improve research. Immersion means you are “out of your element” and a guest in someone else’s location, be it their home, office, garage, or local grocery store. You are going to make mistakes. But these very mistakes provide an opportunity for both corporate and academic ethnographers to reflect on their practice.

Uncomfortable Immersion

In her ethnography of the Inuit, anthropologist Jean Briggs (1970) became the “adopted daughter” of an Inuit family. In her isolation and culture shock, Briggs found her temper to be short, which for the Inuit was considered both childish and rude. During one incident, she got angry at nearby White Canadians who had broken an Inuit canoe. Much to her surprise, the Inuit did not approve of her righteous anger, but in fact socially ostracized her for an agonizing 3 months. Only after a local priest revealed her original defensive intentions did the community grudgingly welcome her back.

How do we know about this awkward and disillusioning experience? Because Briggs herself writes about it in her ethnography Never in Anger. After having lost her temper publicly, she was ashamed of her transgression and the effect it had on her fieldwork.

It may seem that Briggs’ experience was an “ethnographic failure,” but in fact, this was a triumph. Her honest admission about her experience took courage. She used this failure to understand the culture of her participants, instead of simply giving up and moving back south. She reflected about her position and how she differed from her participants. She thought about her assumptions that lead to her mistake. She thought about the shame she felt.  In the process, she came to deeply understand the Inuit’s conception of emotion. Briggs was practicing “reflexivity” or the act of looking back at oneself in the role of “researcher.” This kind of systematic reflection was a radical departure for social scientists. It was feminists and our own Canadian Dorothy Smith who drew attention to our “standpoint”: where do you stand? What can you see from that perspective? What can you NOT see?

I myself had a similar (if less dramatic experience than Briggs’) in my corporate ethnographic practice. I was interviewing a participant about his professional practice and the challenges that he had experienced over the years. Toward the end of my visit with him, he mentioned a company that had pulled out of a partnership with him – the very company that had sponsored my research. I told him this and he became visibly upset and now asked to end the interview.  I left the participant’s office and immediately called my colleague to discuss the experience. I had made a mistake. What could I learn from this?

Learning From Mistakes: The Post Mortem

My colleague and I employed one method of reflection: the post-mortem. We discussed the ethical implications. Had I exposed this man to harm? Had I failed to give informed consent? We concluded that no, I had not. I had not broken any ethical commitments, but I did gather important insight. I had never disguised the corporate nature of my work to this participant, but had hoped to hear the participant’s untainted view before revealing my client’s name. Upon revealing the client, I got even more insight. In the end, I reported to my client that participants’ opinions of their company were often based on experiences with people and not based on mere “marketing messages.” Their people could elicit good or bad experiences to potential customers. This was an important finding, one borne out of my discomfort with upsetting a participant.

The Written Review

Another method ethnographers can employ is the written review. Ethnographers can “write their experience” and work through some of the ideas and feelings that emerged through their emotional experiences in fieldwork. This can be done in a deeply academic way as McCorkel and Myers do in their rigorous questioning of their own past research projects (McCorkel & Myers, 2003). Or it can be done in an informal way through blogging about the experience (with appropriate anonymity controls), or by writing emails to your immediate research team. If privacy is paramount, ethnographers can write privately in a journal. Any written method will work, as long as the ethnographer works to actively reflect on his or her emotional reaction to the mistake, and what role their cultural differences may have played in creating the mistake.

The Shame Attack

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, social work professor Brené Brown suggests that the “shame attack” can only harm you if you actively hide it from yourself and others. She tells her readers to actively “name the shame” by telling others about what happened. She coaches readers to recognize the signs of the shame attack – the flushed cheeks, the racing heartbeat – and to see that this is an opportunity to learn about oneself. A corporate or academic ethnographer can use this concept to improve his or her own practice. The constant reassessment of one’s own practice should be a ritualized and consistent event, either through regular post mortems or writing.

It may be uncomfortable. It definitely takes courage. But reflexivity is an opportunity to improve research findings and ultimately, your own practice.

Featured image by ecotist on Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivatives 2.0 license

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6 Responses to “Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]”

  1. February 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    I enjoyed the insightful post and for covering a lot of ground in a fairly short amount of space (people have written books about reflexivity!). I’d like to quickly–and admittedly superficially–raise explicitly what most of your suggestions raise implicitly: the potential for collaborative research practice to help generate reflexive awareness of our roles in the research process.

    When working under a tight deadline, it’s difficult to spend those extra hours doing the kind of writing and analysis that helps to produce the kind of reflexive awareness, and then insight, that you stress. But, working with someone side-by-side who can ask you about your decisions or whom you can explain yourself to as you go along can be quite eye-opening. Building in quick reporting mechanisms where spending a few sentences talking about yourself along side reporting on findings/analysis/etc. is another aspect of holding yourself accountable, not just to participants, but to colleagues as well.

    Collaborative research, as implied by the ideas in this post, is a shortcut to how we might go about trying to objectify ourselves, even if it’s only fleeting, and achieving the kind of reflexivity you are writing about. Thanks again!

    • Sam Ladner
      February 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

      Hi Dan,

      This is so awesome I can hardly stand it. YES! Our colleagues are the best source of reflexivity, particularly in corporate or design ethnography because we tend to work in teams. Academic ethnographers (like Briggs) tend to get isolated and while they’re long on time, they’re short on collaborators.

      I encourage ethnographers to work in teams, if at all possible. Sometimes it’s not possible. And that’s okay. Sometimes you’re not going to have time to reflect either. That is also okay. But being ritualistic with post mortems (mortae?) and regular writing will definitely help.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!

  2. March 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Hi Sam,

    I would just like to say thanks for a great series of articles. I’ll be passing on some of your wisdom (with ) at this months UPA meeting in London if that’s okay with you.

    I think Bronislaw Malinowski is a great example to us all by getting personally involved.

    • Sam Ladner
      March 9, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

      Hi Simon,

      I’m delighted you got something from my posts! Please, by all means, tell the UPA folks all about it. I very much want usability professionals to know about culture and cultural research.

  3. Carlo
    March 9, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Hi Sam,

    thank you very much for 3 great articles: concise, pragmatic and well-written. Very useful to understand how to mitigate the issues when doing ethnography in the corporate world. I am just a bit puzzled about the finding you use as an example related to your post-mortem exercise. To me it seems quite clear and probably almost universally true that persons do influence the opinion one can have of a company. No matter the company spends tons of money on marketing, if one of its representative treats me badly or makes me feel uncomfortable my opinion of the company will be affected by the bad personal experience. I think it is true in many many contexts, from door-to-door selling to consultancy, from fast food to religion.
    Or maybe there is something more behind that I cannot grasp?

    Thanks again.

    • Sam Ladner
      March 10, 2012 at 12:15 am #

      Hi Carlo,

      No I think you’re not missing anything! What was missing was a real understanding, by my client, that “marketing” isn’t enough. They need real people doing real things. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t. Common sense gets lost inside organizations sometimes.

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