Friday, 4 October 2013

No one is so brave that (s)he is not disturbed by something unexpected by Jamie Lewis

“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a [wo]man still be brave if (s)he’s afraid?’
That is the only time a [wo]man can be brave,’ his father told him”
                George R.R.Martin, A Game of Thrones.

On the surface beginning a blog post with a quote from the increasingly popular A Game of Thrones, might appear a trifle odd. What does the HBO television series adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels have in common with a qualitative research methodology aimed at exploring cultural and social phenomena through detailed and prolonged observation? Well we could certainly make the argument that the portrayal of gender, ceremonies, rituals, clans, terrains, boundary disputes, identity and power are all points of interest for social scientists conducting ethnographic research. We could also make the argument that the ethnographer can learn important narrative skills from best-selling authors. They even have gatekeepers, in the literal sense, in the show. However, in this post, I would like to limit any crossover to Bran’s (a character in the show) question and his father’s reply. I do not however want to limit the sentiment behind the quote to just aspects of bravery on the battlefield (where a significant amount of action in A Game of Thrones happens). Rather, I wish to talk about bravery in the ethnographic field.

Ned Stark from A Game Of Thrones

In theory, ethnography can be done almost anywhere – in a hospital, in a prison, in a laboratory, in a park, in the city, by the seaside, in nightclubs or at sporting arenas. All of these spaces are fields for the ethnographer. There are significant differences between these sites, some are open spaces, some are closed, some are extremely populated, some less so, some are spaces of the day, others spaces of the night, but what they have in common is the ethnographer: she or he who attempts to make sense of that social world. Make no bones about it though – ethnography is hard. As a sociologist, I see myself as a predominantly qualitative researcher. Over the past 12 years, I have used a number of research methods to collect data: online questionnaires, Delphi surveys, semi structured interviews, unstructured interviews, ethnographic interviews, questionnaires and ethnography. By far the most difficult and yet the most rewarding of these methodologies was ethnography. As an example of the risks and rewards of doing ethnographic research I thought, in this blog post, I would describe the experience I had on my first day of doing laboratory ethnography. In no way is this meant to scare people off from doing ethnography, to the contrary in fact, I hope it is just one small example of how overcoming fear in the field can reap its rewards (and if I can do it, you can too).

It was a rainy day. It often is when I don’t have my umbrella. It was also my first day of observation at a biomedical laboratory. Accepting an invitation, I had previously spoken to the group to tell them what my work was on, when I would be visiting and what methods I would be utilising and why. As part of this visit I also received a tour of the labs and was told about the strict practices required within them. I knew there was apprehension having a sociologist come and observe in their laboratory.  What on earth do sociologists do? Why does he want to observe us? Observation is not real research? Is he an auditor? As part of the lab tour, I was given a key card since to gain access to the labs you need security clearance. On confronting the external door and the first security point, I got out my card. Now you may call me a pessimist, or it might have been that I was drenched through, or it may have been first day nerves but I never expected my card to work. To my surprise it did. Through the door, into the elevator, an attempt to dry my hair by rubbing my hands through it, and up a few floors and I arrived at the next security point – the door to the lab I was observing. The key card worked again and I walked in. As you enter the lab you are confronted by a large table where group members go for a cup of tea and a chinwag or to discuss the day’s work in a more relaxed environment. To the east and west of the table were offices with those misted windows and doors. To the south a partition, separating the entrance room from histology, the clinical hoods and the clean room (the labs). To the north of the table and to my left as I stood creating a puddle as the rain fell off my clothes was a large bookshelf, and next to that around the corner were the toilets.

Writing this blog post, I realise I was in no way prepared for my first day of observation. I hadn’t brought my umbrella, but I also hadn’t thought through what I would do when I got to the lab if I wasn’t greeted. I never prepared myself to be unprepared. I had already been told that the communal table was out of bounds – that this is where the group had their downtime and that I shouldn’t observe this area. I totally respected this. What I wasn’t expecting was that as soon as I arrived, those sitting on the table all got up and left the table, those with their office doors open (the misted out ones) shut them, and I was left in the front room with no-one to approach and the centre of attention, oh and soaking wet. What to do? I know, I will pretend to go to the toilet. I did. I tried to dry off under the hand dryer. I learnt hand-dryers don’t really work on anything other than your hands.  I came back out; still no-one was around. I went over and poured myself a glass of water and sat on the table. It was unclear to me whether I was allowed into the labs behind without a guide, and my gatekeeper (the boss) was not in to ask. I felt the perspiration begin to increase under my armpits, as I sat in the most vulnerable position in the laboratory, all the eyes in the office could see me (I couldn’t really see them, it is a special kind of mist, one where you can see out but not in), and I had nothing really to do. I got up and moved over to the bookshelf. I began pretending to read very dense scientific journals, moving 4 of them to the table to read.  I open the first one and the water from my jumper starts to fall on the pristine page. I wipe it with my dry hands. Another 5 minutes elapse. Perhaps I could use the toilet again. Again, I did. This time a little bit more success in drying my hair. If you lean at a certain angle, it can work on hair. I went back to the table, looked over to the bookshelf, read the sign please do not remove more than one journal at a time. I looked down to the four I had picked up and took three back. There was no doubt, I had the fear. It was around 10.15am, I had only been in the laboratory for 15 minutes and I really wanted to leave. Would anyone notice if I did? Would anyone care?

Another 10 minutes go by and I am now writing in my half-sodden note pad (so to make it look like I was doing something) in the centre of the room whilst everyone else were in their offices presumably wondering what I was writing about. What is he observing? Is he auditing us? Well, I say I was writing; I still have the doodle of the man with a moustache, with a tiny body but big arms I drew that day. This was not how I had planned my first day in my head – sitting in the centre of the room, drawing a tiny strong man, drinking a glass of water. 5 minutes earlier I had promised myself if nothing had happened in 2 minutes I would get up and leave. Now I don’t own a watch and my phone with the time on it is in my pocket. Given how wet my jeans were, I was reluctant to keep checking. Luckily I managed to go beyond my self-created deadline and at around 10.30am, a technician (a wonderful technician) from the lab went to get a cup of tea, after pouring it she came and sat down next to me. I shook her hands with the drier of my hands and she introduced herself, and said you must ‘Jamie, I came to your talk a few weeks ago’. I guess I must have looked like a sociologist, She invited me to arrange a time and day to come and observe her doing her work in the basement laboratories. She also said she would introduce me to other people in the lab too. Phew! I had a new gatekeeper. I had suffered the fear and overcome it.

Now I reiterate, in no way is this post meant to deter people from doing ethnography.  For starters, most people would be much more prepared than me, and in some ethnographic fields there are easier places to hide and blend and just generally ‘be’. But there are sites of research, where you will undoubtedly get in the way to begin with – the hospital, the surgery, the prison etc. I guess the reason I have relayed this story is because that first 30 minutes in the laboratory set the tone for my whole ethnographic experience. I realised when I got home later that day that I needed to be brave, I needed to confident in my discipline, in the purpose of my research, in my methods and most of all in myself. Can someone be brave, when they are afraid though? Well, perhaps George R R Martin is correct and that is the only time one can be brave. That first 30 minutes, not only set the tone for my ethnographic experience but also provided the initial idea and framework for my first paper from the project called The Surveillance of Cellular Scientists’ Practice.

Lewis, J and Atkinson P. (2011) The Surveillance of Cellular Scientists’ Practice. BioSocieties. 6(4): pp381-400.

You can, to all intents and purposes, come prepared to conduct an interview. You can make sure your digital recorder has batteries, and spare batteries, that you bring your digital recorder, and your back-up, and your phone that records voices too. The thing about ethnography is that it is dynamic. You need to be prepared for the unexpected. Returning to the battle field and this time, Julius Caesar:

“No one is so brave that (s)he is not disturbed by something unexpected”. Julius Caesar.

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