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The Ethnographer’s Wall: Recovery as Fieldwork

I spent a morning last week doing a three hour teaching stint in the studio, a pretty strenuous one at that; lots of activity and focus needed. It was the longest stint of teaching, and probably of moving around with little rest time, I have done in 4 months. I was teaching a group of design ethnography and service design masters students an introductory class in observational research. I have taught a variation of this for the last three years and every time I do it it gets more and more stripped down. I talk to them about the challenge of simply resting in one space observing in an era when we are rarely without multiple distractions to hand. I talk to them about the challenge of occupying different points of view on both cartesian space and on human experience. How can we as subjective beings ever truly see the world as other’s see it? Why are so wedded to particular ways of ‘surveying’ the environment around us, or of thinking about people and events as their action unfolds in front of us? I talk to them about the challenge of trying to simply be fully present in the world, and of juggling the need to try and get to that point with the need to ‘deliver findings’ to clients who are usually only dimly aware, if at all, of the weight of debate that surrounds the idea of an ‘ethnographic finding’. Epistemology weighs heavy on the shoulders of ethnographers.

I took my students out of the studio minus all their devices. In the past I did this because I didn’t want them to be distracted, now I do it also because these devices are so much part of our identity that leaving them behind can be a very useful ritualistic nod towards ‘attempting to cast off self’ – a useful thing to do if you are an ethnographer entering the field. I sat them on the steps between the 6th and 7th floor of the art college I work in, and asked them simply to look out the window. This bit only lasts around 20 minutes, but it is always fascinating to see how people react, and think about how we take in the world habitually and how we might change that for the purposes of ethnographic exploration. There seem to be three basic reactions. Some become very focussed on me – I ask them to look out the window as I talk – their eyes flit back and forward constantly as if hoping that I will make sense of what I am sure must feel quite an odd and perhaps unexpected moment. Some become very focussed on the scene ahead, eyes variously flitting around and then stilling intently on one spot. And some manage just a few moments before they clearly become uncomfortable or bored or irritated.

Pushing them through this is important, we rarely in our everyday worlds just ‘take the world in’ – even when we are absorbing some beautiful scene we tend to observe only ‘that scene’ not everything else around it. As an ethnographer I need to be able to flit between scenes, between scene and context, between environment and events. This kind of observation requires a strategy, but there is no one size fits all strategy as we all observe the world differently. Quite how differently I was unaware of until I started to teach this class. Some people take in the world instinctively as a set of shapes to scan, some are heavily drawn to people, some to the near field first, some further afield. Some scan quickly, some slowly. Most never look up (my youthful love of illicit rooftop exploring taught me that very early). But we all, in our instinctive selves, have a tendency to give up trying to see the world differently very quickly. Of course there are good evolutionary reasons for this – too much time engaging with the world might blunt other useful cognitive processes – such as “oh my god a lion, run away!”. This facility to give up observing quickly is what an ethnographer has to fight. There is a kind of ethnographer’s equivalent to the runner’s pain wall to be crossed – the fear of coming up empty handed wall. I’ve come to love that wall.

There is always a moment in the field, even in the most interesting project, when the mind starts to worry away at the thought that your research is a monumental waste of time and you will never find anything ‘interesting’. The wall is particularly present in purely “observational” sessions when you don’t have the focus of a human being you are interviewing to distract you from what you are experiencing. Most ethnographers are intensely interested in other people’s lives, and interviews are driven as much by the interviewee as us. They are rarely dull or boring. It’s often only after the field visit that we begin to worry that our interview is throwing up nothing. But in observational research only we are driving, and though we are usually observing people acting in context something about the lack of direct communication allows the mind to reach the wall earlier. Few of my students come back from interviews saying it was boring and they found nothing – those worries comes later as they begin to analyse their data. (They usually have other anxieties, such as ‘I was so bad’, or ‘My interview protocol was rubbish’.) But they often come back from observational field trips wracked with anxiety that they ‘have nothing’. Almost always one of two things has happened in that case – they ‘gave up’ too fast either by leaving the field before they should have or by staying physically present but unable to maintain the intensity of focus, the presence, in the field that they ought to have.

Sitting on the steps I try to encourage them to ‘see beyond’ their habitual ways of engaging with the world. To think about how they tend to take in things and then plug the gaps their normal routine leaves. I’m a big picture, shapes and sounds person. I tend to engage with the world as shapes, usually by seeing the world as a snap shot, scanning the distance first, and hearing sounds as ‘stories’ (which are of course simply inferences I draw around the sounds). When I am in fieldwork mode I need to remind myself to attend to people as closely as shapes, to near as well as far, to detail as well as shape, and to attend to sounds with a descriptive mindset and not just an inferential mindset. When I attend to people my first take is almost always focussed on their actions, I need to remind myself to observe them descriptively too, to try and see them as people and not just actors in some unfolding event. I cannot tell my students how to observe strategically as they all observe habitually in different ways.

Next I remind them that of course where we ‘are’ (in cartesian space or emotionally, culturally, intellectually) – our starting point of view – is inevitably partial and that we need a strategy for changing that point of view as often as is practical. The more points of view we try and adopt, the greater the likelihood that we will begin to get past our habitual ways of seeing, or being, in the world. But all of this is I think much easier to point out to people than the benefits of not shying away from the wall. Like all walls we don’t want to believe that it is worth the effort, the pain, of overcoming it. We look for any reason, any excuse, to give ourselves permission to simply not cross it.

I was reminded of the wall a lot the last couple of weeks. Having fought through the crisis weeks of my relapse relatively untouched by ‘existential fear’ – there was enough that was concrete to be afraid of, I find myself now in the recovery phase beset by a whole series of very dull, mundane, anxieties. In many ways the last couple of weeks have been the hardest so far. I have always been “good in a crisis” – I was blessed with a stubborn nature and an ability to control my fears when heavily pressed. In a crisis I am quick to identify ‘what needs to be done immediately’ and occupy my fears by getting on with it. But in more everyday situations, when the major threats have receded, I often find myself becoming stuck in a cycle of existential worrying and anxiety. The future suddenly looms large as ‘a long series of too many small problems’ rather than the somewhat easier to grapple with ‘either you will have one, or you won’t’. Being unable to do things the same way as before nips at the heels of my confidence, I struggle to make adaptations, my mind not wanting to entertain the idea that lots of s,all, often mind numbingly irritating or dull, changes need to be made.  Most destructively of all, doubt creeps in. Suddenly I am running away with myself – “I’ll never be the same again, I will not be able to do my job, my future will be a depressing series of losses until finally I am left with nothing.” Balancing on the edge of the abyss is thrilling, a challenge. Balancing on the edge of the slippery slope is just depressing.

But teaching that class I started to wonder if that was not simply my illness wall – the point I had to hang on through. I had my ‘entry to the field’ (the crisis) with all its unfamiliarity and novelty. I managed that pretty damn well, but then I am always happy chasing new experiences. Now though I am the anxious fieldworker beset with doubt and wishing that she could just walk away from the field. But as I try and tell my students, if I hang on there is gold ahead. If I can stay with it, stay present and observant, I will make a new sense of this, an unexpected sense of this, and that in turn will lead to new and unexpected things in my life. Suddenly that wall is no longer something to be afraid of, suddenly it is something to rush towards. So I capture this here, now, for the weeks, months, years ahead. To remind myself to stick with it. The wall may be a long time in the crossing, but cross it I will. And now, from feeling insecure and anxious and deflated I suddenly have a new feeling to add to the mix. The feeling that all experienced ethnographers get in the field when the wall looms. Excitement!


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