Tuesday, November 15, 2005

EPIC Workshopping - and the Triple Door

(by BC)

After lunch, as the attendees dispersed to their different buildings, I was fortunate on my way out to encounter Steve Portigal, the leader for my scheduled workshop The Sociality of Fieldwork. At least walking with him I knew I wouldn’t be late – and with a few other participants, we shared in the confusion of finding the entrance.

Once inside, with unused sketchpads leaning against the walls, the participants had, quite simply, the time and space to discuss their experiences in the field and to reflect on the connections they had made, connections with clients, with participants, with organizations. They shared a broad range of experiences – from doing research on children’s play habits to doing fieldwork on a shrimp boat to the emotional experience of working with an organization during the most recent tech bust. I shared one of my humiliating fieldwork moments (the failure to recruit participants from a user segment that quite simply didn’t want to engage in the research – and that’s about all I’m going to say about it here) – and we did have one story of a researcher who had to dress as a hedgehog to accomplish his fieldwork – but in total what came out of the experience was a very genuine and candid discussion about the role of the fieldworker and the point at which that role connects with others. It is a complex role – the ethnographer can be the buffoon, the expert, the comrade, the confidant, the counselor, the empowered, the powerless. But often it is the basics – listening, empathy, the ability to connect with people – that are fundamental in forging these connections that constitute doing “our work.”

Of course these connections include the relationship with the client or the stakeholder, which brings up another very practical question of – how do you relate bad news? Of course in some instances the client already knows things are going awry – the ethnographer wouldn’t be there otherwise – but relating problems in digestible and actionable ways can be a challenge. Perhaps the clients don’t yet own the problem – or at least are seeking the wrong solutions. I even see a connection back to Kris Cohen’s paper and his example of the homeless mothers and cell phones, for what is that example if not an attempt to prevail on a client to recast its segmentation? The prevailing answer in the workshop tied back to fieldwork – but in this case “fieldwork on the consumers of our data.” In knowing the dynamics of your relationship with your client, you can better answer the question of how to deliver that bad news.

Of course we discussed many more elements of the sociality of fieldwork, including moral issues, the need for objectivity, and the ethnographer’s own personal involvement in the research relationship. But I would also encourage others at the conference, if they have feedback on their workshops, to post a comment to this blog with your stories and experiences.

And following the workshop was the gradual migration to the buses for the library tour and then the buffet and drinks at The Triple Door. I’ve got the pictures, but Tina will be able to fill in a few more details here.


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