Here’s an elaboration of the answer I gave her. It comes in three parts.
To do ethnography, she would want to master the mechanics of the interview process.
1) humility. Interviews work well when the interviewer understands that the respondent is the expert and defers to him or her carefully. It is precisely when the respondent hears this deference that he or she is willing to open up.
2) empathy, a willingess to suspend what you think for what the respondent thinks.
3) patience. Does the respondent mean X or Y? Very good. Is it X1 or X2? Fine, is it X1a or X1b? The ethnographer ends up acting like a programming language for which only the most exacting input will do.
Many people have these 3 qualities as aspects of their personality. The rest of us will have to learn them through training and practice.
4) the ability to draw this life into the interview. Quite substantial adjustments of approach are called for in almost every interview. What is the best way to draw this person out? What is the best direction to bring them to the topics in question?
5) the ability to discover the best approaches at any given moment. How we ask the question is as important as what we ask. Lots of improvisational work is called for.
6) the ability to shift frame to see the significance of testimony. This is especially difficult when we have to do it in real time, under pressure, while staying on schedule. "Shifting frame" here means finding the ideas that make an ethnographic datum reveal its (possible) significance.
7) the ability to follow things up without losing one’s way. Occasionally, the ethnographer will hear a possibility. Now the question is how much to invest in its pursuit and when to "cut and run." Normally, it is easy enough to identify the moment of diminishing returns. But when something does not look promising, it may be that we have failed to find the frame that makes it so.
Note, points 4 through 7 are the strength of the method. The corporation has to contend with unknown unknowns. It doesn’t know what it needs to know. (If it did, it could use quantitative methods, which are of course easier and cheaper to manage.) Ethnography allows "just in time" adjustments. It allows us to sharpen questions against incoming questions. In a sense, it is designed to just to look for answers but to look for questions.
Barbara doesn’t have social scientific training. What she needs, what we all need, are concepts at the ready. Patterns standing by to serve us in the process of pattern recognition. I used the example from yesterday’s interview. We were sitting in a respondent’s home, and I could not help but notice a poster by Hans Sahm (pictured above) on the living room wall.
Under normal circumstances, this would strike me as a piece of aesthetic misadventure. But in this case, this looks like grist for the ethnographic mill and this is because I have a concept for what I am looking at. As it turns out, I’ve read (as you probably have) that essay by Kant on the sublime. If memory serves, Kant says nature is sublime when it outstrips our sense of proportion and scale and induces in us a sense of wonder, astonishment, and perhaps fear. The sublime explodes our categories of understanding.
I’m not sure this is a very accurate rendering of the argument, but it was enough to serve me as a frame with which to think about the art in question. Was this perhaps an exercise in the sublime. Certainly, Sahm’s art is about an impossible scale and a certain romantic engagement. (I think if you click on the image, you will get a larger version. Notice that there is at the bottom a very large river, here represented as a mere trickle.) I now know what might be operating in the culture of the respondent. I know what to ask after. As it turns out, the respondent encourages a Kantian view of her art without being able actually to confirm it.
And that’s ok. I had a concept and the concept helped me see. In a more perfect world, we would have, say, 80 of these concepts to aid the ethnographer. And almost anything will do. We should have notions of diffusion from Simmel, individualism from Durkheim, structure from Levi-Strauss, convergence from Jenkins, long tail from Anderson, tipping point from Gladwell. Ideas with which to think. (Everyone has their own favorites. Everyone is always on the look out for more.)
This is after all precisely what is missing from the bargain basement ethnographers, the one’s who practice brutish empiricism. These ethnographers merely report what the respondent says, because they have no concepts with which to see the cultural significance of what the respondent says. They are mirrors, nothing more.
Strictly speaking, if Barbara wishes to pursue a career as an ethnographer, she would take a course in one of the social sciences. But you and I know there is lots of dead air in one of these programs. Apparently, contents settle after they leave the factory.
Ok, Part 3 is all about acts of analysis, but you know what I am exhausted. It’s been a long day. I am now in Frankfurt and about 11:20. I would really like to get a good night’s sleep. So I’ll come back to Part 3. Yeah, right, sure I will.