The commercial ethnographer lives or dies by his or her ability to hear what the consumer is thinking and feeling. This empathy can be trained. It can be improved. But really good ethnographers begin with a native gift.
What is true of mathematicians is also true of ethnographers. The former have heads that stream with numbers, the latter have heads that stream with experiential matters, thoughts and feelings that belong not to themselves, but to someone else. The commercial ethnographer is grateful that the world prizes his or her ability, but in point of fact, empathy is something he or she would do in any case. Call it obsessive. At the very least, it is involuntary.
Where does the gift come from? Who knows. Sometimes, I guess, it comes from pathological circumstances. The most emphatic person I have ever met was a 10 year old girl I was interviewed for a Canadian government project on young smokers. It was a very strange sensation to be "scanning" her only to realize the she was scanning us, and a whole lot better than any thing we could manage. Compared to this little kid, we were rank amateurs. I felt as if I had been turned to glass. We learned eventually that the preferred form of punishment in this girl’s home was a cigarette burn to the body. I guess that would have the potential of making a virtuoso of anyone.
The native gift grows with experience. The more we use it, the better it becomes. We get new range, new depth. We can capture thoughts and feelings that would have been alien and irreproducible a few years before.
But our gift for empathy does ever seem to get more controllable. It can’t be turned off and on. This species of empathy remains involuntary. We will internalize the world whether we want to or not.
Now this is a special problem when there is someone in the room who is deeply at odds with the ethnographic interview. I’ve had this experience twice in the last couple of months. In one case, there was a representation of the client team who distrusted the method and its practitioner. While "hoovering up" things from the respondent, inevitably, I would hoover up the skepticism of the client rep.
Oh, this is not good. You are using the method to absorb a deeply distrust of the method, and this cycle speeds up and spins out. In the second case, the client rep was not so much skeptical as deeply controlling. Now, the "other voice" that came to the ethnographer was one that contested any of the power that came to the ethnographer. Oh, not good at all! To empathize with some one who deeply resents you is to resent yourself.
Naturally, you try to "jam" the signal. And eventually you manage the interviews. But you pay a psychic tax on top of the psychic costs of a process that is quite demanding enough as it is. In a perfect world, we would manage the alien signal. We would say things like, well, that’s just the way they feel about the process." But we don’t and we can’t because what we are doing is not voluntary. It is, not to be self dramatizing about it, an involuntary rushing out of the self into someone else. We don’t do it by choice. We just do it.
I am not sure there is a point to this meditation, except perhaps to ask if other’s have wrestled with this nasty little contradiction and found a way to break free of it.
p.s., I made it across the Pacific to Portland. The EPIC conference is most interesting. If I can shake the jetlag, reports to follow.