Does Ethnography have a dark hour? (aka category debt in Mexico City)

Img_1173 Does ethnography have a dark hour?  Is there a moment in most projects where things get entropic, difficult, depressing? 

I believe I had one Wednesday.  Actually, it started Tuesday, my first day of research here in Mexico.  By Wednesday night, I was feeling overwhelmed.  I sat down to blog for instance, and finally, some time later, I thought, "maybe, I’ll just watch TV.  A Cheers rerun?  No, that’s too complicated."

I think the dark hour comes in the early stages of a research project.  We have lots of data, but no categories with which to organize them.  The point of ethnography is to be exploratory.  That means we start "wide," and we stay "wide," listening to, and for, everything.  And the data, they do stack up. After the 6 hours of the first day, there are lots of interpretive possibilities and the distinct feeling that you are a victim of the ethnographer’s ability to induce "pressure of speech" in even the most reluctant respondent. 

Too much data interferes with the construction of categories, and too few categories increases the intellectual weight of the data now being carried.  Any one datum could mean any number of things.  Many configuration are possible. We can’t think.  We must think.  The natural response is to hydroplane.  Now even the most ordinary act of cognition is hard to do.  (At this point, I usually feel like a cartoon character with a bucket stuck on his head.)

Again, the point of ethnography is build a very particular account of the data at hand.  Cheating is not allowed.  We can’t simple pin a tail on the "archetype."  We can’t merely "crack the code."  We can’t "cheskin" the data.  Ideally, we want to build a ziggurat, a perspective from which the client can see "for miles" even as he or she can descend to examine the particulars.   We are looking for explanatory categories that are hand crafted, highly particular, and highly general.

Overload creates physical exhaustion which in turn makes it difficult to summon the intellectual energy and mobility needed for pattern recognition.  In these opening hours, we are victims of "category debt," so named because it is a lot like "oxygen debt."  We can keep at it.  We can force yourself onwards, but, really, we are only making things worse. 

This morning I wrote a couple of ideas in the steam on the shower door.  (Every blog needs a shower scene.)  When I returned to collect these ideas, they had run off or evaporated.  That’s the trouble.  In these first hours, we are working with an unstable medium.  (The metaphors, on the other hand, are still there for the asking.)

Of course we can make things worse and of course we do.  There is a temptation to retire to the hotel bar and take refuge in drink.  This never helps.  My last trip to Mexico, I went to the bar to write postcards to friends, real and imaginary.  (That’s one of the differences between youth and age. As children, we have imaginary friends.  As adults, imaginary enemies.)  In my experience, the only thing that really does it is a good night sleep.

That and the inklings of an idea.  As you are scribbling to keep up with respondents, you think, "Oh, it could be that."  After awhile you have an accumulation of possibilities, and even these become so numerous they begin to get in the way of clarity. But eventually, you have something, and eventyally you commit this something to powerpoint and then everything gets easier.  The burden of all this data disappears.  Now you are mobile again.  The bucket is removed.

I think that’s why there was a dark hour on Wednesday. Not because I was tired but because I was suffering "category debt." And this is what I should expect to happen in every project, and prepare for it.  But I’m not sure this is just the ethnographer’s problem.  As the world speeds up and grows less predictable, the dark hour of category debt may become a more common problem.  In which case we ethnographers are solving public problems even as they address our private ones. 

5 thoughts on “Does Ethnography have a dark hour? (aka category debt in Mexico City)

  1. Peter

    Grant —

    The typical (strategic marketing) consulting project I do first involves a period of information gathering at the beginning — talking to people (staff, customers, partners, competitors, regulators), collecting relevant data and statistics, testing the conjectures of the person or people who commissioned the project with those lower down the hierarchy or in customer/partner organizations, and simply getting the lay of the land. This first task can take anywhere from a week to 3 months, depending on the nature of the project, and there is usually a period in the middle of this task of complete and utter confusion, before one has got one’s head around the problem and/or the paths towards potential solutions. Calling this period a “category debt” is very insightful.

    I would indeed go further, and call it an “ontology debt”, since we usually not only need new categories to make sense of the phemonena being studied, but also need to understand the relationships between these categories. Almost always, as you would no doubt expect, the conjectures of the person or people who commissioned the project turn out to be wrong, or not sufficiently nuanced for the reality on the ground.

    Going for a walk in a park or doing some vigorous exercise often works for me to facilitate the head-clearing needed before the new ontology can emerge.

  2. jens

    the nice thing about culture is that it all makes sense. – so take your (reflection) time and it will.

  3. John McCreery

    Why “debt”? “Deficit” makes sense to me, but “debt”?

    That aside, I know the experience. Just at this moment I am an ethnographer tackling a project with lots of numbers to play with, a network analysis of the upper reaches of the world of advertising creatives in Tokyo. Not just tons of data to digest, but masses of new software to get beyond the “I sort of know what that means” to the “I know how to do that” stage. Wandering around like a cartoon character with a bucket on my head sounds just right.

  4. Gavin

    John- Your words ring so true. Not only is the floundering of my mind found in research, but also whenever I am engaged in something new (job, projects, volunteering, etc.) that is so encapsulating that I cannot mentally break from it. Sleep really is the best solution, and I think it’s because of how awesome our brains can process that data when we aren’t focused on it.

    Thanks for the post!

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