Friday, 25 October 2013

There's doing ethnography and then there's Doing Ethnography: Things I have learned from my time in the field. By Tim Banks

Over the last year, I have been conducting field work for my PhD. It has been an ethnography in two hospital settings in order to understand patient experiences of acquired brain injury in terms of identity and rehabilitation and how this matches up to the biomedical model of patient organisation. Well, that’s not quite true. I have actually observed several settings in two hospitals, often frantically writing down as much as I can, whether it is describing a complete ward evacuation or counting the number of pieces of masking tape attached to the floor (used for physio therapy sessions). I’ve observed patients, health care professionals, carers, people who I initially thought were professionals but were actually patients and people who…well I never found out exactly who they were.

Image of Brain from Wikipedia

Just before entering the setting, the usual blind panic of realising that I would be actually conducting the type of research that I had read and thought about doing for so long hit me. Initial anxieties were compounded by thoughts of how being known previously by some of the participants in the research (I used to work at one of the hospitals) impacted on my position to conduct meaningful research.

Having been required to obtain NHS ethical approval prior to beginning the study, it meant that I had plenty of waiting time in the 1st year of my PhD to reflect and (over)think this dilemma. When I finally entered the field it soon became clear that the experience was going to unfold in none of the ways that I had expected.

As I look to leave the field at the end of the year, I have begun to consider what I have learned from this experience. I have drawn up a short list of the things which I would like to have known (or would like to have remembered having been told), or things that I did not expect when I first started out. I’m not sure if these might be “hospital specific” or whether they are applicable to any large institution or workplace or just any place! In no particular order:

1)    Things take much longer than you expect!
I spent several days, even weeks, waiting on emails from various middle managers to get final permission for me to research their particular domain. After a week, I often rung to find out they are on annual leave for a fortnight. Then I would call two weeks later to discover they will be on night shifts for the next week and are unlikely to pick up messages. I would call again a week further on to find they have left their post or on long term sick leave and it will be a month before cover is found. (In one instance there were 3 people who left the position in 1 year!) This brings me to point 2.

2)    Official protocols are not always that official!

Once in the field, it was quite useful to see when things should be followed to the letter and when I could “try my luck” (a useful phrase to hide the term “cheeky”.) Having had the experience mentioned above in the first hospital, after a much shorter period, in the 2nd site, I popped to the office of the appropriate person on the off chance of catching them. In explaining who I was, it transpired that she had read my email and forgotten all about it. After a 10 minute chat, I started my research on the ward the following day!

3)    The important people are not always the most important people!
Or more accurately, it is those people who are perhaps deemed less important and less powerful who are often the most important. It was not the neuro-consultant who I needed to be in with (despite the official protocols), but her secretary who is in charge of arranging (and delaying) any meetings! She was also the person who was able to let you borrow the photocopier!

4)    It’s all about performance!
In keeping with the above (and in true Goffman style) the way I presented myself went a long way to getting results (or not!) This is a precarious activity and one false move could have isolated me altogether. However I did find that when I was going over and beyond the call of duty in regards to being accommodating and forgiving every time something wasn’t done, I became considered as someone that could be considered trivial.

After three consecutive weeks of catching two buses to get to a pre-arranged meeting, confirmed that morning, only to find it had been cancelled, I became very frustrated (though I did meet some lovely people on the bus.) Thus, when I began fieldwork in the new setting, I acted with more sense of purpose. I explained what had been agreed for the research and ensured it was adhered to throughout (within reason). As long as this was done politely and with tact (my research isn’t the most important thing gone on in an ABI acute ward!) people didn’t seem to mind. When all is said and done, I did have a right to be there and I had a rather lengthy NHS ethical approval form that said so!

5)    Don’t assume people care who you are!

Having gone to some lengths to gain access to the field setting, I could be forgiven for thinking that this rather exclusive, private sphere would continue to keep up the surveillance when I was actually in the field. In a hospital this might appear obvious. However, this idea soon disappeared when I arrived on the ward, sometimes having forgotten my ID card and no-one really questioned why I was walking around talking to numerous people and reading various files. As long as I wasn’t reading the file anyone else needed, or wasn’t sat in someone else’s seat, I was largely left alone. Maybe I was doing point 4 very well! This did however pose some problems. How long could I leave it till I did speak to the person I had seen every day for the last four weeks and how were they going to react when they realised I wasn’t the medical student/relative/neurosurgeon who they assumed I was?

6)    Don’t assume people don’t care who you are!
Similarly, I could turn up to the same setting 5-6 times in a row to find that I had to explain who I was, what my research was and (a particular favourite!) what I want to do for a career after, with the same professionals every time I saw them! Without fail, on every occasion my answers were met with the same look of genuine surprise!

7)    Seize every opportunity - even the ones that look pointless!

This rule is in the theoretical armoury of any good ethnographer. However when you have made concrete arrangements, you have particular ideas of how the research will be conducted and you are aware of the limited time available, and therefore it is all too easy to forget this. However, as time went on and I loosened up a bit, I found it easier to ask if I could “tag along” to various groups and session in the hospital. Some of my most useful data came from these sources. This is a combination of points 2 and 4 I suppose!

8)    You will never be able to log everything!
Doing ethnography is a very exhausting experience. Who would have thought that “looking at stuff” can be so demanding! I found that by having a two hours on/half hour off policy, I was able to really concentrate and then recharge the batteries to go again. I might always miss some golden nugget of information but hopefully this method reduces those chances. Even if I didn’t take a breather, so much goes on in a hospital that I would have had to focus on one particular aspect or conversation with the hope of catching another aspect on a different occasion. On-going analysis helps with this of course, as does experience whilst instinct and luck cannot be underestimated either!

9)    Know when you’ve looked at a certain setting for long enough!

Again, we are all aware of ideas about saturation etc. and I never thought I would be one of those who found it hard to leave a particular setting. However, when I look back, there are certain “comfortable” settings which I could probably have left far earlier but simply found myself enjoying it too much. As a result, now I am finding myself doing intense field work in certain settings that had been left under researched. Perhaps it’s human nature to veer towards pleasant experiences and avoid ones we find difficult!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Conferences, tweeting and the rules of engagement by Rebecca Dimond

 Ethnographers often attend conferences as part of their research, to gain an overview of the field or to identify and meet key actors. But what is unusual about conferences compared to other sites of ‘work’ (such as the clinic, laboratory or HE institution) is familiarity: even if we haven’t been to one particular conference before, we generally know what would be expected of us.  It is perhaps because of this lack of ‘strangeness’ that there has only been limited attempts to understand what conferences do, and what are the rules of behaviour. This is where social media proves interesting. The increasing use of Twitter, for example, provides a new lens for examining these occasions. Twitter simultaneously emphasises and challenges expectations of behaviour.   

If the aim of a conference is to disseminate information, then tweeting can only enhance this process, reaching an audience beyond those attending the event.  Tweeting also encourages dialogue between tweeters, thereby attending to the ‘networking’ goal of conferences.  Tweeting can therefore be seen as a ‘good thing’ to do and often encouraged by conference organisers. It was with this in mind that I decided I needed to be part of this new conversation. However, I soon realised that trying to follow simultaneous and multiple discussions was not as easy as I had thought.    

 My first attempt at using Twitter at a conference was interesting, even if not completely successful.  This was a 3 day event in London at a ‘medicine and technology’ event, and as you might expect from any conference about technology, twitter was embraced. The conference hashtag was printed in the booklet and advertised on most presentation slides. Rather than being told to turn off our mobiles (one of the previously established rules of conference behaviour) we were encouraged to turn on our phones, tablets and laptops, and start engaging.

The first session was manageable, a plenary session in the main hall. This was a fairly large conference (more than 500 people) and from glances around, it seemed almost everyone had a lit screen in their hand. I was of course tempted to check my emails, thrilled with the novelty of being able to look at my phone without shame. But once the tweeting started I forgot about emails and began to follow the discussion. With a few detours, the tweets mainly reflected what the speaker was saying, enhancing the discussion with educated and illuminating comments. I was listening to the speaker and following the debate on Twitter and it was going well so far.
However, this was all to change in the next session which involved diverting into one of four rooms. Twitter went crazy. Suddenly I was trying to follow what the speaker was saying in my own room while reading four different discussions on Twitter, each of which could branch off in to smaller conversations or private jokes.
This led to two different problems. My attempts at trying to work out the strands of conversations meant I was giving my full attention to my mobile phone. I eventually gave up any pretence of listening to the actual presenter in my room. Secondly, some of the more interesting tweets created a nagging doubt – had I made the wrong choice in selecting this room, was there something better going on that I needed to be part of?
On reflection, my clumsy first attempts to follow Twitter led me to break a fundamental rule about acceptable conference behaviour. Taking the stage would normally allocate presenters with status, whereas I showed them a lack of respect. Although I was physically present in the room, I was mentally elsewhere - a twist on what is normally an advantage of Twitter, where someone who is unable to be present can ‘virtually’ follow each presentation. I was also aware that I was following simultaneous conversations without having the skills to actually contribute to any of them.
So maybe the rules of behaviour are changing and social media is opening up new possibilities of doing conferences - being in different places (mentally and physically) and contributing at different levels. For a conference ethnographer, this requires a greater awareness of the flexible boundaries around the conference space – what is the conference and where (and when) is it taking place? This new world of conferencing might also require different skills. The ability to watch, listen, read and write simultaneously would certainly be useful.   

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Continuing Value of Erving Goffman: You Follow? By Gareth Thomas

“You have to keep this con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him”
Henry Gondorff, The Sting.

The Sting is a 1973 American caper film starring Robert Redford (as Johnny Hooker), Paul Newman (as Henry Gondorff), and Robert Shaw (as Doyle Lonnegan). The film revolves around Hooker and Gondorff, two professional grifters, who attempt to con Lonnegan, a mob boss, out of a large sum of money. To avoid providing spoiler alerts and potentially receiving abuse from some pesky internet trolls, I shall build upon the plot no further (though you can find the official film trailer here).

From left to right: Doyle Lonnegan, Johnny Hooker, and Henry Gondorff

At first glance, beginning a Cardiff Ethnography post with a curt description of George Roy Hill’s award-winning classic may seem peculiar, particularly since the title cites the name Erving Goffman. However, if you’ve seen The Sting and you’re familiar with the work of a man Robert Erwin once described as “eerie” and like “the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz”, you’ll perhaps draw parallels between the film and the latter’s neglected 1952 paper Cooling the Mark Out (for other films displaying Goffman-esque affinities, think of his book Asylums and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). In CTMO, Goffman unpacks the nuances of a confidence operation, a way of obtaining money under false pretences by exercising deceit and fraud – much like our friends Hooker and Gondorff. The analogy becomes a framework to explore how a ‘mark,’ the victim or potential victim of planned exploitation (the role of Lonnegan in The Sting), comes to accept their loss and resolve taken-for-granted expectations, i.e., how they are ‘cooled out’. Goffman acknowledges whilst those participating in a confidence game are found in only a few social settings, the concept of cooling the mark out becomes an analogy for how individuals contend with adaptations to loss and failure in everyday life.

This post is essentially a story of my introduction to this paper and how this intersects with my simultaneously galling and enthralling experience of writing my first journal article for publication. A few years ago, my Masters Degree supervisor recommended engaging with Goffman’s paper after I had fretfully shared some very tentative research findings. The study was based not on con-men or victims of confidence operations but, rather, mothers of children with Down’s syndrome. At first, I was slightly sceptical about the reference; I always enjoyed reading Goffman’s work (mainly because I could understand him a hell of a lot more than some other indecipherable scholars) yet I was unsure as to how a paper on con-artists could benefit my own analysis. My main gatekeeper, a mother of two in her mid-forties, didn’t exactly strike me as a real-life Top Cat devising quick-money schemes with her gang in Hoagy’s Alley.

After canning my cynicism and taking heed of my supervisor’s advice, I engaged with – and thoroughly enjoyed – this often-overlooked yet deeply striking paper. I realised it was not so much about con-games but rather how individuals deal with loss/failure in many settings and thus rectify this situation. In my own research, Goffman’s contentions became the major framework for exploring how mothers contend with a loss of self, a loss of maternal expectations, and a loss of the ‘perfect child’ following a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome (this is not the place to discuss my findings any further).

After gaining my Masters degree and joyfully recommending Goffman’s paper to anyone who even uttered the word ‘loss’ in an academic context, I decided to try and publish a condensed version of my dissertation. After consulting with a few colleagues, I was advised to gear the article towards one of two audiences: disability studies/medical sociologists or, in the words of one reviewer, “Goffman freaks”. With slight hesitancy, I pursued the former thinking I would have a wider range of journals to select for my submission. Sadly, as it turned out, the article was rejected three times over a period of two years. Many criticisms were aimed at the paper: the study was not large enough, there was a lack of clarity about how the paper should be read, the data analysis strategy was unclear, only a few details about my study’s limitations (indeed there were many...) were provided, and, perhaps most painfully, my offering was not original or valuable enough to fully contribute to the existing literature.

Given this was my first attempt of a major publication, I became disillusioned and ready to give up on the article (along with being ready, after casting my eyes over the third rejection delivered via email, to throw my laptop out of the second-floor window). I felt disheartened and piqued my work was (of course, on reflection, rightly and fairly) subjected to such carping and critical comments. Perhaps I needed cooling out? Nevertheless, deep down, I guess I did suspect my article was not strong enough for a medical sociology or disability studies audience. I was encouraged by some colleagues to pursue the Goffman angle and with a bit more reading and a few caffeine-heavy drinks occupying the fridge shelves, I developed and redeveloped it a large number of times, with some extremely helpful advice from a small number of scholars along the way, before the initial submission. There could be worse tasks than re-reading the work of Goffman, right? Anyway, the first submission was accepted with minor revisions. A few screams of “hazzah” and “back of the net” (for all of you Alan Partridge fans out there) later and I forgot about all of the negativity I experienced on receipt of the preceding reviews(1).

I guess the reason I told this story is to flesh out what I learnt from my experience of reading Goffman’s paper and from trying to transform my work into an article. First, I learnt to develop a thick skin when receiving invited comments about my work. Sure, it can hurt when one challenges and criticises, or at worst completely denounces, your ideas. However, rather than being peeved and downtrodden, I have understood taking on board different suggestions make for a more rounded, and of course much stronger, argument. Second, I learnt enquiring for help from colleagues is always a valuable exercise and should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of my own perceived limitations. Whilst I may not always agree with the suggestions (at times, I can certainly subscribe to the mantra a camel is a horse designed by committee), the comments of others have proved invaluable in helping me improve and gain confidence in my work. Third, the experience has taught me to be patient. Too often I rushed work without giving it the care and deliberation it necessitated. The article has taken the best part of three years to get right and, in hindsight, is much stronger for it.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, I have recognised the value of giving full attention to Goffman’s main contentions. Too often, his work is subjected to what might be called an add Goffman and stir approach, with his wider corpus (particularly Stigma and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) often referenced fleetingly without a critical and sustained engagement. Recently, Cardiff University organised the 'Goffman and the Interaction Order: Thirty Years On' symposium. It was a huge success and recognised the continued relevance of Goffman’s conceptual scaffolding for sociology and beyond. The whole experience outlined above, in turn, made me recognise that a brief and flimsy citation to Goffman does not do justice to his important yet still often overlooked offerings. Indeed, one needs to give him the attention he so rightly deserves.

To return to the catchphrase of our mark Doyle Lonnegan, “you follow?”

By Gareth Thomas

1. The article will be published in Symbolic Interaction (volume and issue number TBC).

Friday, 4 October 2013

No one is so brave that (s)he is not disturbed by something unexpected by Jamie Lewis

“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a [wo]man still be brave if (s)he’s afraid?’
That is the only time a [wo]man can be brave,’ his father told him”
                George R.R.Martin, A Game of Thrones.

On the surface beginning a blog post with a quote from the increasingly popular A Game of Thrones, might appear a trifle odd. What does the HBO television series adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels have in common with a qualitative research methodology aimed at exploring cultural and social phenomena through detailed and prolonged observation? Well we could certainly make the argument that the portrayal of gender, ceremonies, rituals, clans, terrains, boundary disputes, identity and power are all points of interest for social scientists conducting ethnographic research. We could also make the argument that the ethnographer can learn important narrative skills from best-selling authors. They even have gatekeepers, in the literal sense, in the show. However, in this post, I would like to limit any crossover to Bran’s (a character in the show) question and his father’s reply. I do not however want to limit the sentiment behind the quote to just aspects of bravery on the battlefield (where a significant amount of action in A Game of Thrones happens). Rather, I wish to talk about bravery in the ethnographic field.

Ned Stark from A Game Of Thrones

In theory, ethnography can be done almost anywhere – in a hospital, in a prison, in a laboratory, in a park, in the city, by the seaside, in nightclubs or at sporting arenas. All of these spaces are fields for the ethnographer. There are significant differences between these sites, some are open spaces, some are closed, some are extremely populated, some less so, some are spaces of the day, others spaces of the night, but what they have in common is the ethnographer: she or he who attempts to make sense of that social world. Make no bones about it though – ethnography is hard. As a sociologist, I see myself as a predominantly qualitative researcher. Over the past 12 years, I have used a number of research methods to collect data: online questionnaires, Delphi surveys, semi structured interviews, unstructured interviews, ethnographic interviews, questionnaires and ethnography. By far the most difficult and yet the most rewarding of these methodologies was ethnography. As an example of the risks and rewards of doing ethnographic research I thought, in this blog post, I would describe the experience I had on my first day of doing laboratory ethnography. In no way is this meant to scare people off from doing ethnography, to the contrary in fact, I hope it is just one small example of how overcoming fear in the field can reap its rewards (and if I can do it, you can too).

It was a rainy day. It often is when I don’t have my umbrella. It was also my first day of observation at a biomedical laboratory. Accepting an invitation, I had previously spoken to the group to tell them what my work was on, when I would be visiting and what methods I would be utilising and why. As part of this visit I also received a tour of the labs and was told about the strict practices required within them. I knew there was apprehension having a sociologist come and observe in their laboratory.  What on earth do sociologists do? Why does he want to observe us? Observation is not real research? Is he an auditor? As part of the lab tour, I was given a key card since to gain access to the labs you need security clearance. On confronting the external door and the first security point, I got out my card. Now you may call me a pessimist, or it might have been that I was drenched through, or it may have been first day nerves but I never expected my card to work. To my surprise it did. Through the door, into the elevator, an attempt to dry my hair by rubbing my hands through it, and up a few floors and I arrived at the next security point – the door to the lab I was observing. The key card worked again and I walked in. As you enter the lab you are confronted by a large table where group members go for a cup of tea and a chinwag or to discuss the day’s work in a more relaxed environment. To the east and west of the table were offices with those misted windows and doors. To the south a partition, separating the entrance room from histology, the clinical hoods and the clean room (the labs). To the north of the table and to my left as I stood creating a puddle as the rain fell off my clothes was a large bookshelf, and next to that around the corner were the toilets.

Writing this blog post, I realise I was in no way prepared for my first day of observation. I hadn’t brought my umbrella, but I also hadn’t thought through what I would do when I got to the lab if I wasn’t greeted. I never prepared myself to be unprepared. I had already been told that the communal table was out of bounds – that this is where the group had their downtime and that I shouldn’t observe this area. I totally respected this. What I wasn’t expecting was that as soon as I arrived, those sitting on the table all got up and left the table, those with their office doors open (the misted out ones) shut them, and I was left in the front room with no-one to approach and the centre of attention, oh and soaking wet. What to do? I know, I will pretend to go to the toilet. I did. I tried to dry off under the hand dryer. I learnt hand-dryers don’t really work on anything other than your hands.  I came back out; still no-one was around. I went over and poured myself a glass of water and sat on the table. It was unclear to me whether I was allowed into the labs behind without a guide, and my gatekeeper (the boss) was not in to ask. I felt the perspiration begin to increase under my armpits, as I sat in the most vulnerable position in the laboratory, all the eyes in the office could see me (I couldn’t really see them, it is a special kind of mist, one where you can see out but not in), and I had nothing really to do. I got up and moved over to the bookshelf. I began pretending to read very dense scientific journals, moving 4 of them to the table to read.  I open the first one and the water from my jumper starts to fall on the pristine page. I wipe it with my dry hands. Another 5 minutes elapse. Perhaps I could use the toilet again. Again, I did. This time a little bit more success in drying my hair. If you lean at a certain angle, it can work on hair. I went back to the table, looked over to the bookshelf, read the sign please do not remove more than one journal at a time. I looked down to the four I had picked up and took three back. There was no doubt, I had the fear. It was around 10.15am, I had only been in the laboratory for 15 minutes and I really wanted to leave. Would anyone notice if I did? Would anyone care?

Another 10 minutes go by and I am now writing in my half-sodden note pad (so to make it look like I was doing something) in the centre of the room whilst everyone else were in their offices presumably wondering what I was writing about. What is he observing? Is he auditing us? Well, I say I was writing; I still have the doodle of the man with a moustache, with a tiny body but big arms I drew that day. This was not how I had planned my first day in my head – sitting in the centre of the room, drawing a tiny strong man, drinking a glass of water. 5 minutes earlier I had promised myself if nothing had happened in 2 minutes I would get up and leave. Now I don’t own a watch and my phone with the time on it is in my pocket. Given how wet my jeans were, I was reluctant to keep checking. Luckily I managed to go beyond my self-created deadline and at around 10.30am, a technician (a wonderful technician) from the lab went to get a cup of tea, after pouring it she came and sat down next to me. I shook her hands with the drier of my hands and she introduced herself, and said you must ‘Jamie, I came to your talk a few weeks ago’. I guess I must have looked like a sociologist, She invited me to arrange a time and day to come and observe her doing her work in the basement laboratories. She also said she would introduce me to other people in the lab too. Phew! I had a new gatekeeper. I had suffered the fear and overcome it.

Now I reiterate, in no way is this post meant to deter people from doing ethnography.  For starters, most people would be much more prepared than me, and in some ethnographic fields there are easier places to hide and blend and just generally ‘be’. But there are sites of research, where you will undoubtedly get in the way to begin with – the hospital, the surgery, the prison etc. I guess the reason I have relayed this story is because that first 30 minutes in the laboratory set the tone for my whole ethnographic experience. I realised when I got home later that day that I needed to be brave, I needed to confident in my discipline, in the purpose of my research, in my methods and most of all in myself. Can someone be brave, when they are afraid though? Well, perhaps George R R Martin is correct and that is the only time one can be brave. That first 30 minutes, not only set the tone for my ethnographic experience but also provided the initial idea and framework for my first paper from the project called The Surveillance of Cellular Scientists’ Practice.

Lewis, J and Atkinson P. (2011) The Surveillance of Cellular Scientists’ Practice. BioSocieties. 6(4): pp381-400.

You can, to all intents and purposes, come prepared to conduct an interview. You can make sure your digital recorder has batteries, and spare batteries, that you bring your digital recorder, and your back-up, and your phone that records voices too. The thing about ethnography is that it is dynamic. You need to be prepared for the unexpected. Returning to the battle field and this time, Julius Caesar:

“No one is so brave that (s)he is not disturbed by something unexpected”. Julius Caesar.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


WELCOME to the Cardiff Ethnography blog site, home to the Cardiff School of Social Sciences Ethnography, Culture and Interpretive Analsysis Group.

The site will be home to blog posts from all group members, who will use it to write about all things method. The blog will be used to share best practice, to showcase some of the work they are currently undertaking, to tell us what it is like to be an ethnographer or a methodologist, and to provide useful information and entertaining anecdotes from the field.

You can also find us on Twitter at