“We may lose what we have by keeping it to ourselves”
This quote from Luke Lassiter to me embodies the true inspiration behind collaborative ethnography as a research method. Lassiter describes ethnographic collaboration as a process where the relationship between researchers and participants is “moved to center stage” (Lassiter 2005, p. 16).
It is an approach to ethnography that deliberately emphasises collaboration throughout the entire process of research, not just during the collection of information. Rather than losing out on an incredible wealth of memories, experiences and social contexts, researchers and participants work together to produce more holistic research.
Reading through last week’s posts on memories of television, I began to get a sense of what is meant by collaborative ethnography, even in so much as an interview for a blog post. The benefits of this research method were clear in many of the posts, as interviewer and interviewee worked together to document an array of memories.
Laura’s post revealed perhaps the most valuable aspect of ethnographic collaboration- its depth. As she recounted her mother’s memories of television, it is not simply the technology being discussed, nor the programs, but rather the emotions that existed because of these elements.
“The union of Prince Charles and Lady Diana stirred the household with excitement…eyes keenly watched the screen that had been purchased for the occasion.”
Collaborative ethnography allows the researcher to delve into a different place and time, gaining a deeper understanding of people and contexts (Myers 1999, pp.5-6).
Across the blogs it became evident that, even in small scale study, collaboration assists the researcher to develop morally and ethically thoughtful research. By allowing the participants to guide and inform the discussion, the researchers accurately reflected their memories and experiences, rather than making assumptions based on the place or time being recalled (Rappaport 2008).
When Jordan interviewed her nan, she was surprised to discover that the television set united her family, with everyone excited to experience programs together. This contrasted her assumptions that television was viewed as a technology which ripped families apart.
“It seems as though…amongst the moral panic…there were fond memories of family togetherness.”
Whilst the blogs revealed the clear strengths of this method, they also made evident its more challenging aspects and limitations.
Arguably, the greatest difficulty faced in collaborative ethnography is keeping the information reliable. Even if it is not their intention, participants may provide data which is factually inaccurate, or inconsistent with the recollections of others (Sangasubana 2011, p.571).
Paddy described an interview, where Richard confidently recounted his family gathering around the television to watch the crowning of the Queen. Upon fact-checking the coronation, however, he was left marveling at how even the most profound memories have their flaws.
“Richard’s memory…was quite phenomenal. However as I fact checked the date for the coronation…I discovered his memory of reality wasn’t. The Queen in fact came to the throne in 1952, three years before Richard was born.”
Whilst Richard was probably not intentionally distorting reality, this itself is a limitation that may be present during ethnographic research. As a researcher, your presence influences the behaviours of others, because they know they’re being studied! The degree to which this occurs is known as reactivity (Neuman 2003). Participants may self-censor to avoid incrimination or tell you simply what they believe you want to hear.
My own blog provides an example of reactivity; although she was honest, my mother feels guilt as she describes being whacked by a feather duster as a child.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you that…”
When all is said and done, collaborative ethnography is a well-founded, interactive means of gathering information. Whilst the method has its limitations, these can often be combatted with reliably sourced information, fact-checking and an honest discussion with participants!
Rappaport, J 2008, ‘Beyond Participant Observation: Collaborative Ethnography as Theoretical Innovation,’ Collaborative Anthropologies, vol. 1, pp. 1-31.
Lassiter, LE 2005, The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Myers, MD 1999, ‘Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research,’ Communications of the Association for Information Systems, vol. 2, no. 23, pp. 2-5.
Neuman, WL 2003, Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Pearson Education, London.
Sangasubana, N 2011, ‘How to Conduct Ethnographic Research,’ The Qualitative Report, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 567-573.