ethnography revisited – timing and pacing
In prior posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography, I discussed various questions and challenges of conducting ethnography. In this post, I want to turn to the topic of timing and pacing ethnographic research, particularly during post-graduate years. When considering what research projects to undertake while in graduate school, I realized that conducting intensive ethnography would be more difficult later in my career. I thus chose a field site where I knew I could devote my efforts. Like other ethnographers, I moved to another city for months at a time and regularly conducted up to 12-hour-long observations on weekdays and weekends.
Now, I am working with more constraints. These include managing increased responsibilities, as well as navigating hurdles that didn’t exist in prior decades, such as explaining research methods that are unfamiliar to a campus Institutional Review Board (IRB). In addition, disseminating the findings of previous research, as Diane Vaughan wrote about in this AJS article, can cut back time available for on-going projects.
Over the years, I have noticed that some colleagues have switched from ethnography to other research methods. They may focus on interviews only or engage in archival research, content analysis of publicly available material, quantitative analysis of existing datasets, and theoretical work, all of which are more amenable to less flexible schedules. Some of these methods don’t (yet) involve writing a lengthy proposal to the IRB or spending months negotiating access to a field site that might ultimately decline. In addition, some of this research can be conducted from the office or scheduled around other responsibilities.
For those who continue to conduct ethnographic research as a professor, juggling research with increased responsibilities is a challenge. With increased teaching, service, and family commitments to aging parents and/or children, researchers have slimmer blocks of time and energy to undertake observations, write field notes, and analyze and prepare the results for publication. For those who are eligible, a sabbatical or a course release can free up some time during the school year. Teaching online, evening, or weekend classes can also facilitate research during the weekdays. Careful selection of research projects and sites allow some to do research whenever they can travel.
Like researchers who use other methods, ethnographers may train undergraduate and graduate students to help with a larger research project as part of a class assignment or research assistantship. Because of their relative youth and diverse ethnic and class backgrounds, student researchers may find it easier to enter certain field sites, and they may uncover details that the lead researcher cannot access. Even though most students will not pursue research as a career, they gain a deeper understanding of the difficulties of conducting such studies. Moreover, some researchers enjoy mentoring students, and these studies benefit from multiple perspectives.
When conducting observations with an elongated schedule or particularly complex, changing phenomena, researchers may have a harder time determining whether they have reached theoretical saturation such that they are no longer learning something new from observations. The desire to gather more research is hard to resist. One colleague has semi-jokingly compared field immersion with becoming a “field junkie.” Other colleagues have worried whether time spent on various responsibilities away from the field means missing a crucial development. Eventually, competing commitments or diminishing stamina or interest may force researchers to move onto the next stage.
For readers who are undertaking ethnographic research or have colleagues who do so, what are your tips for sustaining an active research project? Alternatively, please post your recommendations for relevant readings on this topic below.