Research methods yield diamonds when we, as writers, truly begin to stretch the traditional concepts of the term. Books, journals and databases only offer the casual tourist fare. This is not to say that such research is without value, or should be ignored. Absolutely not. These tools are static though, not prone to the dynamic shifts and unaccountable complexities that some of the more engaging methods offer. They should be our starting point of reference. The path from which we depart, machete in hand.
J.W. Creswell, in his book, Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design (2nd ed.), explores five qualitative research methods. One method in particular intrigued me, especially considering the implied risk associated with it. Ethnographic research involves looking at a larger group, or sub-culture (Creswell sets a number of 20 or more as an allowable number for solid ethnography) to examine shared behavioral patterns. Furthermore, this form of research involves immersing oneself in that particular environment, in a sense becoming one of “them” in order to truly achieve an insider’s perspective.
As mentioned previously, Creswell points out an inherent risk in this type of research. Proper data collection requires longer time in the field, longer time living amongst your research subjects. The danger is in the researcher losing himself in the process, or as Creswell states, “going native” or “compromising oneself.”
I began to think of Hunter S. Thompson, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Here is this quasi-narrative, drug addled fiction mash-up created from the notebooks and acid trips of Thompson. The basic plot summary consists of a journalist and his attorney thrusting themselves into the wild sub-culture of the Mint 400 motorcycle race in order to score interviews with locals on a politically sensitive and racially heated topic. Somewhere along the line they became “compromised.” The lure of that world grabbed them and pulled them in. This is not to say that Thompson did not walk out of the whole affair with something worthwhile, but his foray into ethnographic research is something to take note of.
I recently attended the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention while gathering research for a piece focused on tattoos. This field research was, in a sense, a lighter form of ethnographic research. I purchased a ticket, sported my ink, and went into that world the same as any other person might. I joined in the spirit of the occasion and experienced the day, stopping short only of actually getting a new tattoo (lack of appointment times and available cash are to blame). But since then, I have begun to forge acquaintances and engage in conversations with professional tattoo artists. I have an appointment lined up in March for new work. I am experiencing the world from within.
Conan O’Brien, in an effort to interview Hunter S. Thompson, took it upon himself to exhibit some of his subject’s same spirit. Though this is not ethnographic research (due to the focus on the particular individual, in this case Thompson) it demonstrates the lucidity and value of stepping outside traditional research methods. As you’ll see in the clip below, Conan left the comforts of the studio, eschewing the normal interview routine, to score the time with Thompson that he had been after. Please enjoy:
Research should be fun. Research should be surprising, leading you down twisted side trails that don’t appear on the map. Through engaging experiences we are able to write the kind of pieces that engage our readers’ interests. You owe it to your readers to fully invest yourself in the research and if you’re going to shoot the machine gun, be careful not to spill your whiskey.