Through the Looking Glass (regarding field research)

Field research is a skill honed through practice. Not only does interviewing take some time to develop a level of comfort and confidence, but so too does our ability to actively observe. Active observing necessitates that the researcher not only engage the object of his studies in complete sensory digestion, but also balance the recording of field notes. After all, it is these notes to which we return after we have retired from our field studies. It is our recorded observations which we rely on to jog our memories and fuel the spark from basic notation to vivid experience.

Above all, our purpose as ethnographic researchers is to “describe a social world and its people.” (Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, p. 68)

We recently had the pleasure of putting these skills to work as part of our Research Methods for Writers course (see Bowling for…Research!). Part of our responsibility was to upload, share and discuss our field notes transcriptions and the experience itself. As is to be expected, the experiences and reactions of my peers were widely varied.

This seemed to hold true especially for a perceived feeling of general animosity toward us as outside “observers” and a discomfort level with conducting interviews. Understandably, interviewing is a developed skill. Approaching complete strangers and getting them to open up to you requires a measure of trust, and a mutual thread of reward. You gain valuable information, while the interviewed enjoys the value placed upon their information and the interest with which it is gathered.

I did not perceive this same feeling of animosity that a majority of my peers felt. Neither did I find myself unwilling or hesitant to approach any of the bowlers with questions. I was not alone in this, but it did seem that we few were the minority. Now, it is interesting to me, as I reflect on my own levels of research, that perhaps those who are on the more cautious side have a self-preserving shield.

As discussed in J.W. Creswell’s book, Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design (2nd ed.), ethnographic research carries with it an implied risk. 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 wonder if it is easier for those lacking this hesitation in interview approach or ease of comfort in field situations to succumb to such compromising? Do we, who do not know this level of separation, place ourselves in jeopardy of losing ourselves in the very same culture that we elect to observe and report upon?

It’s an interesting thought. It’s akin to a gun that has lost its safety. There is no fail safe. These are the dangers of the ethnographic researcher. There is that desire to creep closer to our research. Closer. Closer, until we teeter on the edge of responsibility and hope that we’ll fall back the other way, onto “our side of the fence.”

The baggage we carry, the haunts we endure

Writing is not easy. Not the wordsmithing, where we construct dazzling sentences and paragraphs that keep our readers turning pages. Not the research, that threatens to make us work for every letter we put down or drags us from the safety of our comfort zones. And certainly not the courage it takes to be honest, not only with the reader, but with ourselves. This is where it starts. Inner courage, breeds honesty, begetting credibility.

Tracy Ross illustrates this in an article I recently read. In “The Source Of All Things” (Backpacker Magazine, December 2007), Ross revisits a horrible burden she has lived with for years: her molestation by her step-father. She was eight when it began. It was 1979 and though she escaped from the cause, she never escaped the pain. Ross’s article captures her return to the initial encounter, to Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. But she is not alone. She has returned with her step-father, with whom she has managed to salvage a relationship with after the despicable things he has done. Together they’ll return to the campsite where he first touched her while she slept, innocent and unaware. Ross has four questions she wants to ask him. Four questions that will help her understand the pain that has plagued her.

I was in awe of this woman’s strength and courage. She was able to not only delve into a part of her life that most of us who would rather lock away, but she was going to publish it. She was going to share her story with the reading public, with strangers. I believe that most people would be scared, embarrassed, ashamed, and angry. And that would stop us. Ross, I am sure felt most of those emotions at one point or another, but wrote her story anyway. Often, these brutally honest depictions into our own lives make for the best writing. We all have secrets. Skeletons. Shadows on our life. How many of us are willing to throw off our cloaks of security and stand naked in the middle of town? I imagine that writing the story was a bit of therapy for Ross, but still…it takes guts to open the door of her life for the public to tromp through, read and remark.

Perhaps even more than her courage to write the story, was her ability to relive it. With HIM. To be fair, they had reconciled years past and the dark events were now just hauntings. (And that in itself is pretty significant, her ability to forgive him). But, to go back WITH him to the spot where it all started, their campsite in the mountains, was unbelievable. Tracy Ross exemplifies what Ralph Keyes (The Courage to Write) takes aim at in his book, this ability to open ourselves up, as writers,  for inspection, criticism, reaction and judgment.

Ross has demonstrated that although writing is not easy, it is achievable. We, as writers, must find the courage to trust ourselves and the strength to be honest.