War story (n.) - A recounting of a memorable personal experience, especially one involving challenge, hardship, danger, or other interesting features.
-Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
As field researchers, we face a dilemma. Our roles require us to interpret our findings carefully and to be perceived as competent and professional. Yet everyone who has done fieldwork for very long has been in those situations—sometimes funny, sometimes frightening, sometimes heartwarming—where things didn't go as planned and when even the best prepared of us has had to modify an approach or change a particular visit to "pull it out of the fire" from time to time. Yet it can be hard to share these experiences with our wider professional community in order both to find their meaning and to learn from them. There was never a forum for us to share our experiences and to learn from them.
Until now. A little over a year ago, esteemed colleague, friend, consultant and author Steve Portigal began an experiment. He solicited and posted "war stories" from field researchers around the world. He says that he didn't really know what would come of this, but the result has been a fascinating set of cautionary tales and hilarious, tender, interesting stories from the field told by and for an international audience of fieldwork professionals. As Steve introduced it:We love stories, and in our work as ethnographers, we love war stories about fieldwork. These experiences—the crazy household, the dog that does his business on your shoes, the GPS failure—are inevitable and are often (at least in hindsight) hilarious. Exchanging these stories is a way of socializing our technique and creating learning opportunities for both tellers and listeners.
Based on his own experience conducting field research over the years, Steve is well aware that Murphy's Law is alive and well when researchers go into the field. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and even if you have brought multiple spares, extra batteries, cameras, etc., there's always something else to test your flexibility.
The themes of the 50+ stories currently available vary widely. This growing collection has great examples for those teach or who are learning how to do ethnographic research, as well as those of us who do or have done it. There are many lessons in them. Here are some of my biggest takeaways:
What really happens in the field?
Because roles in many firms are siloed, not all designers get to experience participating in a full-blown ethnographic study, up close and personal with a trained user researcher, this means that they may not see how it evolves over time. They may have a chance to do one or two visits, but that's typically not enough to get anything other than a superficial sense of the overall process, specifically the dynamic challenge of gathering all of the information a team needs. Because of this, some designers don't see the value of having a user researcher leading the effort of getting the vast amount of data that ethnographic studies inevitably generate. These war stories can give a flavor of how this happens over time and can help designers understand better what they can get from a good user researcher from time in the field.
Seemingly ubiquitous problems include but are by no means limited to: pungent pet smells, recruiting nightmares, inclement weather, and unsavory neighborhoods in which researchers find themselves, often at odd hours of the night. Many of these are hilarious. Some are poignant. All recount familiar circumstances that I suspect seasoned field researchers will recognize.Ethnography is tough!
Another risk to designers of going on just a couple of visits is the tendency to think ethnography is easy—after all, it's really just talking to people, right? I remember when I was traveling to Russia to investigate a very complex issue with a designer who turned to me and said, "What you do is easy. I can do it. But you can't do what I do!" This was particularly ironic because the set of visits we were doing were fraught with incredible challenges that required a huge amount of behind-the-scenes hustling, and because we were doing visits with a Russian team so there were linguistic and logistical issues to manage. Like other seasoned user researchers, I have had a lot of experience handling things like this. But just because we make it look easy doesn't mean that it is.
That is why it is so valuable to spend as much time as you can in the field. You will see the challenges arise, and how the researcher handles them, which can give you a better appreciation of the skill it takes to do good field research. The war stories showcase and highlight these challenges, giving the reader a much fuller picture of all the things that researchers handle in doing their job.
These war stories describe the flexibility required of us when we go into the field in search of data and inspiration. From figuring out how to reach a withdrawn participant to assuaging the truculent one and modifying a study on the fly to fit the specific circumstances we encounter into the field, these stories illustrate some of the common challenges we face and the solutions fellow professionals have come up with to deal with them. Handling team members who jump in at the wrong time, dealing with angry customers when conducting visits, and how to act when confronted with participants' (or their children's) boundary issues or "morally ambiguous" situations are all skills we must master.
Wow—there are lots of different ways to do this stuff!
When stakeholders and designers have the chance to go into the field with several different user researchers over time, it becomes clear that different user researchers have different approaches to field research. These differences are very clear in the war stories, which describe not only different circumstances and different events, but also different approaches.
One set of stories that are literally war stories are those from anthropologist Greg Cabrera (here, here and here), who spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. Although I will never have these specific experiences, I, too, have faced situations where what I observed or learned about challenged my personal moral framework. I have had to make sense of confusing information that results from cultural barriers I needed to find a way to address. And I have also had to manage the cultural dance when a participant in another country has offered a meal or a drink, balancing cultural norms and a desire to avoid embarrassing a host with the well-being of my team. These are just a few of the experiences that test the limits of cultural sensitivity.
Empathy, empathy, empathy!
A theme that weaves its way into a large number of stories is the importance of building and maintaining rapport with and empathy for participants. This is hardly surprising, given how dependent we are on the cooperation and trust of participants when we're doing ethnographic fieldwork. Figuring out strategies and tactics to build these are critical for any ethnographer, and we each have our own "special tricks." One of the most interesting things about this set of stories to me is the sheer diversity of these strategies and tactics.
A place for us
These war stories are at times inspiring, at times comical, but always interesting. As I have followed them, I have increasingly been figuring out ways I might be able to use them with teams, clients and students. For example, I might share a selection of them of them to give a new team some sense of what to expect when we go into the field together. In addition, when I teach at the Technological University of Panama next year as a visiting Fulbright scholar, I plan to use these stories to help give students a better idea of the variety and nuance of ethnographic work. War Stories are rich not just in data but also in terms of technique, and they have made me think about my own experiences in the field. I am planning my own contribution as I write this piece, and look forward to reading yours as well (which you can submit here).
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