As part of the training activities of the FEINART program, we participated in a three-days ´How to Do Interview and Ethnographic Field Studies´ online workshop led by Dr. Ursula Offenberger from Universität Tübingen (DE). The workshop was initially structured to provide an overview of ethnographic approaches, practice of fieldwork, qualitative research methods, and data analysis including a brief introduction on software tools. Alternatively, the discussions were initiated to respond to our needs, concerns, ideas and questions in connection with, but not limited to, our PhD research projects, and we addressed the issues around decolonizing ethnography, power imbalances in the fieldwork, alternative research methodologies and methods accordingly. And the workshop turned out to be a great experience for a fruitful exchange of ideas.
Unsurprisingly, this blog post is about doing ethnography, including some reflections on the legitimation crisis in qualitative studies. In my last post, I came to the question of how the covid-19 pandemic has affected our capacity to carry out qualitative research and was thinking to discuss it further in this post, until the workshop triggered some other questions.
As it was also brought up a couple of times at the workshop, ethnographic research methods promise to offer detailed description of the social setting the researcher is part of and an in-depth understanding on the complex realities of the fieldwork which might remain unseen otherwise. I feel like this theoretical bright side of ethnography would sometimes seem to spread a kind of toxic positivity which might even do more harm than good without a further discussion on the limits of ethnography and the conditions limiting the possibilities of ethnography. Here I mainly consider the value hierarchies and the wider structures of power and control with/in disciplines and journal peer review processes which have influence over the way knowledge is produced, shared and disseminated, and the frustration that this might cause.
Besides the ´How to Do Interview and Ethnographic Field Studies´ workshop, I also participated in different methodology and ethnography discussion groups earlier which were usually formed almost casually, with a willingness to continue the discussions that were initially held either at the artist talk of an interdisciplinary practitioner, or at the Q&A session of a conference, or in the chat box of a webinar. Those communities were deeply built by the values of care, largely drawing on the praxis of experience-sharing. Listening to the colleagues, peers, scholars who have hard times in claiming legitimacy for their research methods, and therefore, facing challenges in getting their work accepted for publication, I became more aware of the legitimation crisis in qualitative research and the methodological dilemmas. Of course, I must admit, this brought a certain level disappointment and stress as well. Because I heard stories of researchers who were either severely criticized as not being ´objective enough´ or labelled as being overly naive, self-indulgent or unprofessional because of doing (reflexive/auto) ethnography (just as a side note, the majority of the researchers are from the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Humanities and the School of Social Sciences), I think that the topics aiming to skill-building, like how to practice self-reflexivity or how to do ethnography, should be discussed from a broader situational perspective addressing also the questions of: which evaluative criteria would grant legitimacy to our research method/ology? And how might we better communicate the limitations of our choice of method/ology and what those limitations would mean in that context? Perhaps then it would become much easier to unlock the practical potentials of ethnography.