The sequencing of research questions in ethnographic research: before, during, and after

1) Before (at home, in the ivory tower)

University professors, faced with students planning research, will, at some point, ask:

Q:“What are your questions?”

As a generation of research has demonstrated, all questions (given a setting, authority pattern, etc.) place the person addressed in a box that severely constrains the immediate future.  In the ivory tower, at research proposal relevant times, the question is not one to which the professor knows the answer (this is not elementary school!).  But the professor will hold the student accountable to a rhetorical shape for the proper answer to the question.  The student (the professor hopes!) can produce an answer in the appropriate genre even though the student should also expect that almost any answer will be in some way “wrong” (during a possibly very long sequence of revisions, rewritings, etc.):

A: “What time is it?” or “How do the the So’n’Sos” view time, temporality and history?” (Given a proposal for research on “History and temporality among the So’n’Sos” or “The metapragmatics of time among the So’n’Sos”)

This “research” question is then assessed in terms of the literature and methodologies.

E: Interesting! Have your read Geertz’s  “Time, Person and Conduct in Bali”? What techniques will you use?

So, within the ivory tower, the research question is the second statement within a prescribed sequence that will repeat itself many times.

However, in all the social sciences (and I suspect this would apply to psychology too, if not to ethology and all sciences of communication), the “research question” can also be the first move in the interaction with the people about whom one is to say something (aka “the informants,” or “the natives,” or “the research population” or …) to the inhabitants of the ivory tower (or the masters of these inhabitants).  So:

2) During (away from home, in the field), it might appear common sense to proceed as follows:

Q: Researcher asks: “What time is it?”

A: Someone responds: “xxxxx xxxxxx”

E:“Interesting!” as Researcher writes down the answer as data

This may even be the required sequence in some disciplines–as it was in some version of early anthropology when the researcher was, for example, expected to bring back to the ivory tower a local kinship vocabulary according to the “genealogical method” which required the researcher to get the person asked who was his “actual” “biological” “mother” no matter whether the person cared about this at all.

But other anthropologists, particularly those of the radical ethnographic persuasion, whether inspired by Boas, Garfinkel, or any one else, fear a research sequence that starts with a question.  The trick, in radical ethnography, is not for the people to tell us what we want to know (answer our questions) but for people to tell us what we should know about them.  For example, as Clifford Hill reports, whether October 15 is the day ‘before’ or ‘after’ October 14 is something about which different groups of human beings have given different answers.  This, as Garfinkel once wrote, is discoverable but not imaginable with the methodological consequence that the discovery cannot proceed through the asking of a “research question” since a question, implies an act of imagination and coerces types of answers.

To the extent that the Professor teaches this kind of ethnography, what should Professor ask students planning research?  Perhaps something like: “What do you postulate we may need to learn about population X?”  The student would answer in a declarative sense: “Time and its fixing must be a problem with them as it is for everyone.”  The professor would then assess whether there is some evidence (literature, etc.) that this is a plausible postulate and that the methods and techniques are likely to tell us something we do not already know about the fixing of time (as well as the “Plan B” if it turns out that the postulate was not tenable).

3) After (back home, in the ivory tower)

Q (by Professor): “What do you plan on teaching us?”

A (by student): This is what I learned: a Hausa old man told me “this is why you, Westerners are screwed up: you think the whole world is looking at your!  Among us, everyone is looking in the same direction.” (as I remember an anecdote told by Clifford Hill when presenting research on spatial and temporal deixis that demonstrated that a question about “the day after tomorrow” does not have a universal answer).

E (by professor): How did you learn that? (Checking for the adequacy of the ethnography and the plausibility of the student’s statement)

[Note that this is part of my emerging concern with temporality (syntagms, conceits, sequencing, conversational turns, etc.) and asymetry in culture theory]

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One thought on “The sequencing of research questions in ethnographic research: before, during, and after”

  1. This is an informative post, and I do love your version of “radical ethnography,” as you know. I do share your ethnographic impulse to immerse oneself in a site/group and see what matters locally. But I worry about students who initiate fieldwork with no sense of how (and when) to decide what they are looking at; I think they get overwhelmed and come back with lots of fieldnotes and no sense of how to analyze them.

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