15 June 2008

Involved observational research

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I always appreciate unusual perspectives so when Dr. Tina Basi, who consults with Intel’s Digital Health Group, contacted me about her research on power dynamics in ethnographic research, I was intrigued.

She recently presented a paper on the matter, entitled “Identity at Work and Play: Conducting Ethnography for Commercial Enterprise” at the London Business School in a seminar that dealt specifically with gender and power issues within the larger context of a seminar series on emotions and embodiment in research.

Here are some excerpts from a longer story she sent me:

The seminar brought together academics and practitioners with an interest in ethnographic research perspectives to the material generated in research.

Dr. JK Tina Basi, Director of Mehfil Enterprise and freelance researcher with Intel’s Digital Health Group in Ireland, discussed the role of identity in shaping the research process and outcomes. Her talk, entitled, ‘Identity at Work and Play: Conducting Ethnography for Commercial Enterprise’, looked at the way in which research design could better include and make space for the co-construction of both the researcher and the research participants’ identities. Drawing upon a range of feminist academics (Haraway, 1991; Stanley and Wise, 1993; and Wolf, 1996), Dr. Basi pointed towards the feminist epistemological critique of positivism and ‘value free’ research, which argues that the subjective/objective dichotomy is false, and that objectivity is simply a name given to male subjectivity.

“Interviewing is the art of construction rather than excavation; thus the task is to organize the asking and listening so as to create the best conditions for constructing meaningful knowledge (Mason, 2002). Research cannot be ‘hygienic’, and knowledge is best created as a co-production between the interviewer and interviewee (Collins, 2000), as two intersecting dialogues: dialogue number one is the ethnographer’s interviews with informants or the observations of people’s lives; dialogue two is between the ethnographer’s written work and the readers (Smith, 2002: 20) or the clients. Such an approach paves the way for greater reflexivity, which isn’t just about presenting the self and being reflexive about the self, it is about exposing power relations and the way in which these relations shape knowledge – a much more authentic way to conduct research, yielding sharper insights and deeper meanings.”

Dr Basi presented two examples from Intel’s research in the healthcare sector to show the strength of a dialogic approach to data collection. Intel’s research work on transport and mobility in rural Ireland was designed in part by the Rural Transport Programme and the research on social care services in England was heavily influenced by the experiences of elderly people using the services provided by Age Concern.

“Ethnography is just as much about the interview as it is about the setting, it is about building a rapport, yet you do more than just talking. You see things that people cannot articulate, what they don’t know they are trying to articulate. Ethnographic research provides a view of the rituals, practices, markers, and triggers in intimate settings and important environments – the situatedness of ethnography however, calls upon the researcher to become vulnerable in the process too.”

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