Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Marvelous Chaos of Applying Methodologies to Daily Life

Professor Harrington sits on the table, eying the 14 of us encircling him. He uses his hands to steady his aging frame on the table's edge, turns slowly towards me, and quietly asks, "What's happening here?" Taken off-guard by the non-rhetorical nature of such an obvious query, I quickly respond, "we're students sitting in a room, about to learn." He grins and asks, "is that what's happening, or what you think is happening?"

And so begins my dizzy spiral into the world of ethnographic methods. The prefix title of this class, the part before the colon (often described as "the category of interest"), seemed meaningless when the class appeared on a list of requirement-fulfilling courses. "Methods of Inquiry." It sounded like it would offer an overview of a particular research method and provide an opportunity to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and premeditated choices of the research I've been reading in other courses.

As I've now learned, one of the core features of ethnography and participant observation is triangulation, the merging of multiple methods of gathering data and the cross-checking of this data through these multiple sources. To get triangulation, we ask three questions: What do people say is going on here? What should be going on here? (Or, perhaps, what do people say should be going on here?) And finally, what's actually going on here?

The funny thing about answering these three questions on the same topic is that the answers are rarely synonymous, despite the fact that we arrange our lives on the presumption that they very often are. It's both disorienting and liberating to know that what's supposed to be going on is very rarely what's actually going on, and often not even what the participants say is going on. Does this mean that we are constantly deceiving ourselves? Are we resistant to seeing the real occurrences of our daily operations, our societies, or our behaviors? Which of the sources or answers holds the greatest truth: our reality, our perception of it, or our expectations (essentially our understanding of the order of our activities and our world)? Finally, how do we ever really assess what's actually going on here, when that assessment is almost always human-determined, and every one of us brings a lens that forms a unique perception of the situation?

I couldn't help but write down Professor Harrington's comments on the first day of class regarding the absence of truth in science. He said, so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest comment worth saying, that scientific inquiry is about building connections between truths. Not discovering the ultimate truth, not uncovering anything at all, but building--taking two things that already exist and developing a model for understanding their relationship. Ethnography, of course, is exactly that.

In learning about ethnographic methods I am also learning how covertly I've been trained to think as a sociologist. When told to "do research" my mind immediately runs toward random samples of large populations, surveys, statistics, and ways that we can quantify our questions despite their focus on abstractions like "race" and "learning." In this course, we're learning how to sit down and talk with people, to build a big picture from a very small one instead of the other way around. Our ethnographic methods rely on spending lots and lots of time in the community or institution that we're studying, with the aim of answering the three questions above through direct observation and participation. At a very basic level, this makes sense--what better source of information than the participants and the settings themselves? Go straight to the source, take good notes, and build yourself a model of that tiny universe to help you understand some things there and even beyond.

This alternate role of participant-observer has, in my own life, presented an entirely different vantage point from which to consider all the relationships and scenarios I encounter. Out I go each day, examining and hypothesizing, asking questions of all the things I have historically taken for granted. Why do drivers stop at a red light? Is it because it's the law, because they don't want to hit a pedestrian, or because they don't want to be hit by cross-traffic? Why do children who fight in the classroom play together on the playground? Why do small, mixed-income immigrant communities flourish in pockets in this city where neighborhoods are so stiffly defined by socioeconomic status? Am I suddenly asking these questions because of the exciting prospect of field research, that golden gem of ethnography, which would require me to get out there and experience the scenarios behind these questions? Or, am I now realizing that every procedure, every situation that's part of our daily operations, has a story behind it and a logic that may not be what it seems? It's all chaotic and wonderful, wondering and questioning and theorizing about the best way to get to the bottom of this and that. I'm on my way to the train, a ho-dum process I engage in twice daily, and oh, I spy a curious scene!, off the brain wonders to consider triangulation.

Taking Harrington's advice and looking at scenarios through all the theories I've learned, I now want, or perhaps even need, to ponder, "what's happening here?" Playing detective like a five-year-old, I am rediscovering the beauty of the hidden methods and patterns of our crazy, unconsciously orderly lives, and it's marvelous.

On Old Subway Cars, and Growing Up New York

The subway seats are orange on this train; surprising, because the facade is sleek and clean, digitized, the kind they introduced in the early 2000s on all the lines we never take. When we'd venture onto the 4 or R platforms, we encountered these beasts like modern aliens, their interiors lined with light blue bench seats. Now they've permeated the outer lines like ours, the A and the 1, these high-tech warriors ready for the repetitious battle of the evening commute. On this A train with a modern exterior enclosing those old orange, classic three-toned seats, we take standing room amidst a mezcla of New Yorkers speeding uptown, past the slow stuffy stops of the Upper West Side, directly from 59th to 125th. We will stay on a few more stops beyond this gateway to Harlem, but as the doors open here our eyes drift across the station in silent homage to our haunt of earlier New York days. When the doors close we return to our activities, writing and reading, reflecting and learning, two things these four-eyed sisters do best.

We both wouldn't mind slipping into an orange seat right now and feeling the cool plastic on our tired backs, dropping our bags from our shoulders to our laps. Most of the seats are occupied by bodies we may never know, despite the familiarity some of their faces present from previous travels along the A.

It's been a year and six months since we moved further uptown and to the west. Though we've switched our primary train (a life status change for a New Yorker, akin to divorce or an empty nest or a new job), we seem to be plotting our old patterns, tattered, tried, and true, onto this new map. To get to the places we've grown to love, we simply walk farther; to continue our quest for a moment on each inch of Manhattan, we venture deeper. Along these new routes, we grace the same orange seats, hosting us for the mere minutes between each of our destinations, the traverses of our concrete geographic pattern.