Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ethnographic Lesson No.1: Expect the Unexpected

View of the community stage and wharf in Keels, NL
 (Photograph: Noah Morritt)
Throughout high school and university I was taught the importance of planning ahead - of keeping on schedule and working toward a solid goal. Well, after three weeks in an ethnographic field school I think that I now have a new perspective on goal setting. I am not saying that planning and goal setting are not important - because they most certainly are - but in fieldwork you have to expect the unexpected and be prepared for deviations. Ethnographic research is about everyday life, people's beliefs, values, and lived experiences. When you enter a community you ultimately become part of that pattern of daily life, and you can never really know what is going to happen.

Phonse Ducey with needles and cards used for
knitting nets (Photograph: Noah Morritt)
You never know who you are going to meet on the street, or who is going to invite you in for tea or unexpectedly invite you to join them on an afternoon fishing trip. This is the reality of ethnographic fieldwork: you think you know what you want to know, and your informants have their own idea of what they think you should know. After three weeks my advice so far - go with the flow and be as flexible as possible, because the insights gained from these impromptu meetings can really help you adjust your approach and improve the questions you ask.

My problem now, however, is what do you do when you have embraced the unexpected and suddenly the end product of your research - the essays, floor plans and metadata - demand immediate completion. It seems that even when you set aside a good block of time to work on those last few paragraphs someone knocks of the door with an opportunity that you just cannot refuse. As a result, you have to slot in work time whenever you get the chance and hope that you can meet the deadlines at the end. In hindsight, I did not mind the busy work schedule or moments of frustration in the midst of trying to finish some assignment, because these past three weeks have been full of great experiences and important lessons, and without question, flexibility is one of the most important things I have learned.   

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