ethnography methodology

Kenneth Gergen, on the way from Goffman to Method as Ethic.

Kenneth Gergen, on the way from Goffman to Method as Ethic.

Annette Markham


…or, similar song, different decade.

Today, in thinking about research methods, I am thinking about symbolic interactionist practices, Goffman and the performance of everyday life, and reading Kenneth Gergen’s Relational Being (Oxford Press, 2009).

It seems to me that to grapple with the complexity of everyday life, from a symbolic interaction perspective, if one is using Goffman as the baseline, it is necessary to either read more carefully Goffman’s work on the performance of everyday life, read his other works, or to remix Goffman, using a heavy dose of postmodern concepts of how self, other, relationship, and structure is negotiated.

Enter Kenneth Gergen, talking early 1990s about multiphrenia and the saturated self and later about multi-being (2009). This is not too far afield from what I might gather from a mix of the four Bs: Bakhtin, Buber, Blumer, and Bateson, but I truly adore (yes, that is the word) the way Ken Gergen articulates the idea of the relational, multiphrenic, remix self.

Begin with a premise: In symbolic interaction studies, the researcher is focusing at the negotiation of reality, as it plays out in interactions that influence and change understandings of self and other, which over the course of time and habit, can construct communal ways of being, which lead to habitual ways of interacting on a social level, which we then call social structures, and then institutions, and then Truth.

Add a question:  Where to plant the researcher’s gaze to explore this empirically? Seriously, folks, what are we looking at, exactly? I’ve talked about this a lot over the years and continue to struggle with this question.  I actually think it’s the wrong question, but it’s the one most of us begin with, so I add it here.

Add a context: Life online, which might include an array of experiences and identifications via social media, massively multi-player online role playing games, and architecturally-based social spaces like Second Life. (more than one context, but it’s just for argument sake)

What is the object of analysis in contexts that are multiplicitous, where the “negotiation of self and other” can be found at every juncture between Self, physical materiality (hardware, furniture, architecture, weather), virtual materialities (form of the interface, software, architectural elements, visual scene, screen size) and Other, as well as the innumerable meanings arising in each moment when these junctures collide? It’s a cacophony, if not a carnival, to be sure.

Ken Gergen provides a nice trio of elements that operate “behind the facade of coherence and wholeness” (p. 135).

First, others’ actions serve as models for what is possible. As we observe others in action, they fill our consciousness, thus providing the possibility of incorporating their actions into our own repertoire. … Through observation we incorporate the potentials of being the other. (p. 135-6)

[Second], we also become somebody. That is we come to play a certain part or adopt a certain identity. … Each relationship will bring [one] into being as a certain sort of person, and the actions that [one acquires] will enter the repository for future use. …As the years accumulate, so do the laminations of possibility.[Third], we draw from the form of co-action itself, the interactive scenarios that we perform within our various relationships. …[We] learn what it is to participate in the give and take of an argument, in classroom discussion, scenarios of emotion, and so on.In sum, all meaning/full relations leave us with another’s way of being, a self that we become through the relationship, and a choreography of co-action.

The multi-being is full of dischord as well as coherence. Inconsistency is natural, which makes confusion something to be embraced by the researcher.

Wait. This still doesn’t give us any idea about what the object is, how to ‘capture data’ to analyze identity in mediated environments. (scare quotes there)

Let’s say we can choose anything, start anywhere, cut into the dance at any point. Exploring this metaphor of dancing, it requires the ability to smoothly interrupt the movements of the dancers and pick up or shift the motion in ways that are subtle, so as not to jar the partner’s flow with the music. It requires the understanding of what it means to dance, in this particular place and time.Yet, even as I write this, I note the ways in which this attitude toward inquiry oversimplifies everything about the scenario. The stability of this image gives an inordinate degree of power to the researcher to control the situation and know how to engage in unfamiliar contexts. The reality of research, not to mention the reality of being with other, is much more complicated.  It also implies an uncomplicated and coherent understanding of the self, which fails to acknowledge the complexity of the researcher’s constantly shifting relationship to the field.

Gergen, invoking Wittgenstein, offers the idea that we may get further if we shift from the idea that we can understand (mental meeting) to the idea that we can act (relational action) (Relational Being, p. 164).

Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all–for that is the expression which confuses you. But as yourself: In what sort of case, in what kind of circumstances, do we say, ‘Now I know how to go on.’ –Ludwig Wittgenstein

This stance shifts the researcher away from comprehension to action, from the understanding to an understanding (from product to process, to invoke the four Bs).  A productive engagement with field and phenomenon might be described as being “maximally attuned to the way in which… movements are inter-twined. Individuals are not so important in themselves as the way they contribute to the whole. Participants are focused on the relational process and its outcome” (p. 165).

I resonate with scholars like Gergen, who talk about the isolation and alienation of traditional methods of scientific inquiry that put neat and tidy lines around objects of inquiry, forms of analysis, and genres of writing. A relational view of knowledge as co-creation reinvigorates the idea that methods are also relational, which can break them out of the bounds of discipline and norm. This social constructionist stance is not uncommon, but our persistence in clinging to canonical, disciplined, narrow methods doesn’t get us out of the modernist box.  I have been working on the idea (certainly not invented by me) that methods are ethical decision points at critical junctures over the course of a study, nothing more or less. By critical juncture, I mean any time there’s a choice to be made.  Whether made reflexively or not, one’s practical, theoretical, interpretive, and writing choices imply an array of options not selected, paths not followed, actions not taken.  The dismissal of these alternatives is crucial to the process of actually saying anything.  Considering all the variations and options can have dizzying if not paralyzing effects. Yet, each choice will have few or many consequences, for the individuals concerned as well as the knowledge produced.  These choices are therefore also ethical decisions.

This notion of method as something so simple as a series of choices makes sense when we use the general term ‘method’ to think about how we live everyday life. When put in a context of scientific inquiry, this notion challenges the disciplining tendency of the academic system.  It seems absurd to think of method as including every single choice made from the moment the idea for a project was conceived to the moment it is put to rest for the pursuit of other questions.  But working in this framework frees the researcher from a priori considerations of method as a discrete set of activities or tools applied only at certain appropriate moments of the process. It can allow one to shift from the disciplinary features of inquiry to one’s reasons for engaging in the process in the first place. It turns to basic questions: What constitutes knowledge? What counts as valuable? Who validates?

Back to the practice of doing symbolic interactionist-influenced research in the field, it makes some sense to think of scholarship as performance, always in relation to other. Sensemaking is a process of attending to the points of interaction and intersection, as well as the shape of the object, materiality, or description of the persons. From this stance, one can be open to almost anything as ‘data.’ Now, does the researcher have unlimited options in the interpretive act, or is there some sort of coherence that, despite one’s desire to reject the disciplining canons of methodology, must be sought? It’s one thing to consider a full range of representation of findings, or expression of inquiry. Presentation of one’s argument in a range of forms is an easier nut to crack than trying to figure out how to do dialogic, relational, socially constructed research in the field, when this goal clashes with traditional modernist concepts of collecting data, analytical tools, and the iterative process of linking empirical findings with theory. As Gergen (p. 233) aptly notes:

Nowhere is the individualist view of knowledge so fully embodied as in traditional methods of scientific research. Such research is based on the assumption of a strict separation between the scientist and the object of study. ‘We study it.’ Methods of research solidify this separation.

Not surprisingly, because methods are “saturated with assumptions about what is real and what is valuable” (p. 234), they filter a researcher’s sensemaking practice through their practical application. They bind the outcome even before the analysis has begun. Gergen uses the example that intelligence tests create people we deem to be intelligent or not.  Likewise and arguably, asking people about their online versus offline experiences creates the phenomenon of offline experience being distinguished and distinguishable from online experience.

…traditional research constructs a world in which there are separate entities, typically related to each other through cause and effect. If we presume the social world is composed of separate individuals, and employ methods consistent with this view, we shall find (lo and behold!) a world of starkly separated selves.


It suggests that if we wish to have accurate and objective knowledge of those we hold dear, we must observe them carefully from a distance, remove our passions from the table, and carefully analyze the “necessary and sufficient conditions’ producing their behavior. ‘To know you’ would mean calculating the conditions causing your behavior and testing out my hunches by observing you in subsequent settings. I shall do this secretly, for if you knew I was examining you, you might not reveal the truth about your behavior.

Even as much as the late 20th century embraced alternative ways of knowing, methods haven’t changed all that much in any but the still-marginalized interpretive sociology, postmodernist, and feminist camps.

From my perspective, the question needs to change. Instead of asking “What’s the object of analysis?” or “What do we focus our analytical gaze on?”, it may be more productive symbolic interactionist challenge to ask: Why am I doing this research? For whose benefit? With what social goal? If the goal is to understand ‘what is going on here,’ how can this question be best answered in this context? If one began tabula rossa, blank slate slate, could somehow dismiss our own instrumental goals for conducting research (degree, funding, promotion and tenure, notoriety among colleagues, etc.), and get to the heart of our purpose, we might use an entirely different toolbox to answer questions driving our inquiry, rather than simply using a priori assumptions and tools that don’t really work all that well, anyway.

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