Dancing in the street – the best ethnographers get involved

Juhu Beach football

Tom’s recent experience of running cross-country with a respondent who rehydrated himself with kerbside snow prompted one of our regular, circular conversations about why we love ethnography.

If focus groups and surveys tend to treat people as brains, ethnography can help us return to the physical – to our bodies, our environment, the surrounding world of materials, symbols and hard jagged rocks. Doing things together – physical things especially – accelerates understanding and intimacy. We laugh. We get embarrassed. Hierarchies dissolve, or change. And endorphins and adrenaline get to work. We get closer to what Barbara Ehrenreich describes as the “deep satisfaction – even thrill – in the simplest synchronous group activities”.

Some years ago, researching what would come to be called ‘gamification’, we asked respondents to invent and play a game with us before we began a group. It took ten minutes to reach a level of unselfconsciousness beyond many all-day sessions. People in the research were more impulsive, spontaneous, expressive, silly, and open to new ideas and original points of view.

Things move on another level when you put down your notepad and join in. It’s harder for a shy Indian teenager to be reticent when he has just dumped you on the sand with a Cruyff turn. And participating changes the perspective not just of the respondent, but also the researcher. Participating ends the delusion where we think of ourselves as the objective analyst – a role it’s easy to assume when moderating a group. Suddenly our own ambitions, memories, pride and insecurities take to the stage. If we’re careful to acknowledge them, this can make us much more empathetic, letting us share the experience with the respondent and feel what they are feeling.

Commercial ethnography is often reduced to an interview, to an interaction through words. But ethnography as an approach to research (rather than something that is done in 2 or 3 hour sessions) has several layers: participating; observing; stimulating; and questioning. Good ethnography relies on knowing how to choose between them, and how to mix them – when do you ask to see or be shown; when do you ask for an explanation?

Of course it’s not always desirable, or sane, to become an active participant but if we want to build trust, we neglect the physical, interactive element of ethnography at our cost. Robin Dunbar contrasted speech and its “inadequacy at the emotional level” with physical activities such as running or dancing that he sees as far more effective in building social bonds. The truth of this is something which we have slowly absorbed over the years in research, and which is now etched in flint onto Tom’s lower metatarsals.