Archive for March, 2009



   Posted by: Jill White    in Course-related, ethnography

In my course, 342 Cross-Cultural Human Development, students have the opportunity to engage in a couple of different kinds of qualitative research.  They can conduct life-history interviews or they can do participant-observation while providing service to a local organization.  I love these assignments because they are interesting to read (the students turn in narratives of their interviews and/or fieldnotes several times during the semester) and they provide opportunities to learn the material of the course in ways that far surpass any reading or in-class assignment I could ever devise. 

I just find myself wishing, sometimes, that there were more opportunities like this spread out over more time, so that students could build on the skills they pick up.  There is only so much you can do in one semester, right?  I mean, when I think about my own experience, and all the mistakes I needed to make in order to learn what I now know about how to get fieldnotes that will be usable – or how to set up an interview such that I’ll be able to ask the questions I most want the answers to . . . well, it took more than a couple of tries. 

On the other hand, I don’t want to issue a bunch more “directives”; ethnography is something you need to feel out, to a certain degree, on your own.  In attempting to find a middle way, I thought perhaps an occasional post here might be the answer.  Maybe we could even get a discussion going – perhaps some of those in graduate school out there would join us? – about what works and what doesn’t. 


So here is the first recommendation: Describe what you see. 

 Sounds simple, but let’s unpack it.

  • Whenever you want to say someone “seemed” sad, happy, excited, etc., ask yourself why you think so.  You are seeing something that gives you that idea.  Describe that.  What expressions, gestures, behaviors, etc. gave you the impression of sadness or happiness?         

Example: Rather than “She seemed worried.”

 Write “She sighed.  Her brow was wrinkled in a kind of frown.  She rubbed her forehead and then her cheek with her right hand and then kind of dropped her hand in her lap while she sighed again.  Her eyes were unfocused or looking down, towards the floor as she spoke.”

  • Use value-neutral terms; avoid value-laden ones.  For example, don’t say that someone was “well-behaved” or “badly dressed.”  What do those terms mean?  They are only meaningful in particular cultural contexts; they are necessarily meaningless in other cultural contexts.  Therefore all they do is tell you about YOUR culture and/or YOUR value system.  So they can be marginally useful for that; I have learned some things about myself in that way.  But they aren’t that useful in understanding the people you are trying to describe.  Instead, force yourself to describe what you are actually seeing.  What are they wearing?   And what is the behavior, exactly, that gets someone classifed as “well-behaved”?  Just doing that exercise will give you a wealth of information about the norms of the culture you are attempting to understand.

Let me explain a little bit more about this.  Let’s say you are observing in an elder-care facility.  The staff there have clear ideas about who the easy clients are, and who are the more troublesome characters.  As a young volunteer, someone eager to learn and please, it will be very tempting to follow their lead and adopt the language the staff uses.  But you – remember – are a social scientist too.  So you need to be a cool observer, a part of whom stands back and notices, “Hmm.  That’s interesting, the staff refers to Mrs. Smith as ‘well-behaved’ because she always does what she’s told.  She makes things easy for them.  But she is really kind of a zombie, isn’t she? She just shuffles around and never initiates any action on her own.   And Mr. Jones, they call him a trouble-maker but objectively, all he does is ask to be taken to the bathroom when it is inconvenient for them.  And he has opinions that the director doesn’t agree with.”  Obviously, the details would be different in every case.  But you get the point.  Question labels and describe the actual behavior.

  • Finally, don’t make assumptions.  If you think you have a good idea of what is going on – you have identified a pattern, analyzed a relationship, recognized an emotion, etc., you don’t need to assume it to be true.  Instead, list it as a possibility to be checked out.  That gives you the opportunity to think about alternate possibilities, too.   When appropriate you can try to determine which of the hypotheses is correct.  I often include at the bottom of my day’s fieldnotes a list of hypotheses that I still need to test, or a list of questions that I would like to answer.

This goes for very basic things like seeing a woman and a child at the park; we can’t assume that the woman is the child’s mother.  Likewise, children together can’t be assumed to be siblings, adults can’t be assumed to be heterosexual, and so on.  The world is a blank slate and everything must be established.  That is really the only way to go about doing research in your own culture and ensuring that you are not imposing your own preconceptions on the data.

 Just following those three “rules” will tighten up your descriptions a great deal; I think you’ll find they help you observe more details, too.  What other things have you learned from these first few times observing?  What about former students in the class?  Does anyone have any other ideas about description they’d like to pass on?  We’d love to hear them . . .


Why Does History Have Such a Bad Rap?

   Posted by: Jill White    in Uncategorized

Since for some reason I cannot access D2L, which is where the bulk of my work needs to be done, I figured it was a good time to come and ramble about something that has been on my mind since I’ve been teaching, but has been weighing heavily these last few weeks. 

It seems like whenever I ask students, either in class or my office or just in casual conversation about something that happened in the past (ranging from the 1990s to before 10,000 BCE), I get blank stares or comments such as “I don’t know; I always hated history.”  Hated history?  What could that possibly mean?

How can one hate the entire span of time before one existed?  Does it mean one hates all of the people that existed that lived before you?  Why?  Because their lives are too incomprehensible?  But surely that can’t apply to people living in the 1980s?  What did they do to deserve being hated by vast legions of high school and college students? 

No, you say, it isn’t that you hate the actual people.  Then what is it you hate?  I mean, hate is such a strong word.  Do you hate that time is passing?  Seems strange, for such young people to be worrying about that.  Do you hate that exciting things keep happening and you weren’t there to witness them?  Is it kind of like missing a great party? 

Finally we narrow it down – it isn’t history everyone hates; it was history class.  Why do so many conflate (confuse) the two things?  If people have an astronomy class they don’t like, they don’t start hating stars.  But for some reason, nearly every 20-something I’ve had this discussion with over the last 10 years truly believes he or she does not like history because they had a bad experience with how history was taught in grade school or a college class. 

And I agree.  (About grade school I mean; there is such tremendous variety in the way college history classes are taught that I wouldn’t dare generalize.  So if you don’t like the one you are in, check out some other ones.)  But about grade school, I remember how horrible history classes were.  The textbooks were just awful.  They were all about battles and war strategies.  We were required to memorize each general’s movements in all of the major wars, and we were required to regurgitate the dates of the sinking of battleships and I’m not surprised that many people come away from those classes thinking that history is just “one damn war after another,” to paraphrase a great man. 

But if you limit yourself to what you were forced to memorize in gradeschool (if indeed your instruction was as poor as mine was), then you are cheating yourself of not only some of the most fascinating things you could possibly ever learn, but also some of the most important. 

There are so many ways to learn more about history.  You can always take classes, of course, and read biographies and scholarly articles and books. 

But one of my favorite way to fill in gaps in my knowledge and to soak up details of a period and a place is to read historical fiction.  It has to be good, obviously; try to find out if other people think highly of how well researched the book is.  You don’t want to delve into a book, learn a whole bunch of things about a historical era and then find out it was all wrong!  Been there, done that.  It isn’t fun.  So, for example, stay away from Diana Gabaldon after the second book.  Success must have gone to her head and she flat out quit doing any reasonable attempt at research.

The absolute queen of the historical novel is Dorothy Dunnett.  But she’s pretty heavy.  You might want to start with something a little less intense, like Iain Pear’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, or Connie Willis’ The Domesday Book, which is about time travel to England during the plague.  For alternate history that will still teach you a lot of real history and political theory and that is laugh-out-loud funny, try Eric Flint’s Ring series, which begins with 1632.  If anyone shows any interest at all, I will make more recommendations. 

Knowing history is important for so many reasons – it makes your head a more interesting place to live; it makes you look like you know what you are talking about; you actually know what you are talking about; you are not doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again; you are able to see patterns unfolding over vast periods of time, instead of being limited to just your own lifetime and maybe that of your parents; it is what separates the truly educated from the merely trained . . . I’m sure I can think of many more!