Ethnography

How do you focus more on the present moment during qualitative research so you can truly listen and understand your customers? Dr Tina Basi leads the knowledge exchange programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and also works on ethnographic research projects for businesses. In this article, she explores mindfulness and how this can be applied to ethnography, with useful pointers for anyone embarking on new research.

Asking the right questions is critical to design thinking. A cornerstone of the design thinking approach involves ethnographic research, spending time observing and interacting with people in their everyday lives. The generating of ethnographic information about customers relies on a researcher’s ability to listen well and direct the interview or conversation.  But what happens if, as a researcher, you are unfocussed? Tired? Nervous? Got lost on your way to the field site? Intimidated by the person you are interviewing? How is the ability to listen and observe affected by one’s own bodily experience and processes? If you are in fight or flight, can you really pay attention?

We in the research community, and anyone interested in using research, can no longer really afford to ignore the mindfulness movement. Being mindful is an act of consciousness, it’s being aware of something, bringing your attention to external experiences of the present. We hear about mindfulness all the time and the backlash has well and truly begun. Yet, I feel the question we ought to be asking is how mindfulness can support our efforts to listen, connect, empathise, and translate the experiences of others into powerful research insights.

I fell into the world of meditation about ten years ago, specifically the Rinzai Zen traditions. Meditation is not mindfulness. I have heard the Dalai Lama say that he meditates six hours a day. I find that very hard to believe. More likely he contemplates for six hours a day, sitting in zazen or silent contemplation, allowing thoughts to go, focussing on the breath – the usual gentle activities. Meditation itself is the gap between thoughts, the nothingness, and to experience that, one does not silence the mind. In a meditation practice (and it is a lot of practice) we do not seek to tune out the thoughts or the chattering mind, we seek to tune in to a deeper part of ourselves, so deep that we no longer notice or hear the thoughts.

Mindfulness can help with this process. As we allow thoughts, feelings, body sensations to rise, we can let them go and become more aware of the present. Tuning into the present moment of sitting across from our respondent, becoming more mindful of thoughts and negative feelings, we can experience our bodies, our feelings, our breathing, and our hearts. Mindfulness allows us:

– To be more focussed on the present moment and more aware of the research opportunity with which we are engaged;

– To become better receivers, paying attention not just to what the other is saying but accepting and receiving communication through another’s body language, physical interaction, and eye contact;

– To experience our corporeal responses to fieldwork.

It is this last point I might dwell on. Stokes Jones has written on the ‘inner game’ of ethnography, whereby doing ethnography and producing ethnographic outputs becomes the ‘outer game’, and mastery of ethnography, the craft of ethnography involves the adoption of awareness techniques. Akin to athletes developing muscle memory and getting ‘into the zone’, Jones argues that awareness teaches the body to respond without interference from the mind. He asks;

“How many of us are guilty of engaging in ‘early analysis’ during the middle of interviews and not fully hearing and thereby responding to what our informants have been saying? Some of us probably do this chronically and don’t even think it could be a problem.”

Well, it is a problem.

It is not simply a case of over thinking but rather a deeper neglect of the body as a tool for receiving communication from another. ‘Embodied knowledge’, ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1990) and ‘carnal sociology’ (Waquant, 2015) respectfully acknowledge the role of the body in the research process. Loic Waquant describes, “carnal sociology [as] a sociology not of the body as sociocultural object but from the body as fount of social intelligence and sociological acumen.”

The quality of ethnographic research depends on the exchanges between the participant and researcher. It’s important to practice the ‘inner-game’ of ethnography. This can be achieved by having a sense of awareness; and by being mindful towards anything internal that can interfere with the research process.

Tina Basi's Picture

Adopting a more mindful approach isn’t the answer to my earlier questions of how researchers handle distractions of the body and the mind. Mindfulness simply opens up a space, a route, and a way in to the research process that is, as yet, largely unexplored. It is an opportunity to not only listen to others but to also listen to our selves. For if we cannot hear our selves, we will not hear others.

Interested in knowing more? Further reading:

Bourdieu, Pierre (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity Press.

Roberts, S. [17 August 2016] Going with the Gut: The Case for Combining Instinct and Data.

Jones, S. (2010) “The ‘Inner Game’ of Ethnography,” EPIC 2010, pgs 250-59.

Wacquant, L. (2015) For a Sociology and Flesh and Blood. Qualitative Sociology (2015) 38:1–11
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Pictures. The first picture was found on Google image, making sure it had the noncommercial with modification reuse option. The second image was taken by Tina Basi on the tube – she really liked it and wanted to share it!

 

Tina Basi. Dr Tina Basi leads the knowledge exchange programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her expertise in corporate ethnographic research has helped clients such as Intel’s Digital Health Group, Ministry of Justice, Design Council and Science Museum. She also lectures on LSE’s MSc course in Culture and Society.

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