Ethnographic Research: A Non-Linear Process, By Isabella Daniele

In seventh-grade science class students are taught the “scientific method.” This six-step process involves: observing, developing a research question, creating a hypothesis, designing and conducting an experiment, analyzing the results and writing a conclusion. Each step leads into the next one rendering it a linear, straightforward procedure. The research is presented in a standard laboratory report written in a professional, scientific tone, and the researcher’s presence is usually only identifiable by the name on the cover page. For many of us ethnographers-in-training, we had to recondition ourselves to think ethnographically since the scientific model of knowledge production is so deeply engraved.

            The ethnographic method is a non-linear process that requires the researcher to continually move between collecting data (i.e. engage in participant-observation and conduct interviews), analyzing and theorizing (through literature), and writing.  It can be very frustrating since one may feel that they are “taking one step forward and two steps back.”  When I started my fieldwork exploring how Catholics at a local parish had adapted their practices to abide by COVID restrictions, I was interested in exploring how their sensory knowledge had changed. After several interviews, it became evident that the sensory experience (i.e. the holy water, candles, stain glass windows, organ hymns) was not something my informants found significant. Instead, they were more concerned and eager to discuss the loss of community, their new quarantine habits and the online Mass format. The interview conversations were filled with very insightful anecdotes and information that often led me to ask new questions and redirect my research.

            Participants frequently directed my questions rather than me as the researcher imposing my agenda.  Although this may seem counter-intuitive to those familiar with the scientific method, the participants as “experts” of their daily experience are often guides to discovering the site’s peculiarities. Another counter-intuitive aspect is the ethnographic process of establishing a research question, which only emerges once the researcher is fully immersed in their field site. The researcher goes to the field to explore a topic, not to find an “answer.” It is the field that reveals the researcher’s question. In the scientific method, in contrast, the research question is established at the beginning since it is the project’s foundation and without it, there is no research.

            The part of the ethnographic process that is most challenging is the writing. It was the moment when I was envious of researchers who can present their data in a standard report and do not have to worry about finding “their voice.”  Writing ethnographic vignettes and convincingly translating the complex 3D experience of fieldwork into the 2D final paper is a daunting task. Also, unlike a laboratory report that chronologically follows the researcher’s steps, temporality is more fluid in an ethnographic account. Often the vignettes and characters are ordered through hindsight and their ability to emphasize the argument rather than the fieldwork chronology.  The non-linear methodology found in ethnographic fieldwork and writing is another aspect that distinguishes ethnography from “the scientific method.” Although there is overlap between the two approaches, ethnography proposes an alternative form of knowledge production that goes beyond the image of the lab coat-wearing clipboard-holding “scientist.”