Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Insight into the Highs and Lows of Ethnography

Early this summer I met with a fellow researcher for what I thought would be a locker room pep talk.  Yet, what stands out most from that meeting was the warning: "Everyone is nice and welcoming now.  But wait.  You haven't met everyone yet.  Just like any community there are good ones and there are bad.  But the bad ones here bite hard."  

True to these words, recently I was crushed by the painful discovery that several community insiders, those I considered allies of the Deaf community, are somewhat jaded by their experiences. Despite this warning, seeing multiple perspectives from those I've come to know and love has been one of many emotional obstacles I wasn't prepared for when coming into this research. 

Sudhir Venkatesh's Floating City has been therapeutic for me as I make my way through this ethnographic experience, the highs and the lows.  This quote in particular now hangs on my wall:

"Unlike the big-n researchers who work the telephone and never see the nameless souls who give them forty-five uninterrupted minutes, an ethnographer is always haunted by his subjects and their tragic vulnerabilities. Insight gets more painful when you grow close to people" (2013: 89-90). 

For me this quote doesn't take away the pain of my more unsavory findings.  Rather, it helps ease the pain of having just been bitten.  Ethnography is amazing because it allows us to draw close to our subjects and become a part of their lives, and them a part of ours. With such vulnerability often comes pain.  I hope we're all lucky enough to fall into the care of loving participant-friends who soothe of us as we make these discoveries together, for better or worse.  

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