Ethnographic fieldwork: transparency, uncertainty, and what is going on here?

On Tuesday 19th February, the Ethnographic UTS group met once again, this time for a themed event focused on fieldwork and data. We had a lively discussion and exchange of ideas among research students and staff from several Faculties. As is typical of our meetings, we found that members have very different perspectives, theoretically and methodologically. Marie Manidis, Deborah Nixon, Paul Thambar and Sarah Stewart all provided us with engaging entry points into their research worlds. Here are some reflections on the issues that came up during the afternoon.



“Transparency is about what is not there”. Marie introduced us to this quote from Silvia Gherardi, prompting us to think about just what you can see or observe as ethnographers. This thread was woven into our subsequent discussions, and links were made by some participants to related qualitative traditions of oral history interview methods.


What can we see as ethnographers? What do we interpret or infer on the basis of this? How can you observe a practice? How can you observe learning? What did Silvia Gherardi mean when she referred to transparency?


In a way I think Silvia’s statement is quite useful. I believe (others may disagree) that ethnographic fieldnotes should be dull. They document material artefacts, social doings and sayings, spatial arrangements etc. The meaning and significance of these comes later, the act of observing is in many ways a mundane (and of course selective) documentation of quite boring things. This really struck me in my own fieldwork in a health setting when a nurse read my notes and remarked how boring they were.


So what are we seeing here? Not the higher level concepts that we are interested in, such as practices, learning, business strategy, collective memory. Perhaps our mundane seeing (through observation) and listening (through interviews) can become transparent, rather like a pane of glass can provide us with a view through to a world beyond. We do not see that world directly, we have to look through the glass; and it filters what we see.


I like the metaphor of the window also because it captures something about what is strange in ethnographic fieldwork. In everyday life, we look through windows as if they weren’t there. The ethnographer makes the familiar strange, notices things that are normally taken for granted. It’s as if we turn our gaze from what lies beyond to the glass itself. We notice its thickness, features, cracks, specks of dirt. That’s what is often hard in observation and interviewing – getting and maintaining that focus on what is normally so obvious it becomes invisible; or transparent.


Trust in uncertainty

All four presenters described uncertainty in terms of what they were looking for in their fieldwork, particularly in early stages of the research. How do we live with ignorance of what we are looking for? Ethnography is often touted as valuable because it offers a degree of holism that goes beyond what other approaches can achieve. But we know that our observations and other methods are always selective. How, then, to be selective in a state of ignorance or uncertainty?


One answer is perhaps simply to trust: to trust in oneself that the data you are generating are highly likely, on the whole, to be useful in one way or the other; to trust in the world that it is fascinating enough to let you follow where it takes you, confident of arriving somewhere interesting. But blind trust is unwise, so what are the checks that balance our faith? It’s unlikely that after a few field visits or interviews, an answer to your research questions will emerge. In my experience this kind of creeps up on you, semi-consciously, as you become embedded in the field, immersed in your data, and develop a sense, often intuitively, of what is going on here. Yes, we then subject this sense to rigorous analysis and theoretical interpretation, but I think it often has soft and hard-to-pinpoint origins in our extended time in the field.


Fine – but looking for answers to our research questions early on isn’t going to work as a counter to misplaced trust is it? Sharing fieldnotes or transcripts with peers and supervisors can help see where gaps are, identify what other people might have been looking at or for, what might be needed to create a fuller vicarious window (here comes the metaphor again!) into what was happening. But I come back again to trust: diligent researchers, with well thought-through questions, elegant designs, and theoretical fluency seem pretty likely to be on the right track or not far off. Of course what the right track is may change, and those qualities I mentioned can all help us achieve the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of good ethnography.


So what is going on here?

I return now almost to where the first theme left off – how do we move from our boring fieldnotes, to beautiful and fascinating insights about the world? As we look at the everyday in its magnificently dull detail, how do we see the bigger picture? This is where our ethnographic sensibility of noticing changes register – from noticing that underpins our fieldwork, to a noticing that provides foundations for analysis and interpretation. Just as concepts and theories may help us focus or filter our fieldwork, so they provide crutches in our analysis. In my own work, I rely heavily on conceptual understandings of what learning is and how it is brought about in order to make claims that quite mundane actions are in fact instances of learning. I don’t claim to see learning, but rather to see certain conditions that tick the boxes that my theoretical approach tells me are required if learning is taking place.


But we also have creative insight, a-ha moments, and intuition at our disposal too. Just because they may not fit elegantly into pseudo-scientific accounts of rigorous, systematic analytic techniques doesn’t mean they don’t happen or aren’t important. An analytic idea or interpretation may result from highly accomplished technical procedures but ultimately be weak, dull, and far from offering any new or meaningful insights. One borne of intuition or something more fuzzy could be brilliant, radically changing how we understand our data, and thus offering something new and interesting to say about the world. Of course we want to subject that brilliant idea to rigorous testing, throwing various things at it to see if it holds (doubt, the data, our peers, supervisors, reviewers of journal manuscripts).


Two things leapt out at me from the presentations that touch upon the issue of ‘what is going on here’ in fascinating ways. Deborah’s description of photo elicitation techniques with elderly people who had experienced partition in India was fascinating. Rather than taking a photo as a snapshot record of an instant and asking ‘what was going on there and then?’, she used photographs to open up a much more temporally and spatially fluid, and affectively rich, set of responses. The stimulus of the photo was taken up by her participants such that the question ‘what is going on here?’ took us through memories and sentiments, to times and places far from those depicted in the image.


As I sat listening to Deborah and looking at her photographs, I realised that images created as part of my own data (line drawings based on photographs) were doing similar work. Rather than just being visual representations of moments, they were helping me ask ‘what is going on here’ in a different way, inviting me to play with temporality and spatiality, and make connections between bodies, things and practices that I hadn’t made before. The drawings are (I admit) quite uninteresting: it is their function as a window (here we go again!) into something else that is where their real value lies.


Finally, Sarah’s description of her fieldwork approach introduced a lovely idea about complementing different techniques. She is using observation and interviews in a fluid and responsive relationship to each other, in order to maximise the light that can be shed upon a particular event or situation. This does not mean forgetting that these are different windows (!) onto the world reflecting different processes of selection and production. But it does keep a nice focus on our purpose: drawing on all the resources and sources at our disposal to arrive at the best sense of what is going on here. What ‘the best’ means… well that would be a whole new blog post.


Postscript – some amuses-bouches for posts to come…

  1. How do you observe a meeting?
  2. What can we do when participants are (overly) generous in their treatment of us? Don’t we sometimes get too worried about being a burden, about compensation or reward, when really the best we can do and our primary obligation is go ahead and do our research to the best of our ability?





5 thoughts on “Ethnographic fieldwork: transparency, uncertainty, and what is going on here?

  1. Amina

    This is fantastic. Thanks to Nick and the speakers and everyone. I am still haunted by what Marie said when she quoted Gherardi – “Transparency is about what is not there”. My interpretation of this statement was – what it is that we are hoping to illuminate may not be there but that doesn’t mean it is non-existent. It is still there – somewhere…but not in the way we usually see things or perceive our social world around us. So probably our work as researchers is making the invisible thing visible so that it enhances our understanding of the world. I don’t know…I’m still thinking about this. As I’s haunting me…..

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Amina – thanks for your comment. I too am really affected by the quote about transparency. I think you have captured elegantly and eloquently what it is getting at, and how it is usefully troubling for us!

      An interesting extension of your point: if our job as researchers is to change how things are visible, then does this perhaps cast doubt on the utility and validity of member checking? Why should participants see the world in the way we do – perhaps our job is precisely to render it in ways that members would not recognise?

      1. Amina

        I think this has to do with that question we face – Whose knowledge and perspectives are we privileging in writing up our research?
        I think there are two issues here – is there a need to change how things are visible ? specially if the dominant perspective has the tendency to marginalize and disadvantage certain groups’ knowledge and perspectives. Or may be changing how things are visible might offer solutions to some of the problems we face in the given context. So to rephrase what you said above – perhaps our job can be to render it in ways that is often not recognized at all but nevertheless exist and influence our world and our practice.

  2. Eleanor Glenn

    Thanks Nick, beautiful! I’m struck that what you’ve done here seems to be an ethnographic account of sorts, observing and recording our meeting – ie ethnography of ethnography (what do ethnographers do when they do their stuff?). Plus some autoethnography thrown in for good measure, eg about your line drawings.


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