Narrative & The Ethnographic Inquiry

Written by Zhen Goh

The Cognitive Edge approach borrows features from the Anthropological method of the ethnographic interview, where researchers seek to understand the informant’s culture, and how their cultural universe informs meaning, through a series of carefully constructed questions (Spradley, 1979). Typically, these interviews take place either one-on-one or in focus group discussions. The questions in the ethnographic interview are often designed to encourage the participants to provide descriptive accounts. Researchers are taught to ask probing questions that encourage rich description and insightful recounts; the buzz words are often: “describe”, “in your experience”, “how”, and “could you explain”. These descriptions are ways for the informant to describe their specific culture – culture here referring to “the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate behaviour” (Spradley, 1972).

Spradley (1972) in his seminal work on “Culture and Cognition” pointed out that descriptive interviews are important in understanding the different perceptions that are ongoing between and within cultures, at any given moment. They are gateways to a vast reservoir of tacit cultural knowledge that is commonly hidden from plain view, but nonetheless, is of fundamental importance as we constantly make use of this to generate other behaviour and interpret experience.

“A single action or event is interesting, not because it is explainable, but because it is true” 
- Goethe
Humans are pattern processors; people are essentially in practice, actions and functions ‘story-telling animals’, who shape their world through the stories they tell (MacIntyre, 1981). Our response to experiences, in particular those of tolerated failure, create vivid patterns through which we filter data and make decisions.  A major distinguishing feature of human intelligence is our propensity to create cultures that increase familial and tribal bonds, and to pass on knowledge other than through genetic evolution and experience: we are homo narrans, at our very essence – storytellers (Niles, 2010).

The Cognitive Edge approach borrows features from the Anthropological method of the ethnographic interview, where researchers seek to understand the informant’s culture, and how their cultural universe informs meaning, through a series of carefully constructed questions (Spradley, 1979). Typically, these interviews take place either one-on-one or in focus group discussions. The questions in the ethnographic interview are often designed to encourage the participants to provide descriptive accounts. Researchers are taught to ask probing questions that encourage rich description and insightful recounts; the buzz words are often: “describe”, “in your experience”, “how”, and “could you explain”. These descriptions are ways for the informant to describe their specific culture – culture here referring to “the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate behaviour” (Spradley, 1972).

Spradley (1972) in his seminal work on “Culture and Cognition” pointed out that descriptive interviews are important in understanding the different perceptions that are ongoing between and within cultures, at any given moment. They are gateways to a vast reservoir of tacit cultural knowledge that is commonly hidden from plain view, but nonetheless, is of fundamental importance as we constantly make use of this to generate other behaviour and interpret experience.

As a method, the use of distributed ethnography, however, depart slightly from from the typical ethnographic interview as  unlike the life-story or focus group interview, the CE methods discourage structured narrative and prefer a more disruptive approach of collecting historical events and annotations of behaviour within those events. The importance is not placed on what researchers / practitioners have defined as what is the focus”, but rather allowing participants in the activity to explore different avenues and through this exploration and sharing of experience, define what should be the focus. The method is designed to be more abductive as a process, rather than an inductive hypothesis test-site.

Prompting questions are designed to place respondents in a hypothetical situation and ask for them to recount or describe experiences that automatically place them in individual contexts. The approach is meant to stimulate recounts of authentic experiences rather than structured stories. This can be likened to the Boasian approach toward reconstructing history which reflects Boas’ own influence by a combined interest in (1) an objective empiricism, in the tradition of Leopold Van Ranke, who asserted that history should and only “wants only to show what actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen)” (in Stern, 1973); and (2) the desire to properly understand human knowledge, and the way in which lived experience can provide emphatic understanding. This was viewed by Boas to be best articulated and culminated within the quote from Goethe quoted at the beginning of this article.

Distributed ethnography thus helps to negotiate between these two guiding principles in Boas’ approach to understanding history and using it as useful data. As later noted by social scientists (Bourdieu in Calhoun, 2002; Foucault, 1975-6), history and all forms of structured narrative tend to reflect more heavily the power-driven agendas of the people and institutions authorised to construct them. Genuine and authentic knowledge of a system is therefore difficult to glean from structured narrative – in a structured life-story interview or focus group environment then, as the power-structures and “right answers” are easier to read, these methods of inquiry allow people to more easily game the interview and give answers that they feel the researcher wants to hear. As discovered by market researchers, the opinions and findings derived from focus group discussions might not necessarily reflect true consumer behaviour, but what the participants believe to reflect better on them. By prompting for recollections of experiences and real events, people are encouraged to share past experiences with the “ideal-type” answer being properly disguised. The emphasis here is on short-narrative and anecdote-type responses rather than opinions and value judgements.

Application of methods of Ethnographic Inquiry can be a powerful knowledge transfer and sharing tool. They are bound to cognitive issues of memory, constructed memory and perceived memory. Narratives are a good way to communicate meaning as they capture the emotion of the moment described – and makes the event active rather than passive – and thereby, infused with the meaning communicated (Bruner, 1990). As humans are pattern processors, and make decisions on “ best fit” patterns rather than “best practise” rationale, experience and the incremental meaning it produces creates a process of “continuity” that incorporates the “imagined now, some imagined past, or some imagined future” (Claundinin & Connelly, 2000) that provides the repository form which people draw their “best fit” patterns from. It thus provides a naturalistic method of Knowledge Management and Transfer (see John Dewey’s contributions on the importance of narrative).

References

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Calhoun, C., LiPuma, E. & Postone, M. (2002). Bourdieu: critical perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clandinin, J. & Connelly, M. (2000). Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Foucault, M. (1975-6). Society must be defended: Lecture series (Trans. by David macey). Collège de France.

MacIntyre, A. C. (1981). 15. After virtue: a study in moral theory (p. 216). Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

Niles, J. D. (2010). Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature. Philadelphia, USA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ranke, Leopold. “Preface: Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514”, in Fritz Stern, ed (1973). The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present (2nd ed.). New York: Vintage Books, p.57.

Spradley, James P. (1972). Culture and Cognition: Rules, Maps and Plans. San Francisco: Chandler.

Spradley, James P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. London: Harcourt Press.

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