What Ethnographers Do In The Shadows, Or Why Researchers Matter For The Research

Arturs Holavins (Artur Kholiavin)

PhD, InPart Project Postdoctoral Researcher

May 21, 2022

A participatory ideal of critical social research is having a research participant at the forefront of the research narrative (Grover, 2004; Jack, 2010; Bergold and Thomas, 2012; Singh, Richmond, Burnes, 2013). A researcher is a subjective mediator translating research participants’ experiences into the “scientific” narrative. Yet, this “subjectivity” is a matter of rather technical self-criticism (Fox, 2004, p. 1). We are powerholders in relations with research participants, critics of “positivist” epistemologies in social science say (hard to argue with that). So, leave personal vanity and arrogance of entitled beneficiaries of the system aside, and give voice to those vulnerable and excluded, they continue (how much entitlement notoriously precarious academic folks have, is a matter of debate, though).

However, “subjectivity” is not just about some values and background of the researcher. Instead, it is being shaped by very much tangible here-and-now everyday life of a researcher doing ethnography. Therefore, I argue social scientists should not limit reflections on subjectivity to the list of privileges (e.g. gender, income, cultural capital) in the methodological section. Instead, the epistemological rigour of critical social research calls for full-fledged incorporation of the ethnographers’ personal experiences. They matter for how research is being done, what it accounts for, and what data are collected and analysed. Only in this way, an accurate reconstruction of the field and empowerment of the research participants is possible. Otherwise, a black box (Latour, 2000) of social research (openly and nobly mentioned by Latour and Woolgar 1979, pp. 274-285) - the constructivist meta-level idea that constructivism and embedding of social science in social and political contexts - is left untouched, preventing participatory research from being truly transparent and sincere.

In short, my point is:

Immersion into the field is never as full as anticipated. In the lives of ethnographers, a lot is going on, and it impacts how fieldwork develops. This cannot be ignored when approaching and interpreting data.

After all, it is impossible to know how the ethnographer overshadows research participants if we do not know what these “shadows” are and what is being done “in them”. Below, I will reflect on some of the shadows which shaped and made it possible to do the fieldwork on the “Channelling Participation” subproject in a way it has been made so far.

As part of the “fieldwork 1” ethnography, I had been in Russia for 71 days or just over two months. Due to the war outbreak, it was 34 days, or roughly ⅓, short of what had been planned (not mentioning plans to extend the field). This includes the winter holidays from December 22 to January 9 (another 19 days). For around ten days, I had been sick with omicron (with my wife and daughter) and had to self-isolate, though I conducted two zoom interviews. The late February had seen no interviews and was marked by speeded preparation to leave due to the supervisor’s recommendation and the university. In these 52 days, I met three research participants in person and had another 20 interviews via zoom. I observed two Zoom meetings and did one visit outside of Moscow. Two planned trips to Syznovo and Suslov had been postponed and never happened.

Looking at how the fieldwork had been developing, some of the immutable aspects of my subjectivity shaping the fieldwork were:

Being a foreigner

Entering another country during the COVID-19 pandemic is not a piece of cake. Getting all bureaucracy done on the ground involved registering with the migration office and getting a local vaccine. Considering both required paperwork, whereas state institutions were not accessible for drop-in visits, this was very time and effort-consuming. A potential risk of a necessity to do Covid tests every 72 hours felt unmanageable and a threat to the fieldwork as such. Also, a “private” type visa and St. Petersburg registration raised suspicion of the regional hotel manager and border guards. This required additional mental work to fit in and position me as a legitimately present. This concern extended to the fieldwork interactions: a foreigner studying state-affiliated institutions had, at times, been either met with hostility or caution.

Airbnb apartment in Moscow

In the end, most of the data collection ended up being done digitally. Still, a physical place of living matters. Space and logistics are central elements of how fieldwork is organised. The decisions relating to them are often mundane and are not dictated by methodological considerations. I, for instance, had to stay long enough to exclude hotels but short enough not to find a decent and appropriate place at the usual local ad website. As a result, I ended up with a super-expensive yet very low-quality two-room apartment. Notably, I moved to Moscow with the whole of my family, including a baby daughter. She and a nanny occupied one room (because my wife works full time also), whereas I was spaced in a bedroom with no table or chair. The one-hour travel by underground to the centre is also something crucial to mention, as any offline observation or interview had been taking the whole day. Also, the apartment lacked a ring bell, getting me a couple of times in trouble during the interviews. The wife interrupted conversations by messaging or calling and asking to open the door. Also, a one-year daughter played the role of zoom interviews, knocking on the door or simply coming in and asking for attention. A slow wifi connection also caused a lot of disruption, whereas various daily chores made working hours shrink and squish.

Below is a picture of my workplace just before one of the interviews:

Picture 1. Working place before one of the interviews

There is plenty of room for the STS analysis. First, there is a working computer. In the absence of the table (the only table is in the other room, occupied by a nanny and a daughter), I used pillows to line up the computer with my upper body. I also added a first aid box to make it stable and horizontal. The laptop is turned so that my wife (hidden here behind a black ink for privacy reasons) would not get on the video accidentally. It is also positioned to have the best possible background: a wall and a white cupboard. Using a blurring function felt like giving up my unprofessional setting, whereas the official university background gives in and would be a permanent reminder of the research originating from abroad. So, the wife is working in the same room, just nearby. Sounds of her work could easily intervene, especially if she decides to grab some tea: a door is on the side of my seat. Overall mess and unpleasantry of the room are in huge contrast with the expected settings of the fieldwork. Many of the research participants would give interviews from their homes too, but it would not counter my anxiety and unease about the setting I had been presenting to them. In my imagined view of the fieldwork, I was a “seller” and they were “buyers”. So, they could afford to be “in-home situation”, whereas I felt that I had to be professional to get and maintain trust.

Family and parenting obligations

Having a partner and a child is one of the most disruptive and life-changing fieldwork-impacting aspects of doing research. I had to negotiate fieldwork arrangements extensively. Can the wife take care of a daughter in the evening, or does she have an urgent task? Can I go for a visit to another city, or does she have a scheduled appointment with the embassy? This, and other micro-management is indicative of family life. It made me not just spaced but also time-constrained. The daughter’s sleeping schedule, doctors’ appointments, catching covid from a nanny, and caring for the daughter while the wife is still finishing her work, are all everyday matters, which directly impacted the time and place of the fieldwork, but also my intellectual capacities, and a process of analysis. Parenting is something preoccupying your thoughts permanently, always on the back- or foreground of the attention.

Notably, parenting is an immutable aspect, broader than just “being disturbed” or “exhausted”. It also directly affected interviews. I related well with experts in an accessible environment through remembering stroller struggles. Having a daughter helped connect with and open up several cautious research participants. I also felt emotionally devastated after interviews with mothers of chronically severely ill children. Moreover, my analysis somehow ended up underlying bravery and exceptional strength of “mommies-turn-patient-experts” - parents going from crying of desperation for their kid’s potentially deadline diagnosis into respected public figures shaping health policies, being on par with the regional government, and discussing complex medical and state administration matters at the federal level.

Visits to relatives, including a terminally ill aunt

Apart from the immediate relatives, I also have had an extended family in Russia. Visits to the terminally ill aunt and, later, to her funerals, trying to take care of a grandfather in these times, and unwillingly getting the whole family sick with omicron are some things to mention. All of that had been preventing fieldwork “immersion” mentally and physically. Writing a WhatsApp message to a potential research participant from home or later in the night from a train heading to a small town just before funerals are two completely different things.

Picture 2. Tough Evening

In picture 2 (a selfie from the train), I cheer though I’m tired. In fact, I am heading to a funeral, trying to cheer up my wife left alone back in Moscow with my daughter starting to have a fever, am tired after a four-hour trip around Moscow to take an interview, and, unknowingly to myself, sick with omicron. I am worried about my daughter’s health, my wife’s tiredness, and angry at myself for going after my grandfather, hinting that he feels so unwell that we might not meet each other if I don’t come then. Observation notes and analysis from that night are particularly critical and grumpy, pointing at conflicts and difficulties patient organisations face rather than their achievements and successes in navigating health governance.

Writing notes and doing analysis at home, after a nice breakfast with the family, I had been more likely to get into an “inspirational admiration” mode, exclaiming to my wife: “imagine how awesome patient organisations are!”. All this directly impacted what aspects of the patient public participation got an emphasis, which codes dominated a respective part of the observational notes and interviews’ analysis.

Getting sick with Omicron

One of the crucial things about a researcher’s personal life is their health. First, self-isolation is an obstacle for offline ethnography. Second, the worry of getting a research participant sick (meeting one in two days before getting symptoms) makes you reconsider offline activities. In addition, coughing and shortness of breath made interviewing more difficult. Being on sick leave and taking care of a sick child while the wife has to work is also a major disruption for the fieldwork.

The list of immutable aspects of my subjectivity (it includes the most prominent examples but can be expanded) shows that real-life ethnographic endeavours involve numerous challenges and informal, situational choices to be made to mitigate them. As heroes of the New Zealand mockumentary series about vampires ‘What We Do In The Shadows’, ethnographers live in the shadow of daily life struggles, an ever-changing social environment, an affective roller-coaster, and never-ending risks. The number of interviews and observations, when and how they happen, which aspects of the collected data will receive more attention, and how the analysis will develop are shaped by the health, mood, psychological state, and daily routines of the researcher. As a researcher. As a person who does research.

Hence, as I pointed out at the beginning, a complete immersion into the field is, to a large degree a myth. The researcher always remains a human with their own life. It has a direct effect on the fieldwork. I had to wait for an electrician instead of attending a patient’s conference; I had to care for my daughter as a nanny been late whilst nervously seeing the clock ticking over the scheduled interview (postponed ad hoc, conducted later, but there was no “chilled” or “thorough” preparation beforehand). Instead of chatting with regional MPs, I had been feeding my daughter with broccoli (which she likes, but half of it still ended up on my home-worn tracksuit).

So, subjectivity is not only values and background but also a “physical” reality. Indeed, it is a reality embedded and interacting with preconceived ideas about “ideal” ethnography. Trained by qualitative research, I believed in undistracted immersion in the field to the point of forgetting about being a researcher. I thought it takes time to find gatekeepers, build trust, and become “a local”. However, fieldwork practices consistently turn out to be completely different. I am always aware of my outsider position (some colleagues suggested that this in-between position might benefit the analysis, and I agree rationally but do not feel this way emotionally). It makes me feel like a fake: an imposter of the community member and an imposter of the “ethnographer”. While others check on their privileges and go on becoming invisible mediators for the stories of others, I struggle to compose myself and identify what is the field anyway. After all, “real” ethnographers do not go to a doctor instead of doing an observation, right? “Real” ethnographers work with patient organisations on their projects, not nursing a daughter while looking at an online event with one eye, aren’t they? “Real” ethnographers write a diary on the spot, and not in two days because the interview happened on Saturday, which is the “fathering” (“give-a-wife-some-time-to-rest”) day, and your interview already made you feel guilty for breaking your promise to give that time to rest?

Or… not? Or “ideal” ethnography is just another positivist myth surviving and finding a way into constructivist and critical social research ontology? If we treat research participants as humans, it is fair to treat ourselves as humans too – humans embedded in networks and contexts, spaced and timed, limited and given opportunities to improvise. Sad and happy, busy and lazy, co-producing fields with research participants, and direct responsibility for what data are collected and how they are interpreted not for discursive and philosophical, but quite material, tangible, and mundane reasons. So, next time you do ethnography, do not forget to take a selfie. Tiredness, fear, or excitement in your eyes and daily chores of that day, your own “shoes” might be as crucial for the analysis as your beliefs, social upbringing, and ability to put yourself in the shoes of others.