Laurie Taylor on the endangered art of ethnography

The power of immersive research, and what it is like to be an academic who spends months at sea

June 19, 2014

Source: Getty

Ethical sensitivity and difficulty in securing funds may be less of an impediment to long-term research than the research excellence framework

“You know,” Dick Hobbs said as we reached the moment in the judging when we had to decide on the best entry in the inaugural British Sociological Association and BBC Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award, “what I like about Helen Sampson’s seafaring study is the sense of space it conveys. So much other ethnography seems almost claustrophobic.”

As chair of the judges, I was gratified to learn of a new criterion that might help us to select a winner (see ‘Plain Sailing’, below) from among the fat pile of qualitative studies that lay before us. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who’d felt somewhat at sea when it came to choosing from among so many fine examples of how long-term research could yield insights that would be out of reach to those employing more quantitative methods.

This was one reason why this annual award had been established. Day after day, we are bombarded with survey evidence about the lives and the times of our fellow citizens. This, we are told, is how the unemployed regard benefit fraud, how the Scottish middle class react to the idea of independence, what black youths feel about the police’s use of stop and search. But much of this evidence is collected over a short period of time by professional pollsters who have little sense of the context in which they ask their tick-box questions.

Ethnography is a necessary supplement and often an important antidote to this form of research. It takes time: several of the researchers on our shortlist, for example, had spent two to three years studying, and often living within, a specific culture or subculture. It also allows questions to arise during the course of the research rather than being pre-programmed. So when Howard Parker embarked on his classic ethnographic study of delinquent youth in Liverpool (View from the Boys: A Sociology of Downtown Adolescents, 1974), he was faced by the official assumption that the young people in his sample were persistent offenders, hardened and even dangerous delinquents. Only after two years of hanging around with the boys was Parker able to conclude that this was far from the case. The boys’ offending was “mundane, trivial, petty, occasional, and very little of a threat to anyone except themselves”.

In a very similar manner, Heidi Hoefinger’s Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia: Professional Girlfriends and Transactional Relationships (2013), one of the studies shortlisted for the award, began from the common belief that encounters in the so-called “sex bars” of Cambodia would be entirely cash-based and essentially sleazy. Only after spending long periods of time talking to the women who worked in the bars and their male clients was she able to show that the relationships fashioned in the bars also had an important emotional component. Another stereotype had been exploded.

Skateboarders underneath Royal Festival Hall, London

Many social scientists, particularly those from an anthropological background, might regard these arguments as dated or redundant. Wasn’t the value of ethnography established many years ago by such formidable students of other cultures as Bronisław Malinowski, Gregory Bateson, Edmund Leach and Clifford Geertz? To a varying degree, all such pioneers attempted, in Malinowski’s words, “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to his life, to realise his vision of his world”.

Very much the same injunction would have been embraced by the Chicago School of ecologists, that extraordinary group of researchers who between 1917 and 1942 set out to understand everyday life in their rapidly expanding city. These intrepid doctoral students went and lived in the Jewish ghetto of the city, ran alongside the youth gangs in “Little Hell”, hung around with the kids who’d made the street corners their home, slept in “flophouses” alongside homeless men. In common with their successor and fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel, they produced a story of America and its people that no one else was able or willing or anxious to tell.

But the award is not only an affirmation of the significance of ethnography. What also prompted the five-year agreement between the BBC and the BSA was a wish to recognise the personal qualities that are needed in someone who is prepared to leave their family and friends to spend extended periods of time in a culture that will be uncomfortable, alien and, at times, downright dangerous. We all happily dip into different cultures: watch the skateboarders going through their paces under the Royal Festival Hall, check out the street style of the Rastas at the Notting Hill Carnival, wander through Chinatown during the New Year celebrations. But this is a far cry from suspending our own cherished values and embracing those of others for months and even years.

It can also be physically taxing. Another of the shortlisted entrants was Tanya Bunsell, who submitted her study of female bodybuilders, Strong and Hard Women: An Ethnography of Female Bodybuilding (2013). Immersing herself in that culture meant: “Getting up at 5am to train for several hours with female bodybuilders; learning new body techniques and exercises…going to competitions; waking up aching every day; eating protein every two hours; taking supplements such as creatine, glutamine and zinc and essential fatty acids…”

In addition to these demands, ethnographers also have to negotiate tricky ethical dilemmas. When Parker travelled around Liverpool with a bunch of boys who were knocking off car radios, was he ethically at fault for failing to report a theft that occurred on his watch, or was his integrity as an ethnographer undermined on the occasion when he dealt with a similar situation by suggesting that a particular theft be postponed?

Sex workers in brothel in Koh Kong, Cambodia

Parker might even have had difficulties gaining initial approval for his research if he’d been required to submit it to the increasingly sensitive ethics committees that now patrol research projects. (It is perhaps indicative of the difficulties that today’s ethnographers face in getting their research approved and funded that many of the most regularly cited UK qualitative studies – such as Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Jason Ditton’s Part-time Crime: An Ethnography of Fiddling and Pilferage and Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs – all date, like Parker’s work, from the 1970s.)

But I suspect that such ethical sensitivity, such difficulty in securing funds, is far less of an impediment to long-term research than the research excellence framework. Although there is no hard evidence available, it is difficult to believe that many academic researchers would choose to embark on a three-year qualitative study when they could gain all the REF credit they needed by placing three short articles in peer-reviewed journals. As Judith Mudd, the chief executive of the BSA, has observed: “Funding for any sociological research can be hard to come by, and this may be especially so for fieldwork carried out over time and in challenging circumstances.”

Although, together with my fellow judges, I was delighted with the standard of the entries for the award, I have no great hopes that we are about to return to that period in the 1970s when ethnographers abounded.

It was on a winter’s evening during that very time when the celebrated feminist and sociologist of the family Mary McIntosh (who sadly died last year) found herself arriving just before midnight at Waterloo Station. On her way along the darkened platform, she passed what looked like a bundle of old clothes on a bench. As she came alongside the bundle, she heard a voice. “Goodnight, Mary,” it said. “Goodnight,” she said automatically. Only when she was out in the street did she realise that she had just wished goodnight to a former colleague, Pete Allen, who was – what else – hard at work on his ethnography of homeless men.

Laurie Taylor is a sociologist, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed and author of Times Higher Education’s Poppletonian column.

Plain sailing

Ship sailing on ocean

How do those with a foot in two cultures experience life at sea? To find out, Helen Sampson took to the waves. Matthew Reisz writes

Sampson made a point of ‘always keeping with the pattern of the vessel. If everybody had to get up at 3am, I’d get up and go to the bridge at 3am’

Although she is today director of the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University, in 1999 Helen Sampson stood on the quayside about to embark on a refrigerated cargo ship and was baffled by what she saw.

“There was certainly no doorway conveniently carved into the ship’s side that one could step into from the quay,” she writes in International Seafarers and Transnationalism in the Twenty-first Century, her award-winning book. “No, it looked very much as though I was going to have to climb the perilous-looking metal steps that descended at a steep angle from the decks…I mentally braced myself and began to walk towards the looming metal shape which looked to be both unseaworthy (to my unpractised eye) and unwelcoming.”

Sampson, an industrial sociologist, had been asked by Tony Lane, who was then director of the SIRC, to take part in a research project on “transnationalism at sea”, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. As a result, seafaring went on to become her primary research interest, and since then she has spent much time – about nine months of her life – sailing on nine different ships. Many were notable for poor facilities such as “malfunctioning toilets” and “insufficient washing machines”. In all but two cases, she was the only woman among crews of about 20 to 25 men.

“Transnationals”, as the book defines them at one point, are people “having a foot in two cultures, two societies, two countries, at the same time”. How far does this somewhat abstract ideal reflect the realities of seafarers’ lives? To answer that question, Sampson took detailed field notes and carried out in-depth interviews while at sea, recording each crew member for about one to two hours over voyages of two to six weeks, although “one experienced and interesting, and also very garrulous, captain” provided her with seven hours’ worth of material. She also interviewed Ghanaian and Cape Verdean men who spend long periods in Germany between voyages, and the Indian wives of seafarers.

Although the fundamental question addressed by the book is fairly theoretical, the argument is illustrated by much vivid, poignant and often amusing material from Sampson’s observation and interviews. To cite one example, an Indian woman who was allowed to travel with her husband just after they were married describes how she was initially frightened on board and kept all the lights on in her cabin – only for the crew to present her with a huge electricity bill. They also tried to persuade her that the lifebuoy was “a big soap for washing the ship with”.

“It’s obviously an academic book,” explains Sampson, “but I wanted it to be accessible to people in the industry, even if they skipped [the more theoretical] chapter 2. I hope the understanding of what it’s like to be at sea would be increased in the industry as well.” It is certainly full of the kind of richly textured detail only to be obtained from intensive ethnographic research.

So how did she manage to secure the confidence of the crews while also negotiating the inevitable issues raised by gender?

Life on ships, as the book makes clear, is highly hierarchical, with captains often controlling access to alcohol, email, launderettes and medicine. Once she had gained their confidence (in all but one case), Sampson recalls, “the ship took over the scheduling, and ratings [non-officers] were given times off to do interviews during working hours, so it became a kind of treat for them”.

Seafarers eating on ship

To further establish her credibility, Sampson made a point of “always keeping with the pattern of the vessel. If the ship was going into port at 4am and everybody had to get up at 3am, I’d get up and go to the bridge at 3am, so I kept the same kinds of hours as the seafarers. I’m tired when they’re tired, less tired when they are less tired. This may have helped with the research in terms of timing the interviews, but it certainly helped in terms of getting people to feel I was not separate. I was someone willing to muck in, and they were more and more willing to talk to me.”

She even “did a bit of painting” while on board, not so much to be useful as to “let the seafarers see you are really interested in the work and them. When you work with people you get a nice kind of relaxed feeling and the gentle chat that goes on because you’re engaged with a task together. That really helps with relations on board as well.”

Building rapport works both ways, of course, and Sampson discovered that she “wasn’t generally frightened aboard ship because I came to trust the people running them, even when I was doing relatively dangerous things like going into ballast tanks or participating in lifeboat drills”.

As for coping with any issues of gender, Sampson says cautiously that she “worked quite hard at trying to make them engage with me as a real person rather than a very gendered person…It’s about seeing me as there to do a job, and not there to go beyond that boundary. It’s a balance: you want them to feel you are genuinely interested in them, but not exclusively interested in them for some personal reason.”

Well into one voyage, however, one interviewee admitted to Sampson that he had decided in advance that “he was going to pursue a female researcher, whatever she was like, as soon as she arrived on board”. More disconcerting was “being asked questions I wouldn’t expect to be asked in a work setting back home”. Knowing that some seafarers “thought it was very odd that I didn’t have children”, she decided on one occasion to anticipate any intrusive questions by making a vague general statement on the lines of “God hasn’t been willing to give me children yet” – only to be given a long lecture about fertility treatment options.

Although she stresses that she “had access to the field notes of (mostly male) co-researchers” and could see no difference in their fundamental findings, Sampson does suspect that “people were more willing to talk about personal things to a woman. They would say ‘It’s like talking to my sister’ or ‘It’s like talking to my mum’. They sometimes talked to me about things they hadn’t talked about with their fellow crew members – their family life and bereavements and so on. They were perhaps more interested in getting to know me and finding out who I was and what I was doing. So it can work to your advantage.”

Matthew Reisz

Helen Sampson is winner of the first British Sociological Association and BBC Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award. Her book, International Seafarers and Transnationalism in the Twenty-first Century, (2013) is published by Manchester University Press.

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