Eyes open, mouth shut

Close and unobtrusive observations can reveal more to the open-minded researcher than focus groups and surveys, says Tara Brabazon

January 21, 2009

We all carry an inventory of social and cultural moments that have challenged, changed and transformed us. Hearing a great song slices away our current selves and transports us back through time faster than a Tardis. Unfortunately, my memory tracks are embarrassing. I am not from the generation that can punctuate passion, love and loss with Dylan, the Byrds and the Band. For me, it is Johnny Hates Jazz, Black Box and Snap!. To this day, whenever Rhythm Is a Dancer is played, I raise my hands in the air in some sort of proto-coma, post-caring secular ritual, feeling like I could live for ever while in reality moving with the grace of a Post-it note stuck to slate tiles.

Books, like music, pull a deep thread into our earlier selves. E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class should be read by all 18-year-olds as an inspiration and example of what scholarship can achieve. Its pages are peppered by forgetting, remembering and loss, but also the necessity to fight. It is the right mix of despair and honour in defeat.

Another great book, which I read a week before turning 21, was Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. It was the first time I had found prose so charismatic, so alive, that it physically pushed me to the back of a chair. It was like a punked-up Shakespearean soliloquy. Johnny Rotten always carried the aura of Hamlet, but with better hair.

The third pivotal book I read much later as part of an education degree. I was dragging my heels into a dry, dull and compulsory subject on research methods. It had to be compulsory because everyone – even the guy who still enjoyed using his yo-yo – could not justify spending one minute completing such a tired unit. It was like a car without wheels – no matter how interesting it might be, it never went anywhere.

But then – while counting the minutes until the end of semester – I was assigned a tremendous book and began to love the course that everyone hated. This miracle text was written by Allan Kellehear and titled The Unobtrusive Researcher: A Guide to Methods. It was a quiet, careful, but silently revolutionary book. It poked and unsettled all those dogmatic researchers whose first – and default – choice of method was either to distribute a survey or assemble a focus group. They asked questions of others without raising the most basic question of themselves: why am I doing this?

Kellehear walked around this qualitative and quantitative research world gingerly and vigilantly, but with eyes open and mouth closed. He found graffiti, garbage and cemeteries, monitored the scuff on steps and cornered book pages. By finding a worn piece of carpet in front of a particular museum exhibit, he learnt something about the capacity to hold an audience who would stop, turn, prop and look.

In the watchful introduction, Kellehear stated: “This book has been written for the growing number of people who believe that there is, or that there should be, more to social research than either surveys or in-depth interviews. Much valuable insight can be gained about ourselves and the lives that we lead by simply listening and watching both systematically and with care. Furthermore, a significant amount of work can be conducted without either engaging with or disturbing the activity of other people. In other words, much of this research is unobtrusive.”

Ahead of his time, Kellehear recognised not only the potential of using our eyes and ears with greater rigour in research but also the role and value of deploying cameras and computers to extend our sensory engagement with the social world. He offered landmark – and early – theorisations of how to use recording devices. Photography was a medium for research, not a method of research.

He agitated the results created through interviews, questionnaires and surveys, asking if we are better placed to study actual behaviour than self-reported behaviour. Kellehear also revalued and celebrated the quiet pleasures of archival and library work. Such a corrective was – and is – necessary. A friend of mine at the time described those of us who worked the archive as “desk researchers” unlike “proper” scholars who did “fieldwork”. Kellehear politely and quietly disagreed.

Unobtrusive research methods are delicate and thoughtful for an obvious, excessive time. The quiet radicalism of Kellehear offers an example to our students. A couple of years ago, I was marking five honours proposals on incredibly diverse topics: from the size-zero debate to football fandom, from Big Brother to anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns.

All the students – for some reason – decided to use focus groups. All wanted to survey ten students just like themselves and pretend that they were conducting “representative” research. I remember thinking that we must provide these students with alternatives, options and pathways, allowing them to match methods to their project, rather than teaching them to distribute another questionnaire to another set of their friends, even if they are on Facebook.

Books on research methods are not fashionable. As the Jordan of academic publishing, they try desperately to be noticed, significant and important. Too often, they seem tacky and predictable. The lipliner is too dark, the diamonds are too big and the fake eyelashes are one part style to three parts slush. Continuing the Jordan metaphor, textbooks on research methods are about as subtle as fake tan smeared unevenly over breast implants or – put another way – fake tan smeared evenly over uneven breast implants.

But Kellehear’s careful, special book showed how to use non-reactive data with innovation, creativity and imagination. From the archive, wall, bin, carpet or gravestone, he reminds us to see and hear the complexity of the world, rather than survey, shape and “discover” how we would like it to be.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.