The Bones of Solid Research?

What are the elements that make research “research” and not just “observation?” Where are the bones of the beast, and do all strategies share the same skeleton?

Last Thursday, in my Ethnography of Communication class, we spent the first half hour of class time taking field notes in the library coffee shop. Two parts of the experience struck me the hardest.

1.) I was exhausted. Class came at the end of a long, full work day, toward the end of a week that was full of back to school nights, work, homework and board meetings. I began my observation by ordering a (badly needed) coffee. My goal as I ordered was to see how few words I had to utter in order to complete the transaction. (In my defense, I am usually relatively talkative and friendly…) The experience of observing and speaking as little as possible reminded me of one of the coolest things I’d come across in my degree study: Charlotte Linde, SocioRocketScientist at NASA

2.) Charlotte Linde, SocioRocketScientist at NASA. Dr Linde had come to speak with the GU Linguistics department early in my tenure as a grad student. She mentioned that her thesis had been about the geography of communication- specifically: How did the layout of an (her?) apartment building help shape communication within it?

This idea had struck me, and stayed with me, but it didn’t really make sense until I began to study Ethnography of Communication. In the coffee shop, I structured my fieldnotes like a map and investigated it in terms of zones of activities. Then I investigated expectations and conventions of communication in each zone. As a follow-up to this activity, I’ll either return to the same shop or head to another coffee shop to do some contrastive mapping.

The process of Ethnography embodies the dynamic between quantitative and qualitative methods for me. When I read ethnographic research, I really find myself obsessing over ‘what makes this research?’ and ‘how is each statement justified?’ Survey methodology, which I am still doing every day at work, is so deeply structured that less structured research is, by contrast, a bit bewildering or shocking. Reading about qualitative methodology makes it seem so much more dependable and structured than reading ethnographic research papers does.

Much of the process of learning ethnography is learning yourself; your priorities, your organization, … learning why you notice what you do and evaluate it the way you do… Conversely, much of the process of reading ethnographic research seems to involve evaluation or skepticism of the researcher, the researcher’s perspective and the researcher’s interpretation. As a reader, the places where the researcher’s perspective varies from mine is clear and easy to see, as much as my own perspective is invisible to me.

All of this leads me back to the big questions I’m grappling with. Is this structured observational method the basis for all research? And how much structure does observation need to have in order to qualify as research?

I’d be interested to hear what you think of these issues!


A fleet of research possibilities and a scattering of updates

Tomorrow is my first day of my 3rd year as a Masters student in the MLC program at Georgetown University. I’m taking the slowwww route through higher ed, as happens when you work full-time, have two kids and are an only child who lost her mother along the way.

This semester I will [finally] take the class I’ve been borrowing pieces from for the past two years: Ethnography of Communication. I’ve decided to use this opportunity do an ethnography of DC taxi drivers. My husband is a DC taxi driver, so in essence this research will build on years of daily conversations. I find that the representation of DC taxi drivers in the news never quite approximates what I’ve seen, and that is my real motivation for the project. I have a couple of enthusiastic collaborators: my husband and a friend whose husband is also a DC taxi driver and who has been a vocal advocate for DC taxi drivers.

I am really eager to get back into linguistics study. I’ve been learning powerful sociolinguistic methods to recognize and interpret patterning in discourse, but it is a challenge not to fall into the age old habit of studying aboutness or topicality, which is much less patterned and powerful.

I have been fortunate enough to combine some of my new qualitative methods with my more quantitative work on some of the reports I’ve completed over the summer. I’m using the open ended responses that we usually don’t fully exploit in order to tell more detailed stories in our survey reports. But balancing quantitative and qualitative methods is very difficult, as I’ve mentioned before, because the power punch of good narrative blows away the quiet power of high quality, representative statistical analysis. Reporting qualitative findings has to be done very carefully.

Over the summer I had the wonderful opportunity to apply my sociolinguistics education to a medical setting. Last May, while my mom was on life support, we were touched by a medical error when my mom was mistakenly declared brain dead. Because she was an organ donor, her life support was not withdrawn before the error was recognized. But the fallout from the error was tremendous. The problem arose because two of her doctors were consulting by phone about their patients, and each thought they were talking about a different patient. In collaboration with one of the doctors involved, I’ve learned a great amount about medical errors and looked at the role of linguistics in bringing awareness to potential errors of miscommunication in conversation. This project was different from other research I’ve done, because it did not involve conducting new research, but rather rereading foundational research and focusing on conversational structure.

In this case, my recommendations were for an awareness of existing conversational structures, rather than an imposition of a new order or procedure. My recommendations, developed in conjunction with Dr Heidi Hamilton, the chair of our linguistics department and medical communication expert, were to be aware of conversational transition points, to focus on the patient identifiers used, and to avoid reaching back or ahead to other patients while discussing a single patient. Each patient discussion must be treated as a separate conversation. Conversation is one of the largest sources of medical error and must be approached carefully is critically important. My mom’s doctor and I hope to make a Grand Rounds presentation out of this effort.

On a personal level, this summer has been one of great transitions. I like to joke that the next time my mom passes away I’ll be better equipped to handle it all. I have learned quite a bit about real estate and estate law and estate sales and more. And about grieving, of course. Having just cleaned through my mom’s house last week, I am beginning this new school year more physically, mentally and emotionally tired than I have ever felt. A close friend of mine has recently finished an extended series of chemo and radiation, and she told me that she is reveling in her strength as it returns. I am also reveling in my own strength, as it returns. I may not be ready for the semester or the new school year, but I am ready for the first day of class tomorrow. And I’m hopeful. For the semester, for the research ahead, for my family, and for myself. I’m grateful for the guidance of my newest guardian angel and the inspiration of great research.

A snapshot from a lunchtime walk

In the words of Sri Aurobindo, “By your stumbling the world is perfected”