Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

HDR Research Conference Panel: Dubious Ethnographers

I had mentioned previously that I’ve been involved in putting together a panel for the semi-annual Higher Degrees by Research Conference, on the general theme of “Dubious Ethnographers”. This panel was loosely conceived as a response to some of the questions raises at the last HDR panel I put together, where I received some questions about whether what I do “counts” as proper ethnography.

We now have firm times and such for the panel (just as well, given that we’re presenting on Wednesday!!!). Local readers are welcome to drop by for what will likely be a quite informal session. Attendance is free, but RSVP by Monday is required for anyone who wants to hang around for food. I’ve uploaded the full conference program. Attentive readers will note that I’m not the only member from the reading group who will be presenting. There is also an interesting discussion planned on the possibility of moving toward a more US-style model for Australian PhDs, a research ethics discussion, and many other interesting presentations of research student work-in-progress.

The full description of my panel, which meets at 10 a.m. in Storey Hall on Wednesday, 22 November, is attached below the fold.

Dubious Ethnographers

Panel Concept: Ethnographic techniques have traditionally been associated with anthropological research – a historical association that causes many to view ethnographic approaches as suited only for cross-cultural research, conducted via long-term resident observation, and geared to the production of thick descriptive narrative. Ethnographic techniques, however, have recently come to be employed more eclectically, applied in less “traditional” field sites and often used in combination with other forms of research. This panel will discuss some examples of these less traditional uses of ethnographic techniques. N Pepperell, S Robertson and E Yates will present on the ways in which they have used ethnographic techniques, in combination with other research strategies, in their PhD projects, in an interactive session that seeks to explore the potentials and limits of ethnographic methods in non-traditional research projects.

Sense and Sensibility: Reflections on the Researcher as a Research Tool

N Pepperell
PhD Candidate – Environment and Planning

This talk discusses some of the ways I have used ethnographic techniques in research into the impact of urban development on one rural community. I focus on the ways in which I have used ethnographic techniques to: identify and refine research questions; sensitise myself to competing interpretations of, and conflicts over, more “fixed” documentary evidence; and organise the narrative presentation of my thesis. Along the way, I reflect on some of the special ethical challenges inherent in the use of ethnographic techniques – and on the sometimes awkward co-existence of the formal ethics process and the practical ethics of ethnographic research.

Cultural Probes in Ethnography: Pitfalls and Possibilities

S Robertson
PhD Candidate

Cultural probes are a relatively new method of data collection that has been used extensively in design-based research since its initial inception by Gaver, Dunne and Pancetti in 1999. Based on notions of “uncertainty, play, exploration and subjective interpretation” (Gaver et. al. 2004: 53), cultural probes are essentially purposefully designed packages of mixed media materials, such as disposable cameras, diaries, photo albums, postcards and tape recorders that are given to participants to explore and complete in their daily environments. Designed to provoke “inspirational responses” (Gaver et. al. 1999: 22) about participants’ lives, feelings and experiences, and to allow participants time to reflect upon the themes of the research whilst ensconced within the private realm of their daily lives, data from cultural probes has traditionally been used by designers to assess and evaluate the needs of a group or community prior to undertaking a design project. In this paper, I will discuss and evaluate the adaptation of cultural probes for use in a qualitative ethnographic study on migration. Through discussion and analysis of my experiences using probes for research into international students who become skilled migrants, I will make some suggestions on how probes can enhance and enrich data when used alongside more traditional ethnographic methods such as in-depth interviews. This discussion will include my own position as a researcher as well as feedback received from participants. I will also speculate on how probes could be applied to other sociological contexts. My hope is to inspire other researchers in the field to consider experimenting with this method, and to provide some guidelines on the pitfalls and possibilities of probe research, grounded within the context of real-world research experience.

In what ways is ethnography useful as a supplementary tool when conducting interview research?

E Yates
PhD Candidate – Social Science

This paper explores some of the uses of ethnography as both a fieldwork method and as a writing tool in relation to interview research. Specifically interview research used to construct life histories with ten people from Cambodia living in Melbourne. I will examine and outline my use of ethnography as supplementary tool in relation to two life histories of two people that I worked with towards the end of 2005. I also look at the uses of ethnography to contextualize, detail the relationship between researcher and participants, and reflect upon the ethical tensions and emotions involved in doing research with trauma survivors. This presentation may be useful for students and researchers considering using interviews, ethnography or life histories as a method of doing research.


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