On home ground…

Photo credit: byronv2 under CC license

Photo credit: byronv2 under CC license

By Alice Hague (Staff Writer)

If you are a regular visitor to this blog, you might have noticed that we are a somewhat eclectic mix of contributors, with a fairly eclectic selection of things to say about a rather eclectic range of topics. That is actually quite a good representation of our home institution – the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.  However, I sometimes wonder whether, when reading through the diverse range of posts, it can seem that our interests require us to spend a significant amount of time away from Edinburgh in order to conduct research. Indeed, the fieldwork diaries of some of my colleagues include fascinating reflections on experiences in South Africa, India, Nepal, and the Philippines, amongst other places. 

As such, I thought I would briefly mention that some of us also stay closer to home. Indeed, my current research is engaged with communities around Edinburgh, meaning that the journey to my research sites is either by foot, bus, or tram. Some of the challenges I have in my research are concerned not with the language barriers or engaging with a foreign culture, but rather, almost being too familiar in a way that might hinder my research. 

A social researcher always impacts their research because “our research topics consist of human conduct, and because those phenomena are produced by social actors, we are inevitably and inextricably implicated in what we study” [1]. Instead of relying on one-off interviews, surveys, or focus groups, my research has been ‘ethnographic’ in its foundation – research that “in its most characteristic form…involves the ethnographer participating…in people's daily lives for an extended period of time” [2]. 

Such an ongoing commitment raises questions of research ethics. An interview is clearly an interview; a focus group is clearly a focus group; but does chatting to someone while gardening, for example, raise ethical questions, even though they know the main reason for you being there is that you are conducting a research project? What about the conversation at the community event where the organisers know I’m a researcher, but the attendees do not? And what does that mean for conversations with people at the evening’s coffee-time, for example?

Similarly, the development of relationships is fundamental to the success of an ethnographic research project [3]. Such relationships often result in “fondness and mutual regard” between researcher and participant [4]. But what about when a researcher “emerge[s] from their work with new and unexpected friends” [3]? How does that affect their ability to be a critical observer – both in terms of what is observed and what is said in the final report? 

Researching ‘at home’ brings about great opportunities. For example, getting a coffee to ask a few additional questions during the ‘writing up’ phase is much easier than for someone whose research communities are based in Malawi. However, it also confers unexpected challenges, such as making small talk when bumping into someone at the optician. How do we distinguish between when a conversation a ‘research’ conversation, and when is it just casually chatting? All social researchers must recognise their own position as a social being in the midst of their research; critically reflecting on that as we seek to present the results of our research is crucial if our research is to be valid. 

1. Atkinson, P., 2015. For Ethnography. SAGE, London.
2. Hammersley, M., Atkinson, P., 1995. Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 2nd ed. Routledge, London.
3. Crang, M., & Cook, I., 2007. Doing Ethnographies. Sage, London.
4. Bryman, A., 2004. Social Research Methods:, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford.