Ethnographic research is difficult, in the way it challenges the more scientific approach to research. Instead of going in with a theory, as is typical of deductive reasoning in most scientific approaches, an inductive approach demands that we begin with observation. The identification process is not identifying a problem and hypothesizing a solution, but identifying an interesting phenomenon, and immersing yourself in it. This is pretty easy to understand. We do no go in assuming we know how Mendelssohn responded to his reception in England, nor can one go into a study of Kabuki theatre in Japan claiming to know anything. Yet in that context, music is the focus, supported by research into the social, historical and cultural contexts, vis-à-vis fieldnotes and general immersion (especially in ethnomusicology) into the musical world.
One of the things I recall from my ethnomusicology course, was a simple question: What do you do, while in the process of writing your ethnography, you encounter information that challenges or contradicts what you have been writing in your analysis? Well, you scrap it and write it all over again. Such is the spirit of the ethnographer.
At the moment, I am finding it difficult to distinguishing ethnographic research in information science at times, especially in light of a 1988 article written by sociologists John Law and Michael Lynch on birdwatching. (It actually ended up being a great article on infovis research, analyzing the visual merits of three traditional field guides for birdwatchers, something I imagine that reflects the kind of work Sheelagh Carpendale would do, if she did not have a focus on visual computing.) Law and Lynch observed that the lists that birdwatchers keep was in part what drives self-identified birdwatchers, and in order to maintain such a list, there is a learning or ‘info acquisition’ process (See? So where do information scientists draw the line between studying education, and studying info acquisition?) before one over comes their ‘aspect blindness’, and can begin to identify what they are observing. (An classification issue that maybe I should ask about in my reading course next semester.)
The ubiquitous nature of information is self-evident, but the self-organization and direction of the information field is not. In our course, we are learning to study the “information aspect”, or the red thread of information, which is not often observed or understood. For example, what is the motivation behind certain information seeking behaviour? What type of information is most useful? How are they assessed by the user? How are they applied? What iterative process do the users engage in? What human factors affect or influence their information behaviour? What individuals or communities serve as information resources on their own?
The trouble, upon reflect, is that I have many hypothesis in my head about the information behaviour of people, even though I know that I am open minded enough to be able to conduct the ethnographic research itself. In studying the informational nature of knowledge transmission within the context of flamenco guitar, I feel like all observations affirm what I already know, and what is new are more musical insights into a tradition that is quite foreign to me. Furthermore, my initial attempt at narrowing down the focus to knowledge transmitted about the “instrument” is turning out to be quite superfluous, and perhaps that was my mistake. I had embedded an assumption that knowledge about music could be delineated in those terms.
Unlearning the dictum that research should be conducted with the purpose of unearthing something useful, I have to be fully engaged with the idea in ethnographic research that I have no idea what I’ll find, but still being able to define what I’m looking at, broadly speaking. Perhaps that’s why ethnomusicologists are often at a loss to explain what they do, except that they’re looking into a particular theme or context in music. It also explains why I always felt a tension (which continues to exist) between the old school musicologists and the emerging field of ethnomusicology.
A different tension is being felt in the difficulty of teasing out what is ‘informational’ and what is not when conducting ethnographic research, and perhaps that is not anything I need to worry about. The priority is to gather field notes, transcribe them, write reflections and analysis, and accordingly, that is where the informational will emerge. Crossing fingers.