When we conduct qualitative research it is inevitable that we have clients who choose to dismiss what we have to say. More accurately, there are people within the organization that have, for a host of reasons, made the decision, consciously and subconsciously, to find any excuse possible to reject the finding. The question is what to do about it. That means reflecting on what the objections to the work are and the underlying case being used to dismiss the findings. Unfortunately, I think a large part of it stems from the fact that we, unlike a computer program used to crunch data, are the instruments of investigation, analysis and reporting. The researcher frequently takes on the role of omnipotent, unseen author and expert – and that can be disconcerting to the person on the receiving end of the research. The text, sound clip, or video narrative is filtered through the researcher’s eyes; eyes that are, if trained properly in the tenets of the anthropological discipline, self-reflexive and committed to the honest and ethical treatment of the information gathered. And in this lie the subtle politics of power and the subject/researcher relationship.
Our words alone, for right or wrong, frequently lack credibility in the minds of business executives and designers who are intent on validating their work or personal views. What we have to say can be ignored in the light of “common sense” experience held by the business and design teams. Conversely, while the statements of participants have credibility, their thoughts are often seen as disjointed, irrelevant, or dismissible as singular anecdotal moments. By constructing stories, both parties (researcher and participant) gain credibility and influence. The narrator/editor gains the status of author and guide, moving from being perceived as irrelevant to the business situation to a position of authority. The participant is given greater significance in that he or she is understood as representational of a wider range of meaning, cultural patterns, and behavior. The participant or participants used in a final work convey a coherent message that can, when the “story” is told well by the author/editor, be implemented by members of the audience. Video in particular serves to provide specific direction while enticing the audience to tread into deeper waters, thus sparking greater innovation.
In conducting fieldwork, we as anthropologists are asked to share the concrete experiences of the participants’ environment, shared behavior, language, social relations, etc. In sharing that rich and complex world, new ideas and deeper understanding emerge on the part of the client. We as the experts see, hear, write, and film what are the most important aspects of the field experience and distill them into something that can be used by the various members of the business, development, and design teams. And because video is such a potentially influential tool, showing the drama of daily life, the dramatic and artistic side of the story can create waves in the business community that the traditional, omnipotent style of presentation cannot. Presentation styles, choices of material and stories, lighting, viewing angles, organization, etc. all work to structure the portrayal of a culture or population in ways particular to the ethnographer or team of ethnographers and in ways the client can relate to. There is an inherent story-like character to all ethnographic accounts of the field. This is doubly so when research is presented in the video format because of limitations of the lens and the limited timeframe of most cinematic pieces; the convention of film is to present information to an array of senses in a relatively short amount of time. This does not imply that the videos we create are fictions or that the goal is simply to dazzle the audience. It simply means that ignoring the story-like nature of the video results in dry, dull work that does little to impact the attitudes, expectations, and development directions of our clients.
The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness. It serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. There is an artistic element to good research and its presentation. Without the art of ethnography, though it may sound counterintuitive, the findings are easier to dismiss. The story is central to the success of any ethnographic project.