Making connections under the banyan tree and other such spaces

As part of the study’s knowledge exchange we ran four workshops on multimodal ethnography for doctoral and early career researchers and researchers working in practice and not affiliated to a higher education institution. The workshops ran in London (November 2017, March 2018), in Athens (February 2018) and in Tirupati (June 2018) and we have had 109 participants take part across the three cities. In this blog post, co-authored by Melissa and Christos, reflect on the rationale, design, pedagogy and experience of these workshops and to think about how these might relate to knowledge exchange.

Making connections, Tirupati, June 2018

The idea for the Making Connections workshops came about in the run up period to the public exhibitions following ongoing discussions and reflections we had about the challenges we were facing in analysing multimodal ethnographic data. While we’d always located the methodology in ethnographic practice, we had started the fieldwork talking about the various methods we were using as ‘tasks’. Tasks tend to be discrete and time-limited, bounded activities.
Very early on in the fieldwork, we realised that we could not describe the various methods (talking, walking, mapping, taking photographs, drawing) as ‘tasks’. Boundaries between different methodological activities were quickly decimated as the children in the study introduced us to their own methods for exploring and learning about the world through play. As we’ve written elsewhere on this blog, we ended up playing a lot with the children in the study and our neatly defined ‘tasks’ started to merge with one another, the practices of these methods leaking from one activity to another: we took photos whilst walking and talking; played whilst doing more formal interviews, etc.
The linear logics of method, at least as these are presented in write ups, gave way to a much messier and more anarchic way of learning about children’s worlds. As a result, we had to re-think our own language for describing what we were doing and experimentation, a responsiveness to what we were encountering and a willingness to try out new methods and activities, to combine and mesh our knowledge practices with those of the children we were working with, became a key concept we started to use more and more.
As fieldwork progressed, and our data archive grew, we started to face similar challenges with respect to engaging with the information we were collecting, once back at our desks. In particular, we found ourselves at a bit of a loss in terms of starting any formal analysis. How does one enter a rich and large data archive to make any sense of it? Where do you start? Can we even talk about ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ point in data collection, especially in ethnographic fieldwork which is governed by extended temporalities and for which the longue durée is a key organising logic? What’s more we knew through informal conversations with others, our doctoral students and colleagues, that this was not a challenge that we alone faced.
At the same time, we had started documenting our various methods in a ‘methodology booklet’ which was never to be. The booklet had initially started as a catalogue of the methods, where we’d given each method an entry and a description of how we had used it in the field. It was an awkward and cumbersome piece of writing that, in retrospect we have come to understand as jarring with our lived experience. It is perhaps no wonder that we kept finding other, more interesting things to write about and the booklet eventually fell by the wayside.
What replaced it instead was a paper about experimentation, about the making of connections between different methods live and situ, and about taking that ethos of experimentation back to the desk and practising it as a form of analysis. This experimentation was what best reflected our entry point into analysis as we tested out ideas about what shape and feel the ‘relationship’ between childhood and public life could be said to take according to our fieldwork. Accordingly, we have written about bodies, emotion, identification, and idiomatic expression.
As we sat chatting over dinner during the European Sociological Association conference in August 2017 in Athens, the idea emerged to run what we later called the ‘making connections’ workshops. We thought of these workshops as a series of events focusing on methodological and analytical issues relating to multimodal ethnography, based on a pedagogy of experiential learning and aiming to create relational, open spaces. We had hoped that these workshops would genuinely provide insights into the messiness of the actual research practice, and could thus enable the sharing of experiences and the creation of a community of practice.
We planned the workshops in London and Athens as full day events in which the first part of the day was focusing on research and methodologies while the second had a focus on analysis. In the first part, and following an introductory talk on methods for data production and collection which we have used on the study, we asked the participants to sit together in groups of five to six people and each group was given a copy of an extract of our data relating to one child in the study. The data extract comprised of a few pages of fieldnotes (the example from London eventually made into this blog post), some of the child’s photographs, a map created by the child, as well as a document we refer to on the study as an ‘index card’ (a summary of each ethnographic biography/child’s life as we came to know them over three years).

 

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Each group engaged with the study data, discussing it amongst themselves, including experimenting with different ways of interpreting it. Ultimately, the groups were asked to reflect and discuss the kinds of stories these data (captured in different media) and their interaction tell us about the child that they were referring to. The section was rounded off with a general discussion among all the participants and ourselves, in which we discussed the stories that surfaced, as well as reflections on the interaction of different media and how this interaction may provide routes to novel views and understandings.
In the second part of the day, we presented our thinking about metaphors that may be employed to think about multimodal analysis as well as presenting some of our own attempts at analysing study data. In the afternoon, working in pairs, workshop participants were asked to engage with their own material. Each participant was asked prior to the workshop to bring with her 3 pieces of data in different media. So, participants sat in pairs where each presented her material to her peer and then discussed and reflected together about how, in the light of the discussions of the day so far, one could think of each piece of data through the other as well as how one could combine them to tell a story.
In Tirupati, we were able to run the same workshop but over a three-day period. The workshop was hosted by SPMVV Women’s University in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh in collaboration with our colleagues there, Professor Uma Vennam and Madhavi Latha. Having three days meant that we were able to take more time over introductions to different methods that might be used in multimodal ethnographic research, and send the group into ‘the field’ for a day (the bus stop, the marketplace, the temple and a local community) to investigate what it might mean to live, work and play in Tirupati.
In many ways we take a view of ethnography as an embodied research practice, in which making sense of data happens in motion, in conversation with others, through the senses etc. What we were hoping to achieve through these workshops is a mini experience of that embodied ethnographic practice, in all its messiness, confusion, false starts, backtracking, moments of inspiration etc.
It is hard to codify some of these experiences although, like others we continue to try. Margaret Strathern talks about ‘the ethnographic moment; other colleagues make reference to ‘serendipity’ or ‘opportunism’ afforded by ethnography. For our part, we found the metaphor of ‘desire lines’ to be a productive way of thinking about the various twists-and-turns we had experienced on doing research with children in the project, and generally how we have approached our ethnographic practice (we are currently writing about desire lines in more detail, watch this space).
We know that this metaphor does not sit comfortably with everyone, some feedback from the workshop reflected the confusion that might arise in off-roading. Yet, we feel, as do others, that this is a valuable practice to cultivate.
We would also maintain that doing so with the company of others is also valuable, and a background agenda we had in running the workshop. Many of us have experienced methods training as the ‘application’ of a ‘method’ of data collection or analysis: the former happens in conversation with an interlocutor (e.g. an interview), the latter often in conversation with oneself, books, journal articles and one’s computer screen.
What seems to be missing for us in these approaches to methods training, and what we experienced as a team on the project, are the many, many conversations we had amongst ourselves, where we reflected on our fieldwork experiences, our understandings of what we encountered, how we felt about the fieldwork and the sense we were making of it. Many of these conversations happened on the fly, walking to and from conference venues, over lunches and dinners, over research meetings on Skype, in email exchanges, and twitter and text messages.
While it is not possible to re-create all of this in a training event (we did our best by hosting these events off campuses and supplying tasty, warm cooked food – not sandwiches!), it is possible to raise awareness about these peripheral and ephemeral, though no less important ways, in which as ethnographers we make sense of the worlds we study.
It was also our hope that some of the conversations that emerged during these continue beyond the boundaries of the workshop spaces and times, and create a community of practice in which more open and honest conversations about ethnographic research practice (in this case) are not only tolerated by positively encouraged. Towards this goal, we have made attempts to openly discuss and share our experience and reflections of our own research practice in a series of podcasts, together with our colleague Vinnarasan Aruldoss (coming soon).
Furthermore, we have set up the journal entanglements: experiments in multimodal ethnography as an open access online space in which to write about stories of experimenting with multimodal ethnographic practice, as well as more developed attempts at making sense of different topics multimodally. entanglements is a further enactment of the practice of following desire lines. A few years ago there was no plan to set up a journal; if anything, the idea for the journal came out of our experience of running these workshops, the responses and feedback we received, and our learning from the Connectors Study, on the possibilities of experimentation.
A huge thank you to everyone who took part in these little experiments in London, Athens and Tirupati, and who continue to support and contribute.

This blog post is co-authored by Melissa Nolas and Christos Varvantakis .

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