29 January 2018

Ethnography & Case Study Research: Saying yes to the project

Over the past few Mondays, we have been posting on the recent case-study research project I worked on with OCWI. Working with OCWI on this short-term project was an opportunity

In this post, I want to reflect on one more unexpected learning opportunity that came out of this experience: what it means to say "yes" to a new project.

What did it look like to say "yes"?

Interestingly, I hadn't applied to OCWI for this research contract. In fact, I had applied to the organization a few months earlier for a different research role, and had OCWI keep my resume on file. So, when I got an email from my future supervisor at OCWI about this position, it was unexpected, and at the time I wasn't sure if I would be able to juggle more work with my already busy teaching schedule.

Even so, I felt like it was important to meet for an interview to network, learn more about the organization, and learn about the proposed project. I left for the meeting telling myself that I would probably have to turn down the opportunity, but it would be good to "show my face" and let this organization know I was interested and had important skills and experience to offer.

In the meeting, as soon as I heard what the project would be about... I was sold.

Not only was the program I was asked to write a case study on reflective of my previous research interests and areas of expertise, but it was also a chance to gain valuable work experience with this research network, and to actually do field research again -- after years of writing my dissertation, and then the time-consuming teaching duties entailed in preparing new courses year after year.

I immediately began calculating how many hours I could squeeze out of my week, and weighing whether or not I could realistically complete this work to the high standard I would want. I was up front with my soon-to-be supervisor about my availability, my enthusiasm, and interest in this project. When I left the meeting, I had all but signed the contract.

Thinking about what it means to say "yes"

Two months later, I met with my former PhD supervisor for lunch. As I told her about the project I was then deep in the middle of, she remarked how one of my strengths was my willingness to try new things, to take on new challenges and say "yes!" to opportunities outside of my comfort zone.

This comment really struck me because I hadn't considered this willingness to try new things to be an out-of-the-ordinary strength for a) an anthropologist, and b) a recent PhD grad today.

Anthropological adventurousness?

As a relatively shy person, I have always found conducting social research to be a step out of my comfort zone. Connecting with new people and asking them questions about their lives was never something that came naturally to me.

I chose to become an anthropologist because I loved what this approach to social questions could tell us, not because I love talking to strangers. Yet, now that I am an anthropologist, I know that in order to be an effective social researcher, I need to step out of my comfort zone sometimes.

Enacting (neoliberal) agency in the face of neoliberal structures?

Secondly, as a recent PhD grad in a highly precarious academic labour market, many of my conversations with colleagues over the past several years have focused on how not to get stuck in adjuncting purgatory. My approach has been to apply for interesting opportunities that seem like a good (if not perfect) fit... We are all expected to be "entrepreneurs of ourselves" in a neoliberal society, right Aihwa Ong?

I was therefore surprised to hear that it seemed that many of these same colleagues aren't doing the same. One of the great strengths of someone who, for a very long time, identified as a professional student is that I am able and willing to learn new things!

On the other hand... the more I thought about "adventurousness" as a strength, I also found myself thinking about the structures that limit the ability to say yes.

I was only able to take on this new research project because of the modicum of stability I have this academic year in teaching the same courses. Instead of dedicating 8-20 hours a week in preparing new lectures and assignments on top of my regular teaching duties, these are mostly already in place -- meaning that time can be given to exciting new research opportunities.

If this opportunity had fallen into my lap during the two previous years, I would have had to turn it down during the academic term. In working as a professor, I love the opportunity to teach anthropology to my students, but as an adjunct I work in a structure that has often limited my ability to do other kinds of "professorial" tasks (such as supported time for writing and research).

Lessons from saying "yes" to the project

Taking on this research contract has been a valuable experience, both personally and professionally. Yes, there was a bit of a learning curve to this project for me as I engaged with new research approaches and methodological vocabulary. Importantly, I didn't need to identify these problems and their solutions all on my own. A key lesson has been that being up to a new challenge doesn't mean tackling it alone.

I was hired because my supervisor/ co-researcher recognized how ethnography (and an ethnographer) could add a valuable dimension to OCWI's series of case-studies. So, I decided to approach this opportunity as an ethnographer; in addition to making sense of the community-based program at the heart of our case study, I would also make sense of the unfamiliar culture of this research network.

In approaching my co-researcher/ supervisor at OCWI as a key informant, I positioned myself to ask naive questions, check-in about my understanding of the project and directions, and draw on her local cultural expertise. For instance, she suggested methodological resources on program evaluation and case study research, facilitated introductions to key research participants in our community program, and helped orient me to key landmarks in the grey literature. Rather than getting caught up in "imposter syndrome" in an unfamiliar field, I was instead doing what I have been trained to do as an anthropologist.

So, to close out this post -- the last in this series until the research communications from this case study are published -- I would like to say "thank you!" to my supervisor/ co-researcher, Dr. Michelle Coyne, and OCWI for these enriching opportunities to think about the connections between Ethnography and Case Study Research.

Further reading: