The other day I had a very nice conversation with a graduate student I work with. This particular student is just beginning field research for his thesis, a thesis which, in a nutshell, will address issues of booth rental and wage labor in hair salons, a topic that taps into debates in political economy going back at least to Ricardo and also rich with interesting ethnographic detail. This student, like a lot of, probably most, ethnographers is using a combination of participant observation and flexible, open-ended interviews.
He noted that he was pleased by how his first interviews had gone, also noting the highly flexible quality of the interviews, with interviewees often taking the conversation in interesting and unanticipated directions, but also that he felt confident in working in this highly flexible and even improvisatory setting because of a significant amount of preparation for his field work that he had engaged in along with me and other members of the committee.
I drew an analogy to certain aspects of teaching. Specifically, there is a performative quality to research methods like participant observation and flexible, open-ended interviewing that has something in common with the performative quality of some teaching, e.g. leading an effective class discussion. Effectively leading discussions requires preparation and organization – you have to know your stuff, but I find that the most effective discussions are true conversations that can often lead in unexpected directions. There is improvisation, but based on sufficient organization and preparation that I’m confident enough to set aside preset plans and follow an interesting lead. (This doesn’t mean that anything goes in class discussion – or open-ended interviewing – some comments are outside the domain of relevancy, are too tangential, and require reigning in, though it can sometimes be difficult to tell in the moment what is too tangential and what not.) Not all teaching works this way, though. Sometimes a thoroughly preplanned lecture is the best and most efficient way to communicate information to a class – there can always be room for questions and clarifications, but within a plan.
Then, another analogy struck me. Some research (in this case, participant observation and flexible interviewing strategies) and some teaching (e.g. leading class discussion) is analogous to jazz performance, while other research (e.g. more controlled interviewing or survey research) and other teaching (e.g. delivering a preplanned lecture) is more analogous to classical performance.
Jazz performance is highly improvisatory. When performed well, though, jazz is not chaos or noise, but based on thorough preparation and practice that allow a skilled musician to dispense with rigid adherence to formulae to play freely. The same is true with skillful performance of certain research and teaching strategies.
With some exceptions (typically highly delimited and occurring either in music from the baroque period or earlier or from very recent classical composition), classical performance is highly scripted rather than improvisatory. The musicians follow a definite score. Something like survey research tends to work similarly, with attention paid to following a scripted questionnaire and attempting to control as much about the research environment as possible so as to limit as far as possible the number of variables that might contribute to the production of the different question responses.
In both cases here, classical performance and survey research, though, even within the highly scripted context, there is nuance and interpretation to performance. Different performances of the same classical works can sound quite different based on subtle differences in interpretation and performance of the music’s details, producing highly different results. With something like survey research, there is an art to getting people to respond to questions, and doing so without either inhibiting or overly influencing respondents’ replies through the details of posture, facial expression, or a wide variety of vocal qualities. (As an aside, the film Kinsey presents several examples of such things to be avoided by interviewers in a formal research setting. In the film, we learn about Alfred Kinsey as a person via several scenes in which he trains students in interview techniques by having them interview him. It’s an innovative way of delivering exposition about the subject’s life in a biographical film without slipping into the clichés of biopics. Along the way, it’s the only movie I’ve ever encountered that seriously explores social science research methods.)