Once upon a time, the Lone Ethnographer rode off into the sunset in search of "his native." After undergoing a series of trials, he encountered the object of his quest in a distant land. There, he underwent his rite of passage by enduring the ultimate ordeal of "fieldwork." After collecting "the data," the Lone Ethnographer returned home and wrote a "true" account of "the culture."
--Renato Rosaldo, Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (p. 30)
The translation of cultures requires one to try to understand other forms of life in their own terms. We should not impose our categories on other people's lives because they probably do not apply, at least not without serious revision.
--Renato Rosaldo, Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (p. 26)
It's not a matter of simple translation, because you can't translate between your worlds directly. I was sitting with two of my classmates, Belen (from Mexico) and Ileana (from Puerto Rico) on Saturday afternoon planning our lesson for Wednesday, and asked them how the word "educated" would translate into Spanish. They pondered for a moment, then launched into a lengthy explanation of the difference between "savio" and "educado," and how they were both different from the type of primarily-intellectual development Americans tend to associate with the English word "educated."
I love this. I love constructivist qualitative research, the messiness of people, the embrace of it. The acceptance of not just multiple perspectives on a single absolute truth, but the acceptance of multiple -- often contradictory -- truths, because I live those contradictory truths every waking moment. It doesn't make life self-organize into a Grand Unified Theory, but it makes it okay that it doesn't -- and it makes it okay to keep searching and learning while fully acknowledging that.
I'm still getting comfortable with this. It's been maybe 8 or 9 years since I was first exposed to this idea, 6 years since I heard it discussed explicitly. As a small child, I trained myself to be a tiny scientist, and by "scientist" I mean positivist and experimentalist. (Later in middle school, when I started reading about quantum physics, I turned into a post-positivist, but that's still pretty close.) Little-Mel saw the quest for The Answer as encompassing my confused and jumbled life. Surely if we could find a way to explain physics on a t-shirt, that Grand Unified Theory would also reconcile all these different things I was, all these different places I lived in; how much harder could people be than physics?
Much harder. Deliciously harder. As qualitative researchers, we are our instruments, and as such, we must understand our changing selves. That's a tall order. For someone who has a difficult time focusing and being present in the physical world and who is neurologically and auditorily cut off from much of the peripheral context others take for granted, the exhortation for constant awareness is a challenge I enjoy stepping up to.
I float like a maniacal lightning blur through the world much of the time, but when I'm in the field doing research - ethnographic observations, interviews - I am there. Productive immersion in my work brings calm and order and sanity to my sense of being like few things in this world ever have; functionality-mode is the best drug I know. (It is not without its side effects, but it does have its benefits.)
On a completely different note, I'm going to be advocating for a stop by http://www.fallingfossteagarden.co.uk when Sumana and I are hiking the Coast to Coast this summer. We are not allowed to pass up a place called the Falling FOSS Tea Garden, especially when they have a giant pile of meringues and strawberries on offer. Yes, I know they're not using FOSS as an acronym, but still. Plus they have a Poohsticks bridge!