A few days ago Mehri and I visited an estate agent because we are trying to sell our apartment. The person we had an appointment to meet was late, so we were invited to sit and wait for about twenty minutes. During this time there was so much to look at – the work environment, how the space was organised in a new building, what people had on their desks, the way they were dressed, how they walked about and addressed each other, elements of power relations and networking, what there was on the table in front of us, how their brochures were organised, what images they used to sell their business, what sorts of images and content they felt would help to do this, generally how they presented themselves to the outside world.
After a while another employee came and sat with us. It was interesting how he presented himself, how he made us feel comfortable (which he may not have done!), how it was possible to get him into small talk. But it wasn’t small talk at all. As a researcher I was trying to find out from him what the rules were for consuming refreshments in the workplace. I’d noted that there were no coffee tumblers on desks and that no-one was walking around with them as they did all the time in the university. I shared this with him for a moment to see how he responded. He had asked us if we wanted some refreshments; so there was a way in. A lot could be learnt from what he said and how he said it – about identity, culture and power. It was even possible to get into what sort of work discourses he had to deal with. When the other person finally arrived there was a lot to notice about how they interacted with each other – how apologies and the the possible embarrassment of how he had covered for her were managed. Gender management in a social climate where we are supposed to be so careful was certainly there to be watched.
This might all sound too much – getting on with researching even at important times like going to the estate agent to negotiate the life-changing event of moving house. But researchers can’t avoid doing this. In fact I think that everyone does this all the time anyway – the natural phenomenology that Alfred Schutz reminds us we all do as ‘strangers’ to the things around us in order to get on with life. As researchers we externalise these natural processes.
Of particular importance to me, is that it did help me to work out what to say next in what I was writing, which has nothing at all to do with estate agents. But surely, if we are doing research that has anything at all to do with people, we can find elements of this wherever we look. Writing in public places like cafés and libraries is not just because we can drink the coffee, but also because these places and others keep us alive to what is going on with people everywhere.
Also, I am both observing and taking part in small culture formation on the go. It helps me not just to write but to work out my own social tasks. It is crossing the boundaries between the familiar and the strange. It helps me to go and get my expenses refund in the bank in Doha; and that experience helps me to talk to the people in the estate agents and to find the intercultural threads to get a little bit into their world which is a foreign to me as the bank in Doha. And perhaps speaking to them also helps me to get through the day in my own workplace.
Just writing this also helps me to sort out my thinking. I thought about it two days ago; and now I manage to find the moment to write it.