Learning wherever we are about the people in our research

These are further thoughts, following my last blog, about how we continue to generate meaning throughout the writing process and that research doesn’t finish once the writing has begun.

Perhaps we carried out interviews, and that stage is now finished. Perhaps we are no longer directly in contact with the people we interviewed. Perhaps we carried out research in a specific place a long way from where we are now. Perhaps we are analysing a text written in a different place and time. What we however need to remember is that those people, locations and writers are part of human society that we continue to see around us every day.

Once we can get around and begin to dissolve the awfully divisive blocks that a history of cultural essentialism and stereotypes has imposed upon us, everything begins to look different. I am currently writing about my time in Irán in the 1970s. A distant place and a distant time. However, my direct observation of people around me now in Britain continues to teach me about what was going on there and then. 

At the level of small culture formation on the go, while there are huge differences in how people behave, there are also huge similarities. But we have to put aside the stereotypes and grand narratives about separate national or civilisational large cultures before we can see this. They are not a good place to begin. They create a false lens that distorts everything. The people we are researching are like us and the people we see around us now, but brought up in different circumstances. 

To do this requires a familiar-strange-familiar eye. One has to feel to a degree an outsider to be able to see through an apparently routine thinking-as-usual. We may think that the people in our research have traditions and beliefs that only belong to them. However, everywhere, wherever we look, in certain aspects of our lives, people follow tradition and have beliefs from which we can learn about those of others. How they dress, what they say, how they look at and move around each other, what they believe about the world relates to everyone.

The content of these traditions and beliefs may be different in different places; but their form, how they are structured, follows under­lying universal cult­ural processes. If we, as observers, are insider or outsider to what we see around us, we need to find a way to get above and between its lines. Then we begin to see the deeper intercultural that takes place in one way or another everywhere. And this will take us deeper into whatever we researched elsewhere and whatever we are writing about it.

So, while writing, if we also look around where we currently are, we will see relationships, juxtapositions and conflicts that will help us think again and more deeply about what is going on in an interview transcript, a piece of text, a picture, a video sequence, or whatever we are looking at. This is regardless of how far away in space or time it originated.

This means that a good researcher, wherever they happen to be, will always be looking around them to help them understand what they are writing about. This may indeed be partly unconscious. Just putting ourselves in locations where things are going on will automatically allow a deeper sense-making to take place. 

My favourite location is sitting in cafés. When I do this I am working. I need to find the right place to sit, to have the best view of what is going on. Another is sitting in the bus station and then on the bus in the short journey from town to home. Another is sitting in my car in a busy supermarket car park. 

Another is watching a particular Egyptian drama on Netflix with the subtitles turned off. This is because, a bit like Jane Austen, it dwells on the details of how people dress, walk, look at each other, face expressions, demeanour, perceptions of social position, the architecture of locations. I know just enough Arabic to pick up whether people are greeting or arguing – like the tiny snippets of conversation that one can catch in the café or on the bus. 

More generally, I have been lucky in my travels often to find myself in locations where I only understand bits of the language but enough of the nature of locations. When I was doing my PhD in Egypt, I often sat for long periods of time outside the university dean’s office waiting to be asked in. Once in the room it was the custom to continue waiting with a number of other people, some in small groups. So I spent time watching them as they approached the dean’s desk and postured in their different ways to get what they wanted.

Recalling the detail of what happened in an Egyptian university dean’s office will therefore help to make sense of transcripts of interviews with British whoever or American political speeches. 

The reference to Jane Austen also draws attention to the value of reading good social observational literary fiction. I hope it now makes sense, what a Chinese student once told me, that reading Jane Austen is a good preparation for travelling to China.

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