Sketches in Qualitative Research
Although it’s not a problem for every sociologist, accurately and affectively describing people in their settings is a challenge for ethnographers. We’re not particularly trained in writing, yet our credibility and reliability often rests upon crafting word-pictures of people in situations.
This opening from Paul Cressey’s 1932 book, The Taxi-Dance Hall, is a good description of a scene:
The patrons are a motley crowd. Some are uncouth, noisy youths, busied chiefly with their cigarettes. Others are sleekly groomed and suave men, who come alone and remain aloof. Others are middle-aged men whose stooped shoulders and shambling gait speak eloquently of a life of manual toil. Sometimes they speak English fluently. More often their broken English reveals them as European immigrants, on the way toward being Americanized… The girls, however, seem much alike. They wear the same style of dress, daub their faces in the same way, chew their chicle [gum] in the same manner, and—except for a few older spirits—all step about with a youthful air of confidence and enthusiasm. But one soon perceives wide differences under the surface… . (p. 4-5).
Nice description of a setting, right?
A few weeks ago I developed an exercise that helps my graduate students to work on this skill. I asked my colleagues to stage a scene for my class. A trio of professors eagerly volunteered for the stunt: to create a deliberately vague and seemingly natural scenario for my students to describe and interpret. (I have the best colleagues.)
At 9:40am, I positioned students inside our building’s café to look out onto an outdoor alcove. I told them to describe whatever interaction they saw in as much detail as possible, and then I headed back to the classroom. At 9:43 the unsuspecting class witnessed my three colleagues meet and interact, and the students furiously took notes.
Without any knowledge of what the scene was, I asked the students to explain what occurred when they came back to the classroom 20 minutes later.
At nearly every description, I stopped their reporting with questions. When a student said, “Then a short woman walked up to the-” I would interrupt: “What does ‘short’ mean? If the average height of an American woman is 5’4”, does short begin at 5’1” Why not 5’3”? How do you know she was short?” When a person was described as “acting collegial,” I asked: “What does ‘acting collegial’ look like?” When one was said to “look annoyed,” I asked: “How do you know she was annoyed?”
Students laughed off the questions at first, but they began to second-guess their descriptions under my constant interrogation. (One stammered a good deal, and my odd questions made several think I was in a bad mood.) But the point of probing these accounts was to seriously question all the taken-for-granted words and expressions we unwittingly use and to illustrate how much we rely upon a great deal of contextual information for our stories. Detailed descriptions matter greatly, but they can never explain everything.
In the end, I asked them: “So, what was the interaction about?” Their answer surprised me. Although they correctly guessed it was a staged interaction—my colleagues won’t win an Academy Award any time soon—the class believed that the scene was about two faculty confronting the third regarding the theft of an object! Nothing in their accounts indicated anything about a theft, and it was interesting to see how students’ descriptions differed from their interpretation of the scene.
This is not the only insight to be gleaned from the activity. It was, in fact, an exercise based on the sociological tradition of studying of micro-level dynamics. People rely upon accounts of situations like this one, according to Harold Garfinkel. In his Studies in Ethnomethodology, Garfinkel explains that accounts—whether everyday folk make them or sociologists—are comprised of the “observable and reportable” details of everyday life that are accessible through observation and description. Garfinkel encouraged continual investigation into our common understandings and shared agreements. But, he encouraged, we also need to be aware of our accounts. Accounts organize situations, and they are what matters, not the actual occurrences themselves.
So, if you are in a methods class, be sure to not only study the smallest details, but also question the descriptions themselves.
I’ll end with a more detailed activity, not from a sociologist but from one of my favorite authors, Georges Perec. In an essay on description, he offers a practical exercise for fellow crafters of scenes. The piece is based upon nine visits to the same location (the Place Saint-Sulpice, visible here on Google Maps). He suggests sitting in a café window, just as my students did.
Perec recommends: “Observe the street, from time to time, with some concern for system perhaps. Apply yourself. Take your time…”
He asks you to write down the place and time, the date, the weather-- anything noteworthy. And if you don’t find anything noteworthy, he writes, “You don’t know how to see.” He continues: “You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless…” And when you feel like you’ve exhausted a subject, you still have not fully looked at anything at all, you’re just seeing what you already would see.
Then he encourages you to “force yourself to see more flatly,” by detecting rhythms of cars, their colors and license plates; the shop signs, the posters, the fashion of pedestrians footwear. Detail the number of operations a driver must accomplish to park a car and head into a shop to by a jar of fruit jam. He then encourages you to build out your description to “decipher a bit of the town.” (Here’s a YouTube video inspired by Perec.)
I don’t know if Mario Small ever read Perec, but his Villa Victoria provides a wonderful depiction of a neighborhood, seeing past what he could already see:
The evening ended with music and heavy dancing throughout. By early night, the plaza and streets surrounding it were full of people. All of the bands at the plaza played salsa, merengue, plena, or bomba—no reggae, hip-hop, R&B, or American Rock music. It was as if the bands, selected by the adult organizers an performing a the plaza, constituted a different world from that of the DJ’s, put together for the teens and setup at the park. Throughout the night, one man in the audience holding a cowbell marked the rhythm in accompaniment. Men and women had begun to feel the effects of alcohol, and a few middle-aged women made passes at the younger men in attendance. By the evening’s end, I had a difficult time imagining anyone complaining they had not enjoyed their weekend at the Villa (p. 97).
Use these suggestions to practice making observations on your own. What do you learn about the world around you that you might not have otherwise noticed?