Research As Whiplash? Taking the First Steps

Research is a juicy term. Its definition seems straightforward, even simple. But it’s really more like a weathervane than an arrow. Therein lies the challenge.

It obviously means a quest, or a search. For what? For information from which we build understanding and make new knowledge. In that way, research is forward-looking.

The term research also carries with it the idea that searching is a recursive process. A researcher looks back, searches again. She re-sees, i.e., reviews, the knowledge that’s come before. In a formal research write-up, this is the purpose of a review of the literature in the field. So a researcher must be looking forward and backward simultaneously, thus always risking a serious case of whiplash.

In the past week, I’ve taken the first and most important step in any research process: I admitted that I don’t know enough about ethnographic research to do this.

The next step was to search my doctoral course notes for ethnography methods articles and paw through my book shelves. Then I took a dive into a scholarly ebrary. I emerged with a seven-book series on ethnography. Now, it’s possible the stay-home mandate will afford the time and space to read them all, but for now I’m tackling the first one, and probably the second. The good news is that ethnographers are used to writing stories; these very readable books.

Here are some things I walked away with. (You probably already know these things, but reading was really helpful to start corral some of my thoughts.)

  • An ethnography is both the process of studying a community in a particular time and place, and the outcome of the study. In other words, an ethnography is a story of events over time in a community, its patterns of life, and the beliefs, values, and understandings that create those life patterns.
  • It’s through the process of engaging intimately with the community that the problem is defined and a solution or solution(s) is crafted. The we-ness of the process and the solution is what differentiates this from other methods of social science research.
  • It is from this story that we can begin to develop approaches that address specific problems “and help bring about positive change in institutions or communities” (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010, p. 21).

I start with a simple fact: it’s the stories that have brought me here. So part of this research seems like it must be combing through the stories of my lived experience (i.e., narrative research).

Living in a community where enormous change is taking place is fascinating. Living through events in which I’ve played a part– a large part, some say– in precipitating, it seems my physical and mental participation in the community all that’s happened are part of the narrative and must therefore be examined.

Right now, I wonder what is it about these stories– my stories, our stories that have brought me to this point of wondering, questioning, seeking? Clearly, the stories of what happened are not enough. They are the beginning and, as such, they need to be told. But they aren’t they ending, not if the real intent is to create models, solutions, ways forward.

The next steps? For now, keep reading. And figure out some ways to start to capture the stories, at least as I recall them in this moment in time.



LeCompte, M. D., & Schensul, J. J. (2010). Designing & conducting ethnographic research: An introduction (2nd ed). AltaMira Press.

Image by Rebecca Matthews from Pixabay

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