Museum Volunteers as Researchers: Applied Participatory Ethnography (Thinking Methods Blog, October 2016)

This article draws on my experiences conducting ethnographic research in a small, Tudor, historic property in Hackney as part of the MY426 ‘Doing Ethnography’ course. Prior to the research, I volunteered at the museum for two years. I began the research by talking with one of the property’s custodians. He expressed frustration at the lack of in-depth information about visitor experiences at the house. The National Trust distributes surveys to its constituent properties to collect visitor feedback, however, we agreed that the added depth of an ethnographic study would complement the survey data nicely. After introducing myself to other volunteers, I reprised my role as a ‘room steward,’ standing in a sixteenth-century parlour answering visitors’ questions about the architecture and uses of the room. The visitors would ask questions to each other, and I would intervene with answers. This practice generated rapport, and a chance to talk to visitors about the complexity of the house’s history, and their responses to it. I would then sit with other volunteers and share stories about our experiences with visitors; what kind of questions they asked, what they seemed to find interesting. As a result of my volunteer status, visitors were willing to share their questions and complaints about the museum. One visitor wished there were more placards explaining the historical detail of the rooms. Others wondered why elaborate patterns were painted on the walls only to be covered up by wooden panels. Others were amused to know that much of the furniture in the house is a modern reproduction, and were left unsure as to just what was ‘original’ and what was not. The research ended with me setting aside my role as a volunteer and observing a guided tour as a member of the public, ensuring that I observed the property from a visitor’s perspective as well.

The research experience taught me that visitor feedback would benefit from being richer, more detailed and more precise, integrating the experiences of volunteers and visitors alike. While surveys, if well designed, can offer useful indicators of the overall success of a museum in educating and entertaining its visitors, they can be supplemented with detailed qualitative research. We could refocus on the specifics of individual museums, using knowledgeable, skilled volunteers as qualitative, ethnographic researchers. We could allow volunteers not only to collect data but also to set the research agenda. What do they see as the greatest challenges facing the organisations they have devoted themselves to? When visitors complain to volunteers, what are they complaining about? What can be done to address those complaints? By treating people within an organisation as research instruments, rather than research instigators, we fail to ground our research in what really matters to them.

How, then, to equip volunteers to investigate the cultures and challenges facing their museums? Colin Robson argues that there is, ultimately, a ‘common sense core’ to social research. The goal here is not to produce a peer-reviewed article or to nuance a grand theory. The goal is to allow volunteers to make powerful statements about the institutions they work for and contribute towards change processes therein. This is not, however, to suggest a laissez-faire approach. Indeed, Mohammad et al. (2015) propose a useful framework. They argue that practitioners can strengthen the rigour of their work through regular and reflexive consultation with their colleagues. Group discussion and knowledge-sharing would allow the most experienced volunteers to encourage and mentor less experienced ones. I conclude that a sense of collective ownership of the research will produce valid findings if they reflect the lived experiences of volunteers within the subject organisation. We can allow volunteers in museums to tell their own stories about their own practice. We should place more value on the insider expertise of practitioners, whether in the heritage sector, human services, healthcare, business or beyond. Social research is not a jealously-guarded secret. It has long been seen as a means of empowering those whose stories we tell. An inclusive, participatory approach to ethnography could empower practitioners still further, by allowing them to tell stories of their own.

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Embracing Reflexivity in Textual Analysis: Lessons from the Desk (Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Conference, August 2016)

I want to start this talk by sketching out the research that motivated it. I was interested in studying feminist zines, which are small-circulation, handmade magazines with a sort of DIY aesthetic. Zines can feature comics, personal stories, polemics, poetry… My research became focussed on feminist zines with male audiences, intended to educate and persuade men to adopt feminist principles.

I’m interested in using discourse analysis to identify the persuasive methods that these zines use, and my contention is that reflexivity is crucial to a proper understanding of this source material.

But what is reflexivity? There are all kinds of different definitions for it but there are a few in particular I want to focus on. At the broadest level, to be reflexive is to subject yourself to ‘self-scrutiny’ throughout the research process, as Chiseri-Strater put it. At all points in the research process, the researcher’s subjectivity, positionality, biases, and prejudices are acknowledged and accounted for. As Wanda Pillow argued, reflexivity can entail an awareness of the impact of our research: whom might it exploit? Whom might it empower? What are the political repercussions of our work? The self is thus inserted into the work at a fundamental level, to the point where, as Uwe Flick put it, we are ‘co-constructing’ the research alongside our data.

I would summarise these three definitions of reflexivity as follows: Reflexivity is accounting for, and embracing the fact, that the researcher is a human being. And today I want to argue that this fundamental fact doesn’t change, no matter what kind of research we do or what discipline we are a part of. We are human beings who make it their business to study other human beings. We can either embrace this, or sweep it under the rug. We either embrace reflexivity, or we quash it. I want to argue that reflexivity is not a choice. It’s not something you can decide upon as you design your research. Reflexivity is inevitable: it’s simply a question of whether to embrace it or not.

So here’s why I chose to embrace reflexivity in my textual analysis. I had long been anxious about the problems raised by being a man who studies feminism. That my privileges and biases would inevitably make my findings suspect. However, when I noticed the wealth of feminist zines that are explicitly targeted at men, and indeed, often written by men, I felt as though I had an opportunity. I am a member of the intended audience of the texts that I study. The zines were written to educate men like me. They were intended to persuade men like me. Embracing my reflexive findings was therefore too rich an opportunity to ignore. Perhaps my subjective responses to the material could be integrated, giving an insight into the impact of the zines’ arguments on a reader. This is particularly true considering that I had no way of interviewing or conducting focus groups with other readers. I was, in essence, alone at my desk. But I see no reason why this should prelude reflexive analysis. I see no reason why the same self-scrutiny and introspection that goes into anthropological or ethnographic fieldwork shouldn’t be applied to my analysis of text

In fact, it would seem that my source material agrees with me. Here’s an extract from one of the zines’ introductory remarks:

‘I want you to read this as a conscious being who is ready to think about what is being said here. let it touch you. let it light a fire under you. let it make you feel sad, mad, connected.’

My own source material was grabbing me by the wrist, and demanding that I take a reflexive stance. That I be conscious. That I be aware of myself. Combine this with the fact that I am a member of the intended audience of the zines, and a non-reflexive stance becomes impossible. The zines were seeking to persuade me. How I felt, how I reacted, how I responded, became one of the only means through which I could judge the persuasive methods being used. I was the stand-in for the unknown male readers I could not interview or contact.

In fact, the zines were using reflexivity as a persuasive method. Consider, for example, the sheer preponderance of articles that ask readers to reflect on their experiences of patriarchy as children. There’s an article in one zine that lists all different kinds of questions for the reader to grapple with:

 ‘At what point were you aware that you were not a girl but a boy?’

‘Who taught you more about your gender role? Mother, father, peers or others?’ 

Or consider:

‘Count how many times you speak and keep track of how long you speak’

‘Be aware of how often you ask people to do something as opposed to asking other people…’

‘Think about and struggle with the saying, ‘you will be needed in the movement when you realise that you are not needed in the movement’

The texts expect their readers to grapple with their own emotions and reach conclusions on their own. The texts nurture reflexive thoughts in their readers to better press home their arguments; they fully expect that if you are introspective and considerate, you will reach profeminist conclusions through your own inner dialogue. How, then, do we ignore reflexivity in analyzing these texts? How do we make that choice? We can’t. What I’m proposing today is a reflexive method grounded in our texts. Responding to the demands they make.

There is a rich and valuable literature on the rhetoric of social movements, but, ultimately, when it came to identifying the stylistic elements being used by the texts, I found this to be a subjective exercise, precisely because of how emotive the zines were.

I know that the zine authors used humour to put their arguments across. I know this because I found their material funny.

The zine authors used terse, aggressive language to stress the importance of their arguments, and the fact that men have a lot of urgent soul-searching to do. I know this because I personally found the authors to be a little curt with me.

Finally, the zine authors frequently attempt to appeal to the reader’s personal life. The problem with being reflexive here is that discussing my personal feelings to quotations like this would involve implicating other people and laying my own personal life out, risking not just bad ethics but bad taste.  But nonetheless, I knew the material was touching, because I was touched.  I was still able to check the validity of my conclusions against the existing literature about social movement rhetoric: I knew that my personal responses were nothing too out of the ordinary. So I don’t see the demands of scientific validity as a barrier to integrated reflexive analysis. In fact, Corbin and Strauss have already argued that checking reflexive analysis against the existing literature allows grounded theory and reflexivity to be integrated very comfortably

I want to present a few basic techniques I used to ground myself in the zines throughout my research. The simplest technique was to position myself as a good reader. A good member of the audience. When multiple zines recommended I read a certain book, I did so. This led me to read John Stoltenberg’s Refusing to be a Man, recommended by 3 zines; bell hooks’ The Will to Change, recommended by 2 zines; and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, again recommended by 2 zines. The benefits of doing this additional reading were twofold. Firstly, it allowed me a valuable insight into the intellectual history of the zines – the scholarly context in which they were grounded. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was a reflexive act grounded in the source material. I was following the instructions of the zine authors. This kind of grounded reflexivity was easily integrated into the research output; it didn’t take any special methodology to simply incorporate the work of these authors into the analysis of the zines. So that to me would be the first lesson I took from this research: try and be an obedient reader. Texts can make demands of us. They can ask us to reflect on our own lives; they can ask us to be empathetic, emotionally engaged.

Which brings me on to the next major issue. How to incorporate reflexive findings into the research output? I’ve already argued that reflexivity is an inevitable consequence of being a social scientist: it just happens. But how do we write about it? I’m going to take you through a few attempts by other authors to incorporate reflexive analysis into their research and add a few of my own thoughts. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to see articles and think pieces that discuss reflexivity without ever actually using those reflexive thoughts in the final analysis. We have a lot of reflection on reflexivity, but no framework or approach for embracing reflexivity in textual analysis. No method for really incorporating it.

Tracey Moon suggests the use of a reflexive diary throughout the process of secondary data analysis. Certainly, I had considered the use of some kind of journal – and did keep some jottings of my thoughts in a notebook though nothing quite on the scale of Moon’s work. The problem is, how do we use this information? How does the reflexive journal figure in the final analysis? How do we make sure that the diary entries don’t hover mysteriously above and apart from the ‘main’ analysis? The reflexive diary of Moon’s work does not appear to have any substantive impact on her analysis, serving as more of a glimpse into the research process. While this is certainly valuable, I would suggest that segregated reflexivity is no reflexivity at all. To separate reflexive findings from supposedly ‘objective’ analysis is to reinforce a misleading and rather pernicious assumption. The whole point of reflexivity is to acknowledge the fact that your identity has impacted the research – treating reflexive analysis as somehow other, outside of that, misses the point and renders reflexivity pointless.

So we need an integrated approach. But, stylistically, how do we achieve this? I found one very simple change to be very helpful:

Stop using the passive voice. 

For one thing, it’s clearer. For another, it accustomed me to the fact that subjectivity and reflexivity were going to play a fundamental role in the work. I couldn’t hide behind an objective-sounding writing style: I had to put the self at the forefront.

While we must always remain conscious of our own power, good fortunes and privileges in the course of the research process, they shouldn’t be reported in a confessional, ‘mea culpa’ kind of way – segregated from the main body of the research and devoid of any impact. Try, if at all possible, to turn your positionality into an opportunity. I felt a great deal of trepidation coming up with a research project that centred on feminism as a white man. It was hard to shake the feeling that, as a man, I had nothing to contribute. The fact that I study feminist magazines with male audiences does not mean that my maleness makes the research ‘better’. I still have all the ingrained biases and naiveties that come with it. But DO SOMETHING with those biases. Discuss how you have been affected, educated, instructed, moved, upset, challenged, frustrated by the texts that you analyse. In many cases, that’s precisely what the texts were designed for: to have an impact on the reader. Consider what your source material might have to say to someone in your position. Have a dialogue with the text in front of you.