The wonders of self-ethnographic tools

“We do not learn from experience… We learn from reflecting on experience.” (John Dewey)

The strength of participatory action research (PAR) is that the role of the researcher includes being a facilitator of change. PAR seeks to understand the world while trying to change it, collaboratively and reflectively. In this blog, I briefly explore some of the opportunities that self-ethnographic tools offer to researchers who want to actively influence the course of their field experiments.

What are self-ethnographic tools?

shblog1Self-ethnography is a research method in which a participant in a social setting takes an observer role, in addition to their active involvement. The participant observes his or her behaviour (and in some cases, other participants’ behaviour) in a specific situation, and records observations in a systematic way. At Brook Lyndhurst, we use self-ethnographic tools to track attitudes and behaviours over time in various contexts. In a study for DECC, households completed a house diary that explored life in their house and their associated domestic energy consumption. In a project for WRAP, participants kept a kitchen diary on use of food date labels and storage guidance and their role in disposal decisions. And in our recent research for the Welsh Government (described below), place coordinators are recording the key steps, barriers and challenges of their engagement with local communities in a learning diary.

Function and limitation of self-ethnographic tools

The primary function of self-ethnographic tools is to gather evidence on a specific behaviour. However, while observing their own activities in a specific social setting, the participant starts reflecting on what is going on with the various aspects of their behaviour. Reflecting and taking a different perspective on these actions may in turn influence the attitudes and behaviours under observation. This effect – known as the Hawthorne effect - may be unintended. Imagine for instance, that, as part of a domestic use of energy study, a household regularly looks at its gas readings with a smart meter and reports them in a diary. Imagine that they then realise that when they cook a roast in the oven they consume more gas than when they cook fish in a pan. As a result, they may decide to take immediate action to reduce their gas consumption and cook fish rather than meat. In this case, a rise in participants’ awareness through keeping a diary led to an improved performance over time i.e. energy savings. The data collected through the diary may therefore not accurately describe the household baseline behaviour, as this behaviour has been modified as a result of the data collection process.

Reflection-in-and-on-action as a means to capitalise on the Hawthorne effect

shblog2This limitation in the use of self-ethnographic tools can alternatively be seen as an opportunity. Reflection-in-and-on-action is an approach that Brook Lyndhurst uses purposefully in monitoring and learning frameworks. We are currently designing one of these frameworks for our work with Cynefin. Cynefin is a Welsh programme aiming to bring together, empower and improve the quality of life for a number of lower-income, urban communities. Each of the nine selected places has its own coordinator. Their role is to leverage resources and support from delivery agencies to enable local action. In this context, the process of keeping a learning diary enables place coordinators to record their adopted approaches and ways of working. Moreover, it encourages them to reflect on their actions and focus on the emerging learning. They then have the opportunity to re-direct the course of their activities so they can maximise quality of life outcomes in their places. Finally, this learning diary is also an important source of evidence that the research team will use to illustrate the outcomes of the programme in the reporting phase.

Transform ‘in the moment’ insights into people-centred narratives

shblog3Once daily data on food waste, energy consumption or emerging learning have been carefully collected, the brainstorming phase can begin. All the necessary ingredients to finally understand the behaviours under scrutiny, will be within the researchers’ grasp. The challenge for us, as researchers, at this stage is alchemistic: how do we transform ‘in the moment’ insights into narratives that will inform the decisions of policy-makers, strategic boards or communities. Although there is no magic formula, some recipes for success emerge from experiments. Reflecting on my experience as a researcher engaging with various stakeholders, I see our role not so much as ‘external observers’ or ‘experts’ who report outcomes to the top structures. By engaging with the change-makers, I believe our responsibility is to make it easy for them to be critically reflective, research active and research able in their own right (see work by Louise Comerford Boyes at the University of Bradford). Therefore when we are asked to build the bigger picture that will help clients to make big or small decisions, my recipe for success is simple: bring the key stakeholders together, offer them the tools to be self-reflective, and facilitate this collaborative process in an open-fashioned way. Enlightened by the data rather than constrained by the evidence, the narrative will emerge thanks to the ability of people to participate in transformative discussions and co-create the solutions.

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