What is ethnographic research?

As a third year undergraduate I was preparing for fieldwork with farmers in the foothills of the Himalayas, attending a course on methods and one of my favourite tutors advised; “just have an intelligent holiday.” I didn't want to appear stupid by asking what he meant. It took me years of experimenting to appreciate his advice. When doing anthropological fieldwork there are no easy formulas, tools or standards that you can arm yourself with in advance. I thought I was going to study how children learn caste in the Indian village in Himachal Pradesh but when I got there I realised since I didn't know a thing about child development or speak Hindi well enough, it would be impossible. So I tore up most of my research proposal and studied how the adults, many of whom were fluent in English, challenged caste rules or kept them the same and I found out about caste interaction by conversing, watching and making sense of contradictions.

In the last two decades I switched my attention to studying UK politicians at work, publishing one ethnography on the House of Lords and another on the House of Commons. Political scientists have often asked me what was involved. As tempting as it was to reply, “I was having intelligent holidays” I thought that might irritate, so tried to tell stories about what puzzles animated my research and then what I did to grapple with them. Why does whipping work in the House of Lords when there are so few bribes and threats for whips to use? Why do women thrive in the Lords and face such hostility in the Commons? What goes on behind the scenes when Parliament makes laws? I’d explain who I spoke to, what events observed and what processes I tracked to answer these questions.

It feels like being on holiday when you lurk in an Indian village, or the corridors of Westminster, trying to persuade an informant to spill the beans or reflect on what they usually take for granted because you are making strange and exotic discoveries. Curiosity sustains you. Intelligence is required, or more specifically practical judgement in Dewey’s sense of the phrase, because you don’t usually know what you have to ask or look for until you are in the moment. The tricky bit is moving from the moment to a place of some detachment so that you can theorise about what is going on. That process never stops; history continually changes.

At last I have put some of these experiences of ethnographic research in Westminster on paper, just published by the Journal of Parliamentary Affairs. It is only a tiny part of the story but it is a start.

NB thanks to ESRC-DFID for funding my current project on research in the Ethiopian and Bangladesh Parliaments which allowed me to write this article. For more on that see this blog.