Ethnographic research

Have you participated in a research project on trans issues?How might it convey our humanity, or even our experience, to the reader?

I get requests occasionally, publicised through facebook, from undergrads and researchers, and even senior lecturers show an interest. Quantitative research, looking at objective figures, can be useful- how many of us commit suicide? But it cannot say why. Qualitative researchers interview us. How can they make sense of the mass of data? When I participated, the researcher asked each subject the same questions, and transcribed the answers, including ers and ums. This allowed answers to be grouped by question. The more you generalise about the group, the less you know about the person.

My friend did her PhD interviewing trans folk, and has just published a follow-up article- in a journal, behind a pay-wall, but she emailed me a copy. This was my introduction to Grounded Theory. The article, still less this blog post, is no substitute for a general description of Grounded Theory, but may give some inkling.

None of us can give a coherent account of ourselves. I am aware of conflicting motives in me- all those books I never get round to reading, how I wish to appear against how I am really, how I subconsciously consider decisions and debate within myself. This blog contradicts itself. Even if I attempt to tell the truth, the interviewer will distort what I say by their own biases.

In grounded theory, the researcher collects data before attempting to theorise, deriving insights from the data. Barney Glazer, who originated it with Anselm Strauss, specified a series of steps which must be carried out in order for this to work. The finished research represents what the subjects say, whether that is objectively true or not. It depends on the researcher’s openness, and willingness to tolerate ambiguity, and be shaped by the data rather than previous theories.

Knowledge of the previous research literature can allow a researcher to understand the data better- why does the subject feel the need to say X- but can reduce creativity. Jennie values the “Aha!” moment.

The interviewer affects the data. To gain the subject’s agreement, she has to describe the project. One might use Quaker listening: active attention without particular prompts, as the choice of prompts affects the narrative. Knowing that someone valued what I say, I would be enabled to speak: I learned the lawyer’s tactic of just saying nothing, so that the hapless victim will attempt to justify what he has said, and stutter to a halt. The interviewer holds the power: a conversation between equals may not be possible. bel hooks asserts that white women do not listen to black women with attentive respect: trans folk, so universally despised, may be unconsciously disrespected. Our own habitual experience and response may reduce our power. Stating why I had the operation even to a sympathetic listener, I feel the need to justify my decision. If I detected doubt, my attempt to justify myself might become more desperate.

Yet starting from knowing nothing, paying attention to the narrator with no need to contribute to the conversation can be a powerful sign of regard and caring.

The empowered narrator can at least tell the truth as she sees it, without fighting off all the attacks she has ever suffered on that perception. The sympathetic researcher can convey some understanding of that to the sympathetic listener.

My radical feminist friend is preparing an application for funding for ethnographic research on trans folk. Her view that I am not a woman, that mine is an invalid choice constrained by patriarchy, will affect all the work of her research team. Acceptance of transition as a valid choice would affect it the other way. She believes no “objective” view is possible. I feel openness to our position is the only valid way to research us in this way.

Degas, The Tub

3 thoughts on “Ethnographic research

    • Understanding has to be a springboard to greater understanding. The problem is when we cling to our understanding in the face of contradiction. But- if you don’t know any trans folk, you have to read about us. And people who practise autoerotic asphyxia do not advertise it- I learned of them first through an article which had researched inquest reports.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True. I think we are finally starting to let people be who they truly are, but just barely. As time goes on, we’ll all get better at and piece by piece discrimination will die away. Being honest about who you are is vital. I applaud you for staying true to yourself. It is so important.

        Liked by 1 person

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