What do you see?

Inherent Difficulties in Fieldwork: What do you see?  What you’re looking for, of course.

At church recently, I heard a sermon in khmer that stressed that help comes from God and that God is the source of hope.  The preacher encouraged congregants to tell others about this.  After the message we sang a song and then there was an announcement.  The service was held in a concrete house, the worship was in a large room on the second floor which had a balcony that faced the street.  After the announcement, several people got up from the congregation and went out onto the balcony at the front of the room.  I kept asking the woman who sat in front of me, “What are they doing?”  There was an answer but I didn’t know the word in khmer so I asked for more explanation.  Something about telling others about God.  I just couldn’t understand.  I thought that several people were going out to the balcony to shout something like, “God is good!”–a little real-time evangelization–in response to the message for today’s service.  Several of the worship leaders were inside talking and I kept waiting for something to happen outside.  I thought they, too, were waiting for the big “Happy New Year!” type display.  Or was it going to be a song sung to the world?  Were they waiting for the music or inviting others to join in?

Finally, somehow it clicked and I realized what was going on.  The people that had gone out to the balcony were the youth and they were putting on a skit or short play about inviting others to church.  The balcony was serving as backstage space, while the front of the room was the stage.  I ignored the conversation going on inside and focused on the outside, completely missing the main event because I was looking for something else.

This was a good reminder that one can only write about what one sees.  The data is circumscribed.  But, with still imperfect language skills, it’s easy to miss very important occurrences when you’re not looking for them.  Because I was expecting something to happen outside I missed the beginning of the play.  Realizing my mistake, I had to laugh.  I will transcribe (with the help of a native Khmer speaker) and translate services and conversations because of my imperfect language skills and hopefully get more and better data through these exercises.  But, as I sit and read a book about qualitative analysis about ways of analyzing the data the researcher has collected, I am reminded that all researchers‘ analyses are only as good as their data and their data is necessarily filtered through their eyes…which might be missing the main event!

4 comments on “What do you see?

  1. Glenda Schubert says:

    Yes! We must always remember that even careful research is reported through the eyes of the gatherer.

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Judy Klein says:

    For many years now, I remember a pastor telling us “You get what you expect!” So, we need to be watching, as you say, and expect to learn something! Yes, that was a real-life reminder that we need to be paying attention. Not fully understanding the language though, is a good reason to feel confused or uncertain.

  3. Janet Ringle says:

    I so appreciate your challenge. Yet, in this situation your perspective is that of the one with imperfect language skills and what you missed when not looking. I in turn want to reverse that challenge with my day-to-day experiences. Working with children whose ‘language’ is reduced or absent within a verbal modality can lead so many ‘adults’ to ‘miss the main event’. As we work to help children with autism, if we wait for the word, for the eye contact, we can miss the beauty of what they may be experiencing and what they bring to us. We search for the outcome or completion of a task, yet they ‘discovered’ something in that moment that we could have shared and gone beyond together.
    I always ask the therapists to consider the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Perhaps I also love this story for the fact that the elephant is central to the idea and my mother loved elephants. That connection helps open my eyes so much wider.
    In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. The stories differ primarily in how the elephant’s body parts are described, how violent the conflict becomes and how (or if) the conflict among the men and their perspectives is resolved.
    In some versions, they stop talking, start listening and collaborate to “see” the full elephant. When a sighted man walks by and sees the entire elephant all at once, they also learn they are blind. While one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth. If the sighted man was deaf, he would not hear the elephant bellow. Denying something you cannot perceive ends up becoming an argument for your limitations.

    I love the need for communication and the respect for different perspectives. The word, the action or the task of the child can be so limiting as well. It is the connection of them all and the ability to ‘see’ that which others can’t. How many times will the main event not be within the spoken word?

    Perhaps Katie your imperfect language is also your strength.

  4. LKS says:

    Thanks for the feedback. Your perspective, Janet, is very interesting. It’s true that my mind focuses more closely on expressions and other aspects of experiences and observations when I’m not able to understand the words. I don’t think I get more information but I do get different information which is also very helpful.

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