Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary…

As a PhD researcher and member of the CommonHealth team I’ve been working closely with groups of women who have come together, with the support of a social enterprise, to share skills, save and lend together, provide peer support and eventually form small scale businesses. I’ve taken an ethnographic approach to my research which has consisted of in-depth interviews, informal conversations and participant observation. In less formal terms- I’ve laughed, cried, chatted, been embraced by and (sort of) learned to sew with a group of women who have given a lot of their time talking to me about their lives. It has been a series of ups and downs, trials and tribulations which I’m sure will be the subject of this blog at some point in the future. For now I’ll focus on a seminar I attended earlier this month which served as reminder of why I chose to take this approach to research despite the emotional ups and downs!

Earlier this month I presented some my preliminary findings at a seminar ‘Social Enterprise as Lived and Practice: The Methodological Potential of Ethnography’ organised by researchers from University of Liverpool, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Leipzig. It was an exciting day, with a chance to meet other researchers in the field of social enterprise using the same methodology as me. The CommonHealth programme is made up of an inter-disciplinary team, so I’m keen not to place ethnography at the top of some kind of research hierarchy but it was exciting to be surrounded by people extolling the value of ethnographic research and gave me a chance to reflect on my own research. I’ve always been aware of the potential of ethnography, but I’ve sometimes been unsure of how to articulate it.

Stefanie Mauksch from University of Leipzig started the day with an introduction to what she saw as some of the potential contributions ethnographic research can make, specifically to the field of social enterprise. She argued that ethnography offers the chance to move beyond the grand narratives of social enterprise and engage with the complexities involved in organisations seeking to balance social and commercial aims. Stefanie re-introduced me to the 5 operations of ethnography as defined by prominent ethnographer and anthropologist John Comaroff which I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar. Comaroff talks about the importance of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary which requires ethnographers to explore and unravel the cultural processes that lie behind the norms we might take for granted.

So it’s this that I’ve been thinking on the most since the seminar as I engage in analysing and writing. I’ve been trying to think critically and focusing on the idea of looking beyond what is taken for granted and exploring the processes that have created that which is taken for granted. Is it cultural, political, social, economic? Chances are it’s a combination of all of the above! It is this inquisitive and critical approach which has always attracted me to anthropology and ethnography. I’ve been starting to wonder whether this can this be a principle from which all research begins? Or is this somehow specific to ethnography? What would a quantitative study look like if this was the start point?Or is it, that regardless of the methods, this where our research questions can (should?!) start from? We can engage morecritically in the social world, whatever our methods, if we ask what it is that has created that which we take for granted.