‘Friendnography’ and the ethical questions it raises

Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action Fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where she is currently undertaking a project centred on the linguistic experiences of minority language-speaking families in Ireland.  This follows from her previous ethnographic work involving language use in families in both Scotland and Ireland through fellowships with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Irish Research Council, and Soillse.  Cassie also held a fellowship at Institute for the Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, where she documented her eight-year ethnography of a Scottish Gaelic-speaking family on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in Family Language Policy:  Maintaining an Endangered Language in the Home (Palgrave, 2016).

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Of all the hundreds of photos on my old phone, there was only one that I absolutely had to get transferred to my new phone.  It is a photo of a man and a woman, both in their 70s. The man has a blue shirt and is sitting in an armchair, and his cousin Nana perches on the side of the chair.  They are both smiling at me.

This is the last photo ever taken of the man, to whom I refer to as Somhairle in my research.

When I read the message from Nana that Somhairle has passed on, I began to cry, more for her sake than anything. From doing an eight-year ethnography of Nana and her family’s language practices, I knew that she and Somhairle talk at least once, if not twice a day on the phone.  The two speak Scottish Gaelic together, with a good dose of code-switching back and forth to English. 

When I took the photo, I had been on a whirlwind trip to my old haunts in the Hebrides of Scotland, starting first on the Isle of Skye (where Nana lives), then up to the Isle of Lewis where I used to live. On the way I stopped on the Isle of Harris for one night, where Nana was over for a visit with Somhairle.

I was greeted with a lobster supper.  He couldn’t eat it himself, but Somhairle wanted to make sure that Nana and I had something special to enjoy.  After supper we sat in the living room, Somhairle in his favourite armchair, and he reminisced about his days in the Merchant Navy. And I remember thinking, “I should record these stories.”

But I didn’t.  Days after I found out about Somhairle’s death, I kicked myself for not getting his stories recorded, for now, I will never have the chance.

But I know why I didn’t.  I was there as a friend, not a researcher. And so even though my motivation was simply to get the stories down was so that they would be there, it didn’t feel right at the particular moment.  But luckily, something inside me urged me to take that photo because that seemed so natural—what a ‘friend’ would do.  And now of course I’m so glad I did.

Thinking of this experience made me think of the challenges of navigating the sometimes fuzzy boundary between ‘researcher’ and ‘friend’. As ethnography often involves the researcher spending time in intimate spaces, such as people’s homes, and building close relationships within these spaces, it is not surprising that the relationship may evolve into a friendship. This natural evolution is of course critical to helping us as ethnographers gain more emic as opposed to etic perspectives on the communities in which we work. On a personal level, this process is a wonderful experience—I now sometimes joke that I no longer do ‘ethnography,’ but I do ‘friendnography.’ However, doing ‘friendnography’ comes with its own challenges. Much of what I am writing about here is addressed in much more in-depth discussions of researcher positionality in ethnography (see Madison, 2011; Lin, 2015, to name just two excellent examples).  Here however I will share my own experiences of these challenges as a means to add to the discussion.

One is the question of when to ‘turn off,’ so to speak. As ethnographers, it our job is to notice the world around us, to constantly reflect on the minutia of everyday life. For me, for instance, it might be noting when a child says ‘caoraich’ instead of the English word ‘sheep,’ for instance. However, in the shift from ‘researcher’ to ‘friend’ we often forget that others may not realise that this is what we are constantly doing. Not so long ago I was staying with someone who had participated in my research before. I was asking some language use-related questions and after a few of the questions, they asked, “Wait, this isn’t going in your research is it? You’re here as a friend.”

My immediate reaction of course was panic; had I made them uncomfortable? What had I done wrong?

Then I realised though that that was the nicest thing that could be said to me.  I was there as a friend and I was being asked to ‘turn off.’  And so I did turn off, and felt so much more relaxed for it the rest of the evening.  Of course that didn’t mean that I didn’t notice things, but I was no longer looking at the evening in terms of what I would write in my notes later. Taking notes, after all, is one of the key tools in an ethnographer’s fieldwork kit, but it can also feel a bit like spying to me.  After all, I normally don’t take notes after a nice meal at a friend’s house when I’m not in the field.  Only this week, in compiling my research for another research project, I came across this line in my fieldnotes:

Then we went to the late night pub and the friends (two of whom are reporters) were interested in my work and they were asking me if I was ‘spying’ on them then- and I said that what I would be writing in my notes is how the band was playing[song in minority language] and how even late at night, you hear something in [minority language], whereas that would never happen in [other area where I have conducted research].

‘The friends’ here refer to friends of the girlfriend of the friend of my interlocutor, whom I had arranged to interview the next day, but as earlier that evening we had been at the same event, I was invited to tag along afterwards.  As can be seen from the notes, the mere presence of an ethnographer-in-a-friend-space can cause some alarm, and to mitigate the alarm I reassured ‘the friends’ (who were not part of my research whatsoever) that I wouldn’t be taking notes on what had been said about that night, only a note about the music and the fact one song was in the minority language I am researching (and have taken even further steps in redacting this for this particular blog post).  I therefore did not write down what my interviewee had said at one point in the night, which (at the time) I thought was interesting for the research.  In the interview, however, I was able to ask a question which garnered a similar answer, but I was very careful to couch the question in a way that the interlocutor didn’t have to answer it the same way that they answered it the night I was there in a ‘friend’ capacity, as that didn’t feel right to me.

This last example shows one of the strategies I have used in adapting to the challenges of friendnography.   The fact that each relationship between researcher and interlocutor, interlocutor between interlocutors, and specific interlocutors with particular groups and organisations, means however that there is no hard-and-fast rule to how to deal with these situations as they arise in situ. I suppose however that if there were to be one rule in conducting ‘friendnography,’ it would be exactly the same as ‘The Golden Rule’ of friendship:  ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’  The challenge with ethnography of course is that while we know through our past experiences with friends how we want to be treated, most of us have limited experience with how it feels to have someone studying us (see though Jenifer Cearns’ post on participants engaging in ethnography on the researchers).     

I always therefore try and think hard about whether there is anyone my interlocutor would not want to see a particular utterance or detail, and, if that person was privy to that knowledge, how it could potentially impact my interlocutor’s relationship with that particular person/organisation, etc. I try to apply this to all levels of research, from the note-taking as discussed earlier, to publishing my research. (I should emphasise here that in the situations I work in, although there could be detrimental personal consequences for certain pieces of information being revealed, they do not involve consequences such as imprisonment, government surveillance, etc. For a discussion of the ethics of friendship in these situations, see Lisa Ernst’s post).  With my work, for example, there are a number of instances where family members talk about other family members.  In some cases, I have been able to change or disguise certain details in the conversation when for example showing extracts of the conversation in my publications; in other cases, however, this is not possible.  In these cases, I leave the data out, no matter how useful it may be to my research.

I am also lucky that, if in doubt, I am in the position where I can ask my interlocutors (I realise though that this might not be feasible for all researchers). For example, with one of the families I worked with, I was invited to house-sit for them for a bit while they were abroad.  At the time, I was reflecting on how the families in my project place high value on not only on their minority language, but also on multilingualism in general.  I noticed on this trip that this particular family had signs in different languages about toothbrushing in their bathroom.  I really didn’t know how I would feel about someone taking a photo of my bathroom (which incidentally would be perfect for an ethnography of the practices of holding onto half-used toiletries and cosmetics); however, I couldn’t reach them at the moment.  I therefore went ahead and a took picture of the signs before I left, but when I spoke to them next, told them of course I would delete all the photos if they were not all right with that.  They were fine with it, though, and their multilingual bathroom signs now have comprised part of my research.

With this particular family, I was actually close friends with them prior to conducting the research and I remember one night one of the family members remarking ‘We now only see Cassie when she wants to study us.’ It was said in good humour, but it made me reflect on the need to always consider the friendship first and foremost, and to never make a friend feel like you are only spending time with them because they ‘give you’ interesting data. This seems quite obvious, but as our schedules as researchers normally are quite busy, as are our interlocutors’ schedules, spending time with friends while not collecting data can seem slip through the cracks.  I have realised however that letting this not slip through the cracks is just as important as the data collection itself.  With this of course comes further ethical challenges:  what about the data I gain when I am there simply as a friend?  Can I use that?  By now, for example, with some of the families, I have spent more time with them as friends than with the official research and some of what has transpired when we are together as friends would be useful for my research.  For my forthcoming book, therefore, I will make sure that anything I write in observing anything that has happened exclusively in the ‘friend space’ will be discussed with my interlocutors.

As articulated so well in the opening post to the New Ethnographer, we are now in a new age of ethnography.  In order to move the field forward, past its hegemonic and exoticist tendencies, we need to talk openly and frankly about the challenges of conducting ethnography with friends.  There is still after all the paradoxical image of the researcher as both part of the community, yet separate, which endows them the objectivity necessary for them to conduct their analysis.  Friendnography however requires us to take a more human approach:   we are simply human beings, interacting with other human beings, noticing various things about these interactions. We therefore are a dynamic part of the process, and self-reflection on how we change throughout our work should be both encouraged and emphasised in training new ethnographers and in sharpening established ethnographers’ toolkits.

Finally, these days, universities and funding applications often couch ‘research impact and engagement’ in numerical terms.  Thus, it is tempting for us as researchers to simply set our sights on large-scale means to ‘give back’ to the community.  Certainly, these large-scale means, such as policy changes and widely-attended events, are extremely important, but it is also critical not to lose sight of the micro-scale means of reciprocation.  For friendnography, this may take on a variety of forms.  It may mean, for example, sharing data that would be important to an interlocutor for personal reasons rather than for reasons of vetting, such as I described earlier. Going back to Somhairle’s story, which prompted me to think of these issues, I think that the most important thing for us as ethnographers to always keep in mind is that we have been given a special window onto the everyday beauty of another human being’s life.  Often, they open up their homes and hearts to us. It is our duty to give back in full the kindness that has been bestowed on us.  Yesterday, I mailed Nana all of the recordings I made of her and Somhairle speaking,  and once she has listened to them, I will offer to edit out any parts that she would not want his family members to hear.  I see this as a tiny act for the enormous kindness Nana’s family has showed me, but one which I feel honoured to complete.

References

Lin, A. M. Y. (2015). Researcher Positionality. In F. M. Hult & D. C. Johnson (Eds.), Research Methods in Language Policy and Planning (pp. 21–32). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Madison, S. (2011). Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. London: Sage Publications.

2 thoughts on “‘Friendnography’ and the ethical questions it raises

  1. Amazing piece. So thought provoking and actually brings together all the muddled thoughts I’ve been having on ‘doing ethnography’ in the most coherent and meaningful manner.

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  2. You raise really important points, Cassie! Any observations we make and introduce into our research should be transparently agreed upon by our interlocutors and should have been collected in a structured way – not during a chat over a pint if the reason for meeting up was just to have a pint! Unfortunately, I have heard of anecdotes from such situations being integrated into research at a later date. Like psychotherapists have to turn off the psychotherapy mode when socializing, ethnographers and sociolinguists need to turn off the researcher switch in family/friend encounters. That’s not to say that something someone says over dinner can’t flag up an issue for the researcher, but look into it later on, and make sure your modus operandi is transparent, informed and consensual.

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