Archiving Ethnographic Research
Laura Peutere, researcher at the Police College of Finland
Education researcher Sirpa Lappalainen is starting an ethnographic research project in a social and health care educational institute located in the Helsinki area. Lappalainen plans to follow the studies of practical nurse students for three years, from the beginning of their studies till they graduate. The study is part of the University of Helsinki's project Citizenship, Agency and Difference in Vocational Upper Secondary Education, which has its roots in social education research.
Lappalainen surveys the everyday lives of young people in education. She is especially interested in how citizenship is defined in educational practices and what kind of agency is possible for young people in the framework of education. The study has as its background educational and labour policies related to vocational education.
Following the tradition in ethnographic research, Lappalainen intends to collect diverse material. She will observe the everyday routines of the institute, and interview students, teachers, and other staff.
A large vocational institute is a new and different environment for Lappalainen, who has earlier carried out ethnographic research in day nurseries. Although an experienced researcher, she feels she is now starting out as a novice again. Another novelty is the fact that the material she collects will be deposited in the data archive, which is something Lappalainen is determined to take into account from the very beginning.
Why archive the material?
Sensitive subjects and ethical issues are often considered as barriers to archiving and reusing qualitative material. In addition, the idea of archiving and reusing research material has been regarded as inapplicable to ethnography, because conducting ethnographic research requires being in the field and collecting one's own material. How come Lappalainen has decided to tackle this almost impossible task - archiving an ethnographic study?
Lappalainen says that the idea was born as a result of many considerations. She recalls how a student once asked her permission to use her old field notes, collected in a preschool group, in a seminar work. "As an ethnographic researcher I considered the idea incomprehensible and unpleasant. My colleagues also thought this was a strange request, and that time I did not give the student permission to use my notes."
Later on the episode began to trouble Lappalainen. She pondered on the huge amount of work put into collecting material for one single ethnographic study and, in the end, how little of the collected material is actually used for the study. "I also heard rumours that qualitative data were being archived around the world and that funders were beginning to insist on archiving."
On the other hand, Lappalainen was still doubtful about archiving. "The notion of a researcher being in the field him/herself and remembering things that could not be written down for one reason or another is strongly connected to ethnography. What could another researcher get from a material if he/she does not possess all that information," Lappalainen says.
Despite everything, she bravely decided to try whether it was possible to collect material in such a manner that other researchers would be able to use it. She contacted the data archive where the proposal was greeted with enthusiasm. The data archive and Lappalainen have now planned together how to organise the data collection from the very beginning in a manner which enables archiving and reusing the material.
Self-censorship in taking notes
In her earlier studies, Lappalainen has collected the material knowing that she will be the only one reading the notes. This time the situation was different. While writing the first field notes for the new project, she realised that she was censoring herself. "I recalled that someone else might read my notes and found myself cleaning up my language. I would have used brisker language if I were writing only for myself," Lappalainen says.
On the other hand, she thinks that a researcher cannot bear archiving in mind in every situation and will inevitably forget it every once in a while.
Solutions to ethical problems
Lappalainen intends to discuss archiving with the tutors in the institute first. "I believe the tutors will not see any problems in archiving the material. What I am more worried about is how to tell the 17-18 year old students about archiving. How could they have the patience to listen to the researcher's talk on this important topic when the educated teachers in day nurseries did not have it?"
However, such issues will be discussed during the whole data collection period: both the students and teachers can also refuse to participate in the study in the later stages of the project.
Even when everything will be fine and the research participants will have given their permission to archiving, Lappalainen ponders why she still might feel uneasy when giving the material to other researchers. "The notes include plenty of things that one would never say out loud to anyone. In addition, emotions are fascinating in the analytical sense and might lead one onto the trail of something interesting. However, the notes also include feelings that one would want to keep private."
Taking notes, a researcher can also deal with dramatic situations occurring in the field, even though these may not be directly relevant to the study. On the other hand, the experiences may affect the way one analyses or interprets the material: ethnography somehow seems to entail carrying emotions with it.
Nevertheless, the purpose of archiving is not to hinder the researcher's freedom to take notes and let his/her emotions flow. Sensitive sections can easily be removed from the archived material, especially if they do not belong to the core topics of the research. Removing the sensitive sections is especially easy if the researcher has specifically marked them while taking notes.
Archiving has more advantages than disadvantages
Lappalainen is not afraid that archiving would create additional work for her. "Since there is already so much work to do in conducting ethnographic research, archiving does not add significantly to it," she says. And since the upcoming archiving process has been taken into account from the very beginning, the task is not as formidable as one would think.
The material Lappalainen collects will be valuable to other researchers later because of its diversity and long time-span. The material can also be disseminated for different purposes, such as teaching. "Using it for teaching purposes is OK as long as no one claims to be doing another primary ethnographic research with it," Lappalainen says, and wishes that archiving would benefit the whole research project as well. "We have been planning to share the research material internally within the project, and I hope that this experiment will give me tools for carrying this out."
As an education researcher, Lappalainen also takes into consideration the promotion of teaching. In the future, the material could be utilised in research methodology teaching, especially to teach ethnographic methods. "I do not want to deny a student access to my field notes again merely because the thought feels awkward."