Olson and Peterson

Peterson and Olson bookIn their new book, The Ethnographer's Way: A Handbook for Multidimensional Research Design (Duke University Press), UCI anthropology associate professors Kristin Peterson and Valerie Olson present a new framework for research design, from beginning idea generation to completing a research proposal. Below, they share how "multidimensioning” - putting together multiple aspects of a research interest - can help ethnographers and other interdisciplinary researchers integrate various processes, people, locations, and other social elements into a cohesive, dynamic project.

Q: What inspired you to write a book on research design that gestures to this process as an artistic way?

VO:  Our UCI Anthropology graduate training is fairly unique, in that it offers a full year of methods training, research design, and funding development.  When Kris and I started teaching research design in 2013, there were only a handful of books on ethnographic research development. Those didn’t fully explain the process of turning a fuzzy, intuitive, and impassioned idea into a coherent project. What is “new” about our approach is how we tested, assembled, and refined bits and pieces of different design approaches into a step-by-step, iterable process. And also how we organize this into module-by-module, group-based design work. We also help researchers set up collaborative agreements about design workshopping and feedback. We brought to this project our experience as academic anthropologists, but also our experiences working in non-academic organizations where we did theoretically-informed advocacy and activism.

KP: We wanted to help new and experienced researchers integrate their personal and community goals into their projects from the beginning. We want them to listen to their projects fully.  This means that we help them through the process of caring for a fuzzy idea, identifying its scholarly significance, working up a theoretical question, and attending to data collection development. We want this to happen in a way that would bring researchers strong support and funding. Having once been new researchers grappling with these hard tasks, we know that all researchers can feel completely lost about how to get from a good idea to a full project. One that is conceptually as well as methodologically clear and integrated. We also know how spiritually, socially, and politically disconnected researchers can be from a process that should, ideally, feel creative and collectively supported! So, we started adapting creative techniques we had used ourselves into the process, including what we call concept work. We also advocate for practicing this work in community, where, for example, researchers can create projects that speak to other ethnographers and social scientists who are doing very different work. Therefore, we start the book by helping peers create agreements for productive workshopping, and end each module with instructions for specific ways to workshop the skills learned in that module.

Q: Your work introduces the concept of "multidimensioning" in the project planning process. Could you explain this method and how it differs from traditional approaches to ethnographic research design?

KP: Multidimensioning is an iterative approach to assembling diverse research concepts and intentions within a congruent framework of inquiry. Unlike research design meta terms like site, scale, or perspective, the term “dimension” does not solely refer to situated differences— such as a place, size, or view—within a kind or category. Dimensions, as we help researchers think about them, have lots of aspects: they can be material or perceptual, spatial or temporal, quantifiable or immeasurable, tangible or intangible, concrete or speculative.

VO: This is why we use “multidimensional” - to signal the fully lively form that a project can take when researchers work on all its aspects and angles in a creative way - from the people and places of the research, the terms used by people that the ethnographer is working with, the research’s broader contexts, the literatures that the researcher is engaging, and the kind of data the researcher wants to find out about.

KP: The approach we take is unlike most conventional research design processes because it emphasizes taking into account all kinds of “conceptual connections” that can be obscured by conventional design ideologies. By this, we mean prescribed ideas about which kinds of people, places, processes, things, situations, contexts, and theoretical ideas designers “should” put together. Our handbook slows down the try-and-refine design process to open it up. It encourages people to work with design elements in new, nonlinear, more iterative ways. These elements include seemingly disparate concepts, theoretical perspectives, social processes, forms of data, and literatures, as well as personal experiences, imaginative hunches, and political commitments. From a normative perspective, the project elements we invite people to connect may sometimes appear incongruous. And the ways we help them make those connections may appear unconventional. But we have found that this audacious try-and-see process helps designers develop innovative projects with broad intellectual significance and social impact.

VO: Experienced researchers we speak with recognize the spirit of multidimensional design. It is found in the intuitive analytic moves that ethnographers make in final written works in which they claim to “bring different literatures together,” “connect different processes,” or “juxtapose sites” in novel ways. While most researchers aim to design such richly multidimensional projects, the cryptic adage “you know a great project when you see it” has meant that the process of getting there is not well specified or explicitly taught. We help people make exciting conceptual connections throughout all phases of the research process, including the very beginning phases.

Q: Your handbook includes ten modules designed to guide researchers through various stages of conceptualizing a project. Can you highlight some of the steps that you find to be particularly transformative for researchers?

VO: We emphasize two stages of research design that can energize students as well as seasoned researchers. The first is providing a way to fully “imagine” the research in a narrative form at the beginning of the process. The second is figuring out what we call the “multidimensional object” at the center of every compelling research project.

KP: We found that researchers of all kinds often jump into the technical aspects of research development - from composing formal research descriptions to stating theoretical research questions - without having taken time to write freely about the personal and professional dimensions of their research interests and what they intuit may be important to think about as they begin designing the project. We start the book by helping people “free write” their ideas in a colloquial way that is structured but also open-ended. In other words, we instruct them to write a two page “research imaginary” based on prompts about the who, what, when, where and why aspects of their projects. But we also prompt them to think about the personal dimensions of it, and the insecurities and concerns they may have. They can also write about controversies and pitfalls they face, or things they want to know about that aren’t conventionally addressed. Sometimes the best ideas for a project are the issues that people keep in their minds and never put on paper.

VO: After they figure out what they’re going to study and all of its moving parts, we introduce the idea that every disciplinary project has, at its core, a “multidimensional object of study” that holds everything together. This “MO” as we call it can be two or three terms that touches all the elements of the project - from people to disciplinary concepts - and signals the congruence of the project. These MOs exist for every ethnographic project from the get-go, but often show up at the end of the project in the form of a title. Some wonderful examples of this from our own department’s faculty book titles: “latino threat” (Leo Chavez), “nation as network” (Victoria Bernal), “gay archipelago” (Tom Boellstorff), and “joy and pain” (Damien Sojoyner).  These phrases put otherwise “different” concepts together to signal the theoretical and empirical innovation of these projects in a creative way.

KP: As all of us in the academy know, congruent projects get attention and funding. So, projects have to demonstrate congruence in their earliest proposal phases. Figuring out a project’s MO from the beginning helps a researcher keep their project “together” in a way that doesn’t reduce it all to something simple, but signals the complexity of “putting new things together.” We teach people that their MOs will change as the project moves from the proposal-writing, to fieldwork, to analysis, to write-up phases. But we provide ways for researchers to go back and re-iterate their MOs every step of the way.

Q: Your book is aimed at ethnographers and those working across various disciplines. How do you see multidimensioning benefiting researchers in fields outside of traditional ethnography?

VO: These days researchers in all disciplinary categories - natural sciences, engineering, computing, medicine, law, education - are using ethnography to enhance their projects. Our process can be used to create a fully ethnographic project, or to design the ethnographic component of a project within another discipline.      

Q: Who do you envision as the primary audience for your handbook, and what impact do you hope it will have on their future work?

KP: Our audience is anyone wanting to create research that takes relations across beings, space, and time together in new ways. Ethnography is how we do this, so it’s aimed at ethnographers, but the book is getting interest from people in all kinds of areas, from the biological sciences to UX, so we know that it’s a timely intervention into what it means to do work that acknowledges that good projects take into account the many multiplying dimensions of life.      

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