Another example from Iceland: One may come upon, unexpectedly, a flowering medicinal herb. It seems delicate, perfect, and thriving in the lava fields. Almost unnoticeably blending into inhospitable terrain, its pink substance holds a hidden potential to soothe, alleviate, cure, and enhance. This is similar to the discovery of more subtle findings from authentic ethnography whose interest and usefulness to a project initiative become apparent only upon examination of hundreds of photographs and videos that were taken of what seemed to be totally other actions.
In a recent creation of a film based upon video footage from an authentic ethnography codenamed Carefree, new ways of expressing findings occurred when a new-to-the-team documentary editor examined footage that I had already analyzed, used, believed in, or disregarded. Her eyes saw things I had missed despite my own days and weeks of analysis.
To summarize this post: Moving through the presence of occasional fieldwork difficulties is like experiencing the overwhelming ferocity of an Iceland waterfall (author photo), then noticing the accompanying rainbow.
Research challenges lead to insight
During an ethnographic research project, difficulties may arise. When the lead researcher assumes, in advance, that some challenges and irritations are bound to happen no matter how careful the planning and well-orchestrated the process, her relaxed attitude reassures, leads to more realistic expectations, and stimulates the problem solving and extended imagination of a client team whose members are then free to concentrate on looking more deeply at what underlies the appearance of a challenging observational element. We may see it as a piece of a research jigsaw puzzle that will eventually reveal intriguing findings.
I like to address the possibility of challenges in the field during ethnographic training -- and retraining -- of the team. Anticipating the unexpected and the uncomfortable saves time, focuses the team, brings us deeper, and frequently leads to new insights. We can savor that a new twist is part of the study journey. We go up, down, round, and...through.
A challenge can lead the team to a different turn in the path and result in new understanding that a more perfectly executed experience might miss. Of course the team seeks smooth-running, exciting authentic behavior and dramatic observations, yet even the following issues and dilemmas -- a delay, boredom, repeated actions, us getting lost, a very sick important household member, a behavior so unexpected and out of range of the study that it is difficult to assimilate, tension in the household, loud-barking dogs, unduly long periods of time when a respondent is doing what seems like an uninteresting activity of no apparent relevance to the study, stuffy environment, smells, unexplainable frustration by a subject, thorny feelings within a household felt by a key team, a subject who refuses to be observed and insists on him or herself interviewing the observer team, even strangely communicated wisdom coming from the mouth and actions of a peripheral individual in the household -- who may not be the main subject of observation -- may lead to powerful peripheral insights that, upon later analysis and especially if perceived again in other formats, other segments, and other locations, might lead to total breakthrough.
There is the undeniable fact that seeing through fieldwork adversity leads to new insight opportunities. As anthropologists, we are trained for fieldwork challenges in graduate school but now need to train our corporate teams with the same flexibility, perseverance, and surrendering to what is rather than what is hoped or expected to be.
The author-anthropologist's recent trip to Iceland symbolizes how dramatically difficult terrain -- Iceland is for good reasons called the land of fire and ice -- adds beauty and awareness to a situation that could not have occurred from a more expected, moderate-level experience.