making the familiar strange – what’s that about?

I’m doing a set of posts about writing the methods chapter/the thesis sections which address methods and methodological concerns.

When writing about their research process, doctoral researchers sometimes refer to the need to deal with things that up till then they have taken for granted. They say that they have to de-familiarise events, people, practices and ways of speaking which they know well. It is not at all uncommon for people to use phrases such as “making the familiar strange” when describing this process. This statement usually leads on to a commentary about the processes used to promote reflexivity – keeping a journal, interrogating what’s written, being acutely aware of their own positioning and so on.

When examiners read these claims, they automatically go to the rest of the thesis text to see whether there is congruence between the claim to de-familiarise and the way that the researcher has dealt with things that might be thought to be the familiar. So, for example, examiners look to see if the researcher has critically discussed their key concepts, justified their terminology, and dealt sceptically with the data they have generated. Clearly, if the researcher claims to have put the things they take for granted up for scrutiny and they haven’t done this – they’ve regurgitated policy for example without holding it to account – then the examiners are going to raise questions about the initial claim to reflexivity, for sure.


The processual approach to dealing with the familiar bothers me. It’s as if what we take for granted just needs to be subject to a kind of technical fix. I often get the sense that the very idea of making the everyday strange is seen in a strictly utilitarian way – as long as you’ve got a process, that’s OK.

I’m of the view that the notion of making the familiar strange is actually first of all about the researcher’s state of being. It’s about how we actually ARE as researchers in the world. (In other words it’s as much ontological as it is epistemological and methodological). It’s about not taking anything for granted, being prepared to question everything, and certainly putting the things we think we know out for interrogation. But then it’s about that shift, that disruption, being made apparent, being represented, so that the reader understands things anew as well…

How to explain…. Well, I reckon that making everyday things unfamiliar is a bit like being in one of those science-fiction stories… you’ve time travelled, had an amazing adventure, and then you arrive back in the place where you came from to find that everything has moved ever so slightly. It’s all terribly familiar, but at the same time there is something quite peculiar about it. You can’t put your finger on it at first, but then it becomes clear that…

Another illustration of this ‘unsettling’ can be found in this reworking of REM’s hit song Losing your religion. Originally written in a minor key, in this clip it has been re-arranged to be played in a major key. So while we recognize the tune and the words, which are exactly the same as they are in the original, the whole effect is somewhat troubling because of the change brought about by the re-scaling. It is both what we know and don’t know at the same time.

Anthropologists have been very good at discussing this shift in perception/understanding … a very famous example can be found in Renato Rosaldo’s account of an American family breakfast table,

Every morning the reigning patriarch, as if just in from the hunt, shouts from the kitchen,’”How many people would like a poached egg? “ Women and children take turns saying yes or no.

In the meantime, the women talk among themselves and designate one among them the toast maker. As the eggs near readiness, the reigning patriarch calls out to the designated toast maker, “The eggs are about ready, is there enough toast?”

“Yes”, comes the differential reply, “ the last two pieces are about to pop up”. The reigning patriarch then proudly enters bearing a plate of poached eggs before him.

Throughout the course of the meal, the women and children, including the designated toast maker, perform the obligatory ritual praise song, saying, “These sure are great eggs Dad.”

In his analysis of his own re-presentation of this unremarkable breakfast, Rosaldo suggests that his de-familiarisation works through, and is represented in, the shift between the words ordinarily used by the family and those never used by them, the anthropological analysis. He notes that his interpretation displays subliminal hostility towards the male and some sympathy with the women. He tell us that ‘to de-familiarise the family breakfast was to transform its taken-for-granted routines’.

In his little breakfast story, Rosaldo was challenging the taken-for-granted anthropological gaze. Within the teachings of the discipline it was often assumed that to analyse ‘other’ societies in this way would not only produce a truth, but also that the very practice of analyzing another culture was morally acceptable. Turning the gaze on ‘us’ made problematic the way the discipline conducted itself. The story helps us feel what it must be like to have our ordinary day-to-day habits analysed and written about through this disciplinary lens, description and categorisation. Rosaldo defamiliarised in order to challenge the customary and habituated practices of anthropological research.

What’s also interesting is that Rosaldo actually did present the anthropologised breakfast narrative to his future family-in-law, about whom it was written. He reports that hearing the story helped them change their gendered patterns of behavior.

So what do I take from this Rosaldo example? Well I think it suggests that de-familarisation is not about a technique. It’s about a change. It’s about seeing things differently and understanding them differently. Defamiliarisation seen as changed understanding means that we have new resources we can use to think with, and maybe we can use them to go about changing our behavior – just as Rosaldo’s family used their new insights to change theirs.

And what that means for researchers writing about their methods is that it is hardly sufficient to see de-familiarisation as a technical matter. If you want to claim that you have made the familiar strange then you not only need to say what you did, but also show what happened… So the examiner expects to see something in addition to information about a journal and being self-conscious. They want to read something, somewhere in the thesis in answer to the questions –

What happened as a result of making the familiar strange?
What new insights resulted?
How did this change the process and practice of the research?
How is this represented in the text?
Does the writer give the examiner/reader the opportunity to also see the familiar differently?

Pp 47-48 Rosaldo , R (1989) Culture and Truth Boston: Beacon Press.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in methods chapter, reflexivity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to making the familiar strange – what’s that about?

  1. Megan says:

    Thanks Pat, that’s making sense… And you have put into words something that I was having difficulty in expressing. 🙂


  2. Pingback: making time to not think | patter

  3. Pingback: Making the Familiar Strange | Jane Alden Stevens Photography

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