A few weeks ago I was sitting with a group of professional musicians. Not my usual company. It was actually a seminar for musicians undertaking practice based PhDs, and I’d been invited to talk, along with @minxmarple, by @annscottpiano. My focus was on academic writing. So not so strange to be there then, in that company.
Early on the first day, the sound system in our room suddenly began to make an awful, high-pitched noise. Feedback, feedback somewhere, feedback from something. I’m sure you know this noise. We’ve all encountered it at some point or other. It is a really intrusive sound.
Two people sprang up and rushed to the mixing desk to try to fix the problem. The person I was sitting next to put his fingers in his ears. Within a minute, all but three of the participant musicians also had their fingers in their ears.
Well it was an unpleasant noise, but not deafening. So why the fingers in the ears? This was clearly some kind of automatic response based in experiences the musicians had in common. Now, this kind of spontaneous, shared action is gold to an ethnographer. The commonality of the response points to something that is worth following up.
So when the noise subsided, I asked the person next to me why so many of the group had put their fingers in their ears. The answer was, of course, that all of them had been in situations where unpleasant high pitched feedback was followed by a very loud bang. And a loud bang is a noise that is intense enough to damage hearing.
And ears are crucial to the musician. Although Beethoven did without his for a period of time, the musician I was talking to, and presumably all of the others in the group, hoped never to be in such a situation. Ears, the capacity to hear, are to be looked after; they are vital to being able to actually be and work as a musician.
A little later in the day, the person on the other side of me was shuffling paper and, as the pages began to fall and she struggled to keep them together, she muttered to herself “Paper cut moment”. Now that I was tuned into the question of bodies I recognised this as something a bit like the fingers in the ears reaction I had observed earlier. So I asked whether she was worried about her hands.
Well yes. All the time. She was a pianist and was very concerned about possible injuries to her hands. She told me that she was always conscious of her hands and what could happen to them. She was continuously aware of potential damage to her hands from doors, from knives in drawers, from the simple act of shaking hands… and she told me about all of the precautions she took as part of her everyday routine in order to minimise the possibility of hurting her hands.
Without even wanting to, I then began to think about the importance of the body in music and how this might produce particular kinds of everyday life. And this could be a very different way of daily living to the one that I, as a non musician, knew.
I then proceeded to ask random people in the group about their music, their bodies, and how this connection governed what they did each day.
Now there are two things that are worth noting here. Neither of the responses to the two phenomena – loud noises and paper cuts – are particularly surprising when you think about them. You’re probably thinking, “I knew that, this patter woman is really thick.” You may have thought about this before, or had similar experiences yourself. But I hadn’t. I just hadn’t considered arts, ears and hands before, probably because I hadn’t ever done any research with musicians.
But hang on. I wasn’t doing research, I was doing a presentation. I wasn’t there to research anyone or anything. What was going on? Well it seems that when the fingers in the ears happened, I just happened to notice.
You can probably see from what I’ve already written – “within a minute all but three of the participant musicians also had their fingers in their ears” – that I had started to look at time and numbers as automatically as the musicians had moved their hands to their heads. My response was just as much an habituated one as theirs. Mmmmm.
I regularly get out into the world to “do ethnography” and the embodied practice of noticing and beginning to look more systematically has clearly become deeply embedded. I just notice, or at least start to, without really even being aware that I am. Like the musicians in whose company I was, I embodied my specific practice. Mine was research not music.
You see, ethnography is actually a deeply physical/emotional process as much as anything else. Noticing/feeling becomes almost automatic. Now obviously ethnographers don’t see everything. They/we do miss things. They/we are selective. I don’t notice everything.
But I am a good observer. That’s also because some things just seem to bring themselves to my notice. This just seems to happen in the way that Jane Bennett suggests in Vibrant Matter, the objects or the phenomena seem to make themselves obvious to you. “Look I’m here” they say insistently. “Pay attention to me this minute”.
So I do notice – or get called to notice – particular objects and events, without seeming to want to. I’ll just be sitting there and suddenly – screech, fingers in ears – and I turn on and tune in …
My research practice has become somehow ingrained, become part of me, to the point where I don’t actually know when I might start “doing ethnography”. The point at which I make a conscious decision about whether I am “doing ethnography” is the point where I decide to ask a question. However, I am actually “doing ethnography” before this point. There is first an inarticulate observation or sensation, and then the “what’s going on here” actions begin. I count, check time and look at the space I’m in, at the very same time as I’m coming to consciousness that something is happening.
My ethical awareness also kicks in once I realise what I am doing. I then make a very conscious decision about whether I ought to keep looking, and whether it might be OK to start talking and asking questions. On the particular occasion I’ve described, because I was with a group of musicians who were also researchers, I did feel it was OK to say what I had observed and then ask if it was acceptable if we talked about it for a bit.
Now this research-as-part-of-the-self is not just confined to ethnography. There are other more general research practices that become part and parcel of everyday life too. Asking questions for example, rather than taking things at face value. Looking for patterns and themes. Seeing the more general in the particular. Thinking about the cultural specificity of an event. Of course, what becomes embedded and embodied relates to our disciplines and to the traditions we work in. We may each have different senses and sensibilities finely tuned through our research practice. But I think that for many of us, researching becomes a way of being in the world, a practice as habituated and semi-automatic as the musician looking after their ears and their hands.
I do wonder why we don’t talk more about this. Off the top of my head, I can think of one book about the ways in which we integrate our researcher practice into other parts of our lives – Barry Glassner and Rosanne Hertz’s edited collection Qualitative Sociology as Everyday Life.
I do think that this embodied research practice might be worth further conversation. What if we think about the ways in which we might be producing ourselves and those we “train” as researchers through bodies, senses, emotions and minds? What if we explicitly understand learning about doing research as more than acquiring a set of techniques and intellectual processes? What if we see research training as something much more ontological ….?
Oh – and I had a fascinating conversation about lips and facial muscles with a trumpeter at the seminar too. But I’ll leave that for another time.