Still Living and Practicing Social Enterprise (part two)

On Friday 17th June Yunus Centre hosted a workshop ‘Still Living and Practicing Social Enterprise’ here at GCU. It was the second in what we hope will be an annual event that considers the potential for ethnography to explore questions emerging from the field of social enterprise research.We heard from: Anna Kopec, University of Northamption; Richard Hull, Goldsmiths; Aurelie Soetens, Univeristy of Liege; Iain Cairns, Glasgow Caledonian University and Juli Qermezi Huang, London School of Economics.

Thanks to all the presenters and the engaged audience that made for an interesting and inspiring day.In this blog Danielle and Clementine from the CommonHealth team reflect on a second key theme from the day that resonates with our own work which also uses ethnography.

Embracing Messiness

We’ve been mulling over one of the comments from the audience at our Ethnography and Social Enterprise event on 17th June 2016. We were encouraged to think about what is ‘unuttered’ within organisations, to observe surprises and spontaneity and to embrace that this would be an inevitably messy process. In the specific context of social enterprises it is important that researchers consider: complexities of relationships; emotional responses; policy; practice; rhetoric and reality within a whole range of different actors. The question then becomes, how do we present our findings so that they are convincing and useful?

The fieldnotes of ethnographers include typed, written and scribbled notes, photos, diagrams or physical artefacts. It can be messy and daunting for the researcher! We must then step away from the field in order to begin to explore ways to understand what we have seen and identify the best way for us to structure this for an audience.

The style of ethnographic writing allows for some of this ‘messiness’ to continue as we weave a narrative throughout our presentations, papers, articles or thesis. This was shown to great effect in a number of the presentations that relied on powerful descriptive vignettes that gave some structure to the messy data that is generated. The vignettes used highlighted the tensions and contradictions within the field, raised questions and peaked interest before delving into the significance of the events described and putting them in a wider theoretical and empirical context.

Ethnography allows us to consider the messiness of the world around us, forces us to recognise that which goes unsaid and can generate descriptive and detailed accounts of people, places, events or organisation. This is important in the field of social enterprise to allow for nuanced analysis and space for a critique. It also addresses the need to recognise the importance of a smile! Though subtle, this is an important impact, as defined by one of the social enterprises present at the recent Knowledge Exchange Forum (see here), and so we should find ways to capture and present this type of impact. Ethnography, in all its wonderful messiness, might be one such way we hope to do that!

Clementine Hill OConnor and Danielle Kelly

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’

Margaret Mead

ethnography library

Since I started working at the Yunus Centre in 2011 I have been the sole ethnographer/social anthropologist. As the centre has grown I have happily given up this role and I now get to share this with an influx of new colleagues eager to use ethnographic methods within their work. With this in mind, a group of us from the CommonHealth project signed up for a course in Collaborative Ethnography and on Monday we travelled through to Edinburgh to learn more.

I took a lot from the course and could spend a few thousand words describing exactly what Collaborative Ethnography is and all the things I learned. Instead I’ll focus on one of the key issues that is at the heart of Collaborative Ethnography, which raised interesting questions about the ways researchers can engage with communities outside of traditional educational institutions in more meaningful and long lasting ways.

Core to the definition of Collaborative Ethnography is the explicit emphasis on collaboration across all parts of the research process and a shared commitment to the end product– whether that is a film, book, documentary or report. It is this end product that most interested me. Many people might engage in forms of collaborative research, using various methods and it could be argued that most, if not all, forms of qualitative research have an element of collaboration; although this is often limited to the data collection stage. However, within collaborative ethnography the analysis and final write up is a vital part of the process. I found this idea challenging but was keen to hear how it had been done.

The two academics running the course, Elizabeth Campbell and Eric Lassiter, had found ways to make this work and the research they helped initiate had resulted in the production of a highly respected academic text ‘The Other Side of Middletown’. They set up a collaborative ethnographic process in response to a request from a community leader who was concerned with the lack of African American voices in a previous study of the small town of Muncie, aka Middletown. Using resources from the university Elizabeth and Eric were able to set up a course for students at Ball State University who worked alongside community consultants and collaborators to conduct interviews, focus groups and oral histories and eventually write individual chapters that featured in the book. Eric and Elizabeth described to us the ways that drafts of the texts were written and rewritten in response to individual meetings, small focus groups and large community forums. The interpretation of historical events was discussed and details of each chapter pored over until there was agreement over the text, or at least the agreement to disagree. Beyond the production of traditional academic papers, books and presentations the students involved in the study remained involved in the Muncie community. They have helped to produce photo exhibitions, develop multicultural educational programmes, participate in discussions in schools and churches about race relations in Muncie and work with a local mediation team to research specific experiences of racial conflict in the area.

Reflecting on the course and the discussions we had I’m eager to consider how I might apply some of this to my own work. As I write my thesis I know the ship has sailed on using this approach within my PhD but my hope is that the relationships I have formed might serve as a basis for future collaboration. Within the CommonHealth project collaboration with WEvolution has been vital in terms of their involvement as research partners. Yet I’m wondering as I start to enter the final year of my CommonHealth involvement whether the stage is now set for collaboration in the outputs of the research and the consideration of the ways that we can continue to work together beyond the lifecycle of this specific research programme.

Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary…

group 2

As a PhD researcher and member of the CommonHealth team I’ve been working closely with groups of women who have come together, with the support of a social enterprise, to share skills, save and lend together, provide peer support and eventually form small scale businesses. I’ve taken an ethnographic approach to my research which has consisted of in-depth interviews, informal conversations and participant observation. In less formal terms- I’ve laughed, cried, chatted, been embraced by and (sort of) learned to sew with a group of women who have given a lot of their time talking to me about their lives. It has been a series of ups and downs, trials and tribulations which I’m sure will be the subject of this blog at some point in the future. For now I’ll focus on a seminar I attended earlier this month which served as reminder of why I chose to take this approach to research despite the emotional ups and downs!

Earlier this month I presented some my preliminary findings at a seminar ‘Social Enterprise as Lived and Practice: The Methodological Potential of Ethnography’ organised by researchers from University of Liverpool, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Leipzig. It was an exciting day, with a chance to meet other researchers in the field of social enterprise using the same methodology as me. The CommonHealth programme is made up of an inter-disciplinary team, so I’m keen not to place ethnography at the top of some kind of research hierarchy but it was exciting to be surrounded by people extolling the value of ethnographic research and gave me a chance to reflect on my own research. I’ve always been aware of the potential of ethnography, but I’ve sometimes been unsure of how to articulate it.

Stefanie Mauksch from University of Leipzig started the day with an introduction to what she saw as some of the potential contributions ethnographic research can make, specifically to the field of social enterprise. She argued that ethnography offers the chance to move beyond the grand narratives of social enterprise and engage with the complexities involved in organisations seeking to balance social and commercial aims. Stefanie re-introduced me to the 5 operations of ethnography as defined by prominent ethnographer and anthropologist John Comaroff which I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar. Comaroff talks about the importance of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary which requires ethnographers to explore and unravel the cultural processes that lie behind the norms we might take for granted.

So it’s this that I’ve been thinking on the most since the seminar as I engage in analysing and writing. I’ve been trying to think critically and focusing on the idea of looking beyond what is taken for granted and exploring the processes that have created that which is taken for granted. Is it cultural, political, social, economic? Chances are it’s a combination of all of the above! It is this inquisitive and critical approach which has always attracted me to anthropology and ethnography. I’ve been starting to wonder whether this can this be a principle from which all research begins? Or is this somehow specific to ethnography? What would a quantitative study look like if this was the start point?Or is it, that regardless of the methods, this where our research questions can (should?!) start from? We can engage morecritically in the social world, whatever our methods, if we ask what it is that has created that which we take for granted.