Note: I’m blogging because it feels like something I can do in the face of the crises unfolding all around us, not because I think words are necessarily the medicine we most need right now. But it helps me to have some sense of purpose, something that I hope could be helpful to others in some small way, as we live through and respond to an unprecedented situation. Perhaps we can draw some lessons from this experience for imagining, and bringing into being, a better world.
My recently published book, Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Action for Transformative Social Research, is a guide for scholar-activists who want to immerse themselves fully in social contexts: working with the instruments of our beings to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, think and understand the world, and connecting mind, heart and activity in order to do scholarship that contributes to much needed social transformation. But in the current moment we are being asked to stay home, maintain at least six feet from other people, and work “remotely.” This contradicts the hands-on, grounded, immersive, engaged, participatory ways that are at the heart of ethnographic and socially-transformative research. What does it mean to be an ethnographer in a time of “social distancing” and in the midst of this unprecedented global COV19 pandemic?
While the particular field work projects that social science researchers have been pursuing will undoubtedly have to change or be put on hold for some time, I believe that all of us – researchers and the general public alike – can draw on some core principles of ethnography in order to observe, experience, document, and understand the moment we are living in. Moreover, I think the mindful approaches I call for in my book could serve us all as social beings in a rapidly changing world, and for bringing into being a more just, equitable, loving and transformative one. I distill a few of those lessons from my book here, applying them to the COV19 pandemic. We are all ethnographers now.
The familiar has been made strange for us
We are all participating in, and surely observing, an unprecedented global experiment. The social world we live in is being transformed in uncharted, unpredictable, and unchosen ways. We are transforming it as we respond to calls to change all our everyday habits. And we are experiencing those changes as we make them.
One of the core principles of ethnography is to “make the familiar strange” in order to see in new ways, rather than through unexamined assumptions or established patterns of our culture. Becoming more aware of how we move and operate in the world may help us as we face the immediate threat of COV19: by refraining from touching our faces, shaking hands, or passing the virus in other ways. It may also help us to see things we took for granted, such as the essential labor of grocery store workers, health care providers, and others who were invisible before. The familiar has been made strange for us. All we have to do is look around. But can we do so more awarefully?
Notice everything you think and feel
The conavirus crisis offers us a tremendous opportunity not just to see the world in new ways, but to experience profound changes: in institutions and societal structures, interpersonal relationships, local ecologies, the environment, and more. There is much to be noticed right now. Pay attention to it all. What do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, touch and think? What do you not get to see, hear, feel, smell, touch and taste right now? (We may come to see what we have taken for granted by experiencing their absence.) What do we sense, worry, fear, anticipate, intuit and imagine? Using “mindful” practices, we can notice how our thoughts and feelings arise and change as circumstances around us change. Using the skills of ethnography, we can pay attention to the details: what, exactly, do we see, hear, smell, taste, feel and intuit? Historians might appreciate the efforts we make to document these thoughts and feelings, and to record them as carefully as we can. But as I suggest in my book, our thoughts and feelings are always intertwined, and we can expect that they will be only more so in a time of such uncertainty and anxiety. So notice how your emotions may shape your perceptions, and vice versa.
Pause before you interpret or act
The human tendency is to immediately judge any changes we experience. Social media is filled with people’s responses to the Conavirus crisis: what people hate about it, what they love, how it personally impacts them. Some of the changes we are being asked to make feel incredibly difficult. Others might feel liberating. People have many opinions about these things, too. And many, many emotional responses.
But in a time of rapid change, we would benefit from slowing down. Here is where a mindfully ethnographic approach can help us. Pay attention. Notice everything we think and feel. Try to stay close to the direct observations of what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Then press pause. Don’t rush to premature interpretations. And don’t let our perceptions and opinions impulsively drive our actions.
Suspending both evaluation and interpretation, we may identify possibilities that can be acted upon in thoughtful ways to enact long term much-needed transformations in society once we get through the immediate crisis. We can also contribute more thoughtfully to what is needed now if we don’t just react, mindlessly putting our own thoughts and feelings out into the chaos that is swirling around us. We can think carefully about what we can contribute that is truthful, helpful and kind (following Buddhist precepts).
Don’t assume others’ experiences are the same as yours
Different kinds of people are being impacted in different ways by the COV19 pandemic. The effects will likely be felt differently along well-established lines of power in society. This is where social science theory can help us: we can ask who is hurt, and who potentially benefits, from this crisis, attending to the important categories of our culture (race/ethnicity, class, gender) as well as other categories of difference. This crisis will surely make visible the privileges that some people enjoy, and the vulnerability of others. But just how it will do so isn’t clear, and may not be visible unless we pay attention. We can’t be sure we know all of the ways this crisis will affect people, how they will feel about it, or how they will respond. And we certainly can’t assume that our exact experiences – and responses to them – will be shared with others. This is a time to observe keenly, listen deeply, and ask critical questions about how this global crisis is impacting us, in both shared and divergent, and good and bad, ways.
My ulterior motive in writing Mindful Ethnography was to share some of the lessons I have learned about life in general and academia in particular, by working through my own health crises and an extended healing process. (See my previous blog.) I wrote it with my younger, anxiety-filled, angst-ridden school-girl self in mind, filling it with reassurances for young scholars entering this business, and calls to let go, as best we can, of our fears, worries, plans, hopes and expectations. We are being forced to let go of many plans right now.
We can also let go of our ideas about perfection and completion, or about getting the words “just right” or having “the answer” to complex questions. Leading to and following from this book, in the face of the existential crises facing our planet, I’m feeling compelled to write in much more personal ways than I ever thought I would dare to in academia (which can be such a critical world). I feel a sense of urgency, and so I’m throwing caution to the wind, and sharing my thoughts in the hope that they will be helpful to some people (as well as truthful and kind)….but not perfect, and not complete.
Stay tuned for more ways I hope to apply my approach to “mindful ethnography” to the contemporary global crisis: by conjoining mind, heart and activity; thinking deeply about the language we use to name our experiences; sitting with paradoxes; and moving beyond dualities as we experience through the COV19 crisis the profound nature of our interconnectedness – in both terrible and wonderful ways.
For social science researchers
Before concluding, let me offer a few more specific lessons for social science researchers. Some of you may be able to continue doing your fieldwork where-ever you are, just observing with a little more distance, and conducting interviews from six feet apart! But more likely, you may need to withdraw from the field and shift your modes of gathering data, as well as the questions you pursue. That’s OK.
Your best laid plans may go out the window
This is not a time to go about business as usual. My heart goes out to the many doctoral students who cannot pursue the projects they have planned for some time – like my own protégé, Sophia Angeles, who was poised to begin her dissertation research this spring, doing participant observation in a Los Angeles high school, to explore the experiences of undocumented, “unaccompanied minor” adolescent youth. Gaining access to this population will be much more challenging now.
I encourage students to notice your thoughts and feelings about changes to carefully-laid plans. Consider these as lessons for life. We really don’t have as much control over the world as we might like. And we can’t out-think or out-plan it all. What we can do is better respond to a changing world. So stop. Breathe. Sit with the thoughts and feelings that come up about how this impacts your research agenda. Feel it all: rage, disappointment, fear, confusion. Let it settle through your body and your mind. Don’t try to rush through this stage of the grieving process.
But look through the window to see what lies beyond
At some point you may be ready to turn your mind in some new directions. And there are very new, important questions that are emerging. Identify the ways this global pandemic impacts the questions you had planned to explore, or were already exploring. For example, in Sophia’s case: How are unaccompanied minor adolescents in the U.S. being affected by COV19 in particular ways? How does the pandemic influence their social, emotional, health and well being, as well as their ideas about possible futures? What access do they have to health care, and how are their families and communities being impacted? And how are they making sense of this experience?
The challenge for ethnographers is how to pursue these at a distance – e.g. via social media or personal connections that can be leveraged virtually. I don’t want to minimize those challenges. I only want to suggest to young researchers that it is OK to change your questions – and your contributions will likely be so much greater now, as you will be asking questions that none of us really have any answers to at all, and that speak to really pressing matters of the day, and of the futures we might imagine, and work to bring into being.