Fly on the wall or wasp on the window? Reflecting on the role of a multi-sited ethnographer

by Sarah Van Duijn | Reading Time: 5-7 Minutes

“There he is again, slowly but steadily heading my way. Just after the aldermen meeting started, I am no longer able to focus on what is being said. Moving in a menacing manner, a huge wasp is buzzing quietly around the ceiling lamps. After a few loops over the U-shaped table the twenty of us are sitting at, the wasp picks its final position: the window behind the alderman sitting across from me. I surely won’t lose sight of that creature anymore. While I am staring through the alderman across the table, I notice him wondering what on earth I could be looking at. Probably feeling overlooked, the wasp begins to zoom loudly at the same time. “I’ll take care of that” the alderman says decisively, while rolling up the minutes in front of him. Moments later, there is no more buzzing. I let out a soft scream while the meeting coordinator informs the others that I am “pretty scared of wasps.” – notes

  Intro

The wasp was not the only thing that died that day – so did any hopes of me becoming a ‘fly on the wall’ as a participant observer. Being a fly on the wall refers to taking on the role of an inconspicuous observer, to going unnoticed by the actors you study. Over time, the anthropological ideal has become contested or even ‘ridiculed’ (Hannerz, 2010), and would be nearly impossible to attain anyway, when like me, you clearly don’t belong. My fieldwork included joining strategic meetings of aldermen and healthcare insurers to explore how they collaborated after the 2015 Dutch healthcare reform – and I was “way too young” to be a director.

Considering impact: abstract values translated to practice

Elsewhere, I pointed out a variety of challenges that a multi-sited ethnographer may encounter during fieldwork, including securing access to different organizations, following boundless subjects, and making sense of a plethora of perspectives (van Duijn, 2020). In relation to these challenges, I briefly reflected on problems that fostering research relationships across fields may generate, such as actors trying to leverage your role across organizations. In this blog, I want to elaborate on the values that guided me through taking on the role of a multi-sited ethnographer, and share how working through the conundrums I came across uncovered new avenues for exploration and reflection.

1.    Reflexivity

Given that I inevitably became part of the social settings I observed, it was imperative to consistently be aware of, and reflect on, the impact of my presence on the data I generated. To give an example, during one of the first strategic meetings I observed between insurers and aldermen, they divided themselves across the table automatically: insurers on one side, and aldermen on the other. When the chairman of the meeting entered the room, he exclaimed that this obviously was not off to a good start, and started pushing tables together, whereupon the insurers and other aldermen soon came to his aid. While rearranging the room, one of the insurers jokingly stated “well Sarah, that was unacceptable of course, we’ll do anything to disprove your findings.” The rearranging of rooms became a running joke, and I have only seen insurers and aldermen sitting intermingled after that.

2. Transparency

Blending in was quickly off the table for me, and I did not mind. I felt comfortable in the role of an outsider and liked being clear about my intentions, since I would not only be reporting my findings to an academic audience, but also to the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports. In my experience, being an outsider could work out in two ways. At times, it could be inconvenient. People would sometimes quickly stop talking, or change the subject when I entered a room. Other times, however, being upfront and transparent aided my pursuits. In inter-organizational settings, people seemed more hesitant to talk to me if they thought I worked with their collaborative partners. When I took on a clear role of outsider from university, they opened up more quickly about their experiences or intentions with other actors in the field.

3. Doing no harm

My research and relations across organizational fields, however, meant I could not become too transparent. It quickly became apparent that I was walking a tightrope between being transparent about my findings and doing harm. My PhD research focuses on the dynamics of collaboration between unfamiliar partners. When the time came to present preliminary findings, I wanted to be transparent about the findings of my research, but at the same time, not damage the budding collaboration between aldermen and insurers. My findings included statements from earlier times in which relations were less than friendly. Fearing that sharing a report would tempt actors to selectively pick out quotes that could damage their relationship, I had to find another solution. I decided to lean into the assumptions actors made about each another, and after presenting general findings, I made up exaggerated prejudices that the actors could reflect on. Having to find inventive ways to share my data, thus also sparked novel discussions and insights for my research.

Reflection uncovers new opportunities

It goes without being said that these were not the only times during which my presence clearly impacted the situation I was observing. Such moments were not always lighthearted. Sometimes actors seemed annoyed by my attendance, sighing “and yet another anecdote…” when I observed sensitive or tensed situations. Other times, I projected being intrusive onto a situation, which – after asking – only was the case in my mind. These moments opened up roads to new conversations and insights. Having no illusions of becoming a fly on the wall encouraged me to continuously approach my fieldwork with an attitude of reflection. Principles such as being transparent, doing no harm, and consistently reflecting on my impact, however, turned out to not only be abstract ideas that steered my contemplations about how to fulfill the role of a multi-sited ethnographer, but also served as concrete guides to navigate through issues that could emerge when doing fieldwork.


References

Hannerz, U. (2010). Fields Worries: Studying down, up, sideways, through, backward, forward, early or later, away and at home. In Anthropology’s world: life in a twenty-first-century discipline (pp. 59–86). New York, NY: Pluto Press.

Van Duijn, S. (2020). Everywhere and nowhere at once: the challenges of following in multi-sited ethnography. Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 9(3), 281–294. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOE-12-2019-0045

Sarah Van Duijn [PhD Candidate] is interested in the construction of interorganizational collaboration between unfamiliar partners. Her research empirically focuses on the (strategic) collaborations that emerged after the Dutch healthcare reform of 2015. Through multi-sited ethnography, she explores how local stakeholders make sense of their changing tasks and relationships in the field. Using a combination of boundary work and paradox as a theoretical lens, Sarah aims to shed light on how unfamiliar partners build collaboration from scratch.

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