Creative methodologies for understanding cultural norms and expectations

Phase one of my research involves discovering ‘the illusion of the normal.’ Analyzing the cultural norms and expectations placed on people in Polish society.  To put it in cognitive anthropological terms, “measuring a cultural model of what it means to be a good, well-respected member of Polish society.” Cultural Models, in the field of cognitive anthropology, reflect the shared, implicit knowledge that one must know in order to function adequately in society and be perceived by others as a legitimate member of the group (Goodenough 1996). Cultural models provide a directive force, in that they help us to know and understand how to behave and what is expected of us in a particular situation. They also provide an interpretive force, in that they shape our feelings and judgements when confronted with a situation that doesn’t seem quite right (for example, if you were to see someone trying to climb back up an escalator that is moving down, while “everyone knows” that there are two escalators and you’re “supposed” to get on the right one). Cultural models are not simply an aggregate of individually held opinions and believes, but reflect an understanding of what the majority of people believe the majority of people want or expect of them in their society. These models, or understandings, are culturally constructed and individuals are not simply empty receptacle, but also active shapers, of their culture. The presence and strength, or degree of sharing, of the cultural model, or collective agreement, can be investigated through a cultural consensus analysis (Romney et. al. 1986) in which respondents are asked a series of questions regarding their knowledge of a cultural domain (e.g. life-goals and expectations in Polish society), and the correlation, or degree of consensus, among individual respondents’ answers is measured. The questions on the consensus analysis should be based on extensive prior ethnographic research, in order to get a sense of what is important to these people in this domain.  This process is known as ‘populating the domain’ in cognitive anthropology.  So how do we ‘populate the domain’ of life goals and expectations that Polish people think they should (try to) achieve?  Before discussing one of the most common methods in cognitive anthropology, which involves free-listing interviews, I will introduce some new, creative-methodologies (which probably aren’t all that new. I suspect this is what many people do during or before the often times vaguely defined ‘participant-observation’)

An analysis of heroes (from folk tales and well-known books or literature by Polish authors, Polish movies and TV shows, and current events and news stories). Who is the hero? what is the ‘hero’ like? what does or did he/she do, what do people like about or value in him/her, what are they known or remembered for? What are we supposed to learn from them?

An analysis of child-rearing practices (talking to parents and analyzing parenting magazines) – what kind of norms and values do parents and care-givers try to instill in their children?  What kind of life do they want or expect for their child, and what kind of person (e.g. gentle, caring, bold, respectful, independent) do they want the child to grow-up to be?

An analysis of gossip (this one may be more questionable, in terms of ethics and reliability, but) – When a group of two or more people is talking about another person or persons, either negatively or positively. What kind of behavior is criticized or socially disproved? Or conversely, who is talked about positively? What kind of behavior receives praise?

(it could be related to individual preferences though – certain individuals have different expectations and boundaries regarding what kind of behavior they expect or accept from certain people (from their friends, a stranger on a bus, their boss, etc. Moreover, sometimes people say stuff or agree with things (when talking in a group), they don’t really mean, or they’re not stating a well thought out argument or strongly held personal conviction, but it’s more based on in-the-moment sentiments, so sometimes you gotta take it with a grain of salt. And in that sense, ‘gossip’ can’t really be taken as a reliable source of data (in any situation).  But I guess maybe it can give you some ideas or directions that you could explore further?)

I think I tend to do this ‘analysis of gossip’ thing, on a subconscious level, all the time, especially when I’m new in a place – in order to understand the appropriate rules of conduct in a place or among a specific group of people, but I’ve never applied it as a research methodology. (and maybe I shouldn’t 😉 )

Come to think of it, I think all three of these particular methods (not just the rather questionable ‘analysis of gossip’ thing) reflect the ways in which we naturally become exposed to and learn the cultural models, the norms and expectations, in our societies.   Through American literature and media, one becomes exposed to the tropes of ‘the American dream,’ ‘From rags to riches,’ the ‘unity in diversity’ ideal (far from reality); from the way your parents and care-givers raised you, you (hopefully) learn how to become a responsible adult in your society; and from the way you talk with your friends and what you hear people say about one another, you learn how to fit it.  (you may become more aware of the process, and realize you’re becoming more ‘American,’ or more ‘Polish’ when you move to a new country. Whereas you ‘learn’ your first culture more subconsciously)

One could say it’s like the Rosetta stone method of cognitive domain analysis (get it? Rosetta stone claims to reproduce the way we naturally learned our first language. In the same way, these methodologies reflect the way we naturally learned our first ‘cultural model’ (or continuously learn and interact with the cultural codes of our own society).

Of course, instead of trying to understand the cultural model through all these indirect methodologies, one could just ask people “hey, what are the cultural expectations around here?” (Although you’ll get a lot of blank stares if you do that. Trust me). As mentioned, a ‘cultural model’ represents an implicit/subconscious, collective agreement.  Most people don’t walk around consciously aware of exactly what their society expects of them (especially if you fit right in. securely embedded in your culture.  When you see the stares, sense the social disproval, and hear the whispers about you – then you might know).  Since the cultural model is implicit, it’s hard (to impossible) to use explicit methods (such as simply asking people about their cultural model) to try and understand it.  Hence, these ‘creative’ methodologies are necessary.

A common method among cognitive anthropologists involves asking respondents about a particular domain (e.g. ‘healthy diet,’ ‘good family’ ) and asking them to list all the important characteristics or qualities they can come up with in that domain.  This is called free-listing.  But again, one needs to be creative about how to phrase the question. It’s unlikely that people will be able to come up with a long list (or even anything) in response to something like “list all the most common cultural norms and expectations placed on people in Polish society. Go.” I personally like the method of asking respondents to imagine a scenario, for example “Imagine the kind of person that is commonly considered to be a good, well-respected, member of Polish society (maybe visualize a real-life example, e.g. a character from a book, a historically figure, your neighbor), and list all the qualities and characteristic of this person. “

(answers I’ve heard so far: shows initiative, doesn’t wait around for other people to take care of them or for life to happen, responsibility, cares about something (not just themselves), helps others, shares resources, adaptable, resourceful, hard-working, hospitable, easy-going, themselves (doesn’t pretend to be something he/she is not), humble, has a house, at least two kids and a dog, job (that is useful to society, that makes enough money, stable job), talent/excels at something/ is one of the best in his or her field, modest, determined, resilient, socially connected (has close friends, good connection with parents and family, surrounded by people who are close to them, loving partner/good marriage/faithful husband or wife), religion/faith/is a believer or comes from a family of believers, active, goes on vacation twice a year to the mountains, etc.).

Once I’ve gathered enough free-list responses, the salience (or significance) of items on the free-lists can then be analyzed in terms of their frequency and positioning. An item that appears on many of the free-lists, and frequently near the top (i.e. one of the first things that comes to mind, for most people), can be assumed to reflect, what many people might consider, an important characteristic associated with ‘good members of Polish society.’

And once I think I have a good picture of the kind of people Polish people think they are expected to be (from the free lists, analysis of heroes in the media, child-rearing practices, gossip/talk, interviews etc), I can test the degree to which this ‘cultural model’ is shared (and thus exists, because a cultural model, by definition, has to be shared) using a cultural consensus analysis.  More on that later.



“Autoethnography is an intriguing and promising qualitative method that offers a way of giving voice to personal experience for the purpose of extending sociological understanding.”  (Wall 2008: 38).

Part of my research here in Poland involves  investigating the perspectives and experiences of people with disabilities in PL.   It occurred to me: I have a disability too, right? and I have ‘perspectives and experiences’ too, regarding how other people treat me and the kind of reactions I get, from people on the street or in the shops, for example.   From an auto-ethnographic perspective, all of these personal experiences can be used as data too.  One only has to be careful not to let it turn into so called navel-gazing (or the “self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue, at the expense of a wider view”) and become too introspective about one’s own feelings in a situation, or how one experienced or reacted to an event.  Rather: what do theses kind of interactions and reactions index (or suggest) about broader cultural perceptions of normality and disability, processes of socialization (how children are taught about differences and how people learn through interactions), and how these perceptions and processes in turn index larger cultural models of how the world and society ought to function (who is a ‘valid’ vs. ‘invalid’ citizen, who has valid vs. invalid opinions).

I’m not planning to write a full auto-ethnography about my experiences here, but I suppose I could include some auto ethnographic elements.   So here are some from my field notes from this year:

“I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how ‘normal’ I’m being treated. For example (at least) twice this summer I’ve been approached by a stranger on the street and asked for directions or the time. You might think: ‘so what?’  But to me this indicates they are (I almost wanted to say ‘mistaking me for :P’) seeing me as a probably competent and intelligent enough human being, who can offer assistance to other people, even though I may walk a little funny and usually wear my neck brace and walk with my walking stick.   From the older generation, I still frequently get signs of pity, though. But it doesn’t offend me. They’re usually giving me a blessing or some kind of encouragement, so I thank them (sincerely) and go on with my normal day.  being blessed by strangers gives me a good feeling too, but I guess I prefer being asked for help.  But anyway, autoethnography is not about how these instances make me feel, but what they might be indexing (suggesting) about broader cultural assumptions about people who look or walk a little bit differently.  Can they be intelligent? can they help other people? or can they only be helped and need to be taken care of all the time?  This summer I’ve had only one (funny) instance, in which I felt like I wasn’t being treated like a normal adult:  The time I was congratulated for opening a door.  😀 An older/elderly lady was just coming out of the shop and closed the door behind her when she saw me approaching and asked or wondered out loud whether I would be able to open the door or she should help me, and then I opened the door, and she exclaimed ‘congratulations! all by yourself! oh, you are so strong!’  (granted, it was a very heavy door 😉  so the praise may have been somewhat appropriate 😛 hehe) I thanked her and walked inside, laughing to myself about that rather strange encounter.  I don’t know how old she thought I was, or how weak exactly.  But that was the only encounter, this summer, in which I felt a little different and not treated like a normal adult. I wasn’t offended  or hurt by it though. I mostly found it funny.  (last summer I had more unpleasant encounters).

But like I said, this year people seem to be treating me like a more normal human being than I was ever used to around here.  Maybe the society is changing and becoming more open toward different people, maybe I’ve become more self-confident and people are reacting to that, or maybe it’s the hair (I got my hair cut short, in the hopes of looking more mature, and being treated like an adult).”

“when I got on the tram this morning, it looked rather full and I probably looked rather panicked, hoping I’d find an empty seat before it started moving. A lady in front of me got up and offered me her seat. Then when  I took out my ticket, she offered to stamp it for me, but the lady sitting next to me asked me where I was going, and then offered me her, already stamped ticket, because she was getting off at the next stop, and the ticket was good for a few more stops.  There seems to be something uniquely Polish about finding these little ways to help each other. She wouldn’t be needing her ticket anymore, so rather than throwing it in the trash, she might as well pass it along to someone else, as she’s leaving the tram. A small act of kindness that doesn’t cost you anything, but one could so easily forget to do or not even think about doing. In this instance I felt taken care of by these ladies, but not like they were treating me like a child or baby that needs to be taken care of, but there was rather a sense of camaraderie.  An understanding that you know what the other person, your fellow passenger, (not just the poor disabled girl) needs (a seat, a stamped ticket) and you look out for one another.”

Some more (non auto ethnographic) observations:  “I’ve been seeing a lot more people with disabilities, and in wheelchairs, in the city this summer than possibly during the entire two years that I lived in PL (in 2012 and 2013).  I’ve seen two different people zipping around in scooters or electric wheelchairs, one very short person walking with a walking frame,  three people in a wheelchairs being pushed by someone else, and one young person walking with a lot of difficulty with a walking stick (and no, I was not walking past a mirror and observing myself at that moment :P).  When I was living in Katowice, the only person I ever saw in a wheelchair was a beggar on the street.   Maybe by the time I come back next year, disabled people will be so fully integrated and treated like normal, every day, citizens, that there won’t even be a need for my research project anymore.  😉    (but that also “indexes” the limits of an auto-ethnographic approach. Just because I feel like I’m being treated like a normal person, for the most part, and can go out and participate normally in this society, doesn’t mean that all disabled people feel that way or may experience their society in the same way).”

and now for some pure, unadulterated, ‘navel-gazing’ and self reflections 😉

“Maybe another reason why I might be easy to approach is because I tend to pay close attention to my surroundings, including the people in my surroundings.  I good habit for an ethnographer, I guess 🙂  (it’s not why I do it though. I’m mainly just being vigilant all the time, perhaps a little bit hyper-vigilant, to be aware of where there might be  step where one could trip over, or a slippery surface, or a door that could fly open and hit me, and to observe who isn’t paying attention to where he or she is going, or might suddenly break into a run, and bump into me. That sort of thing. but, never the less) taking good note of your surroundings and the behavior of the people around you is a good skill for an ethnographer too.  and it probably makes you more approachable too – more approachable then those who are walking straight ahead on automatic pilot, or looking at their phones, paying no mind to anything or anyone around them –  because people can see that you’ve already seen them, and they don’t need to try to get your attention first, ‘cause they’ve already got it.

and I guess I may also be easier to approach because I walk (quite a bit) slower than the rest, so it’s not too difficult to stop me to ask for directions or for the time, because I’m almost stopped already anyway 😛  (if I was going any slower, I’d be moving backwards).   Today I was stopped again on the street, this time by a man who wanted to ask me why I wear the neck brace. It turned into a long (half an hour) conversation about Poland, England, France, Mexicans, his mother, drunk drivers, and thieves. We talked in half english half polish, and a little bit of french. His name is Janek (Jacques in French, in “Jack” in England), and he had only a few teeth.  (but besides his appearance, he seemed like a very intelligent gentleman. he spoke ok English, and fluent french, and told me that he had been the first Polish person to get a degree at some famous lyceum in France (I forgot the name of it though).”

I guess I’m still most frequently stopped for a chat by drunk old men (Jack wasn’t drunk though) and Jehovah’s witnesses, rather than ‘normal’ people asking for directions or the time, but that’s probably the case for everyone.  Although most people probably ignore the drunk old men and Jehovah’s witnesses, or ignore everyone, when walking down the street.

I still find it difficult to distinguish between probably ‘normal,’ working people and probably homeless, drunk people.  Sometimes you can tell by their smell – the smell of alcohol and unclean clothes – but I’m just not good at judging people by their looks.  One time, a few weeks ago, I mistook a beggar for the owner of the restaurant. I thought he was recommending his soup to me, and wanted me to buy the soup with my pierogi, so I thought. ‘Sure, why not. I’ll get the soup too.’   (we were both standing in front of the counter, where I was ordering my food).  Then, when I was sitting at the table, the waitress brought me my plate of pierogi, and the beggar joined me at the table with his bowl of soup.  That’s when I realized I’d accidentally done a good deed that day 🙂  (and made a new friend too).


reference about auto ethnography:

Wall, Sarah. 2008. “Easier said than done: Writing an Autoethnography.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 7(1).

Ethnographic Field Research: Do’s and Don’ts

When I was still safely in America, dreaming about this field research from the comfort of my arm-chair, writing my proposal, I imagined myself introducing myself to strangers, in the park, at the shopping mall, at the train station, in the library, or at café’s, bars and cafeteria, and asking them for their perspective on Polish norms and expectations concerning ‘a good life’ (my research question for Phase 1). that I’m in the field….however…. I have to admit I haven’t gotten any further than “hi, do you speak English?” ‘no? ok bye, sorry for disturbing you.’ I have come to realize I will need to take a different approach (with one month left in the field). Here’s what I’ve learned about field researching:

Don’t expect to talk to and engage in brief conversations with total strangers unless:

You know the language well and are a very confident speaker in it,

You are pretty self-confident in general (which I’m not really, but I thought I could at least pretend).

You are familiar enough with the culture to judge what would be considered appropriate and what might scare or offend people (when it comes to when and how, or whether at all, to approach them or start talking if you already happen to be in close proximity).

Do: join an organization or small community and let the people you’ll be engaging with know that you’re there as a researcher. For example, when I went to do my field research at the Ecovillage at Ithaca, for my M.A. program (at the Free University of Amsterdam) it was easy to talk to people (…still not as ‘easy’ as I had originally imagined of course. I tend to always over-estimate my self-confidence and ability to start talking to people, when I’m not actually faced with them 😉 but at least far, far easier than it is in this case) because everyone in the community knew I was there as a researcher and was expecting my questions and curiosity. I didn’t have to explain first who I was, what I was doing, and why I was asking silly questions.

Have (at least) one main informant with whom you’ve had good contact before you go into the field, who knows what you’ll be doing, is interested in your research (or at least some enthusiasm or positivity from them would help – it’ll be no good if they think your project is a stupid idea), is an ‘insider’ to the community and can introduce you to other people.   I had this when I went to the Ecovillage. After I wrote my first introduction email to them, asking if I could stay in their community for 3 months, to study them, an (officially retired, but still pretty active) anthropology professor who was living there, wrote me back and he became my second advisor for the project.

You could also post flyers or announcement about your research somewhere to tell people that you’re seeking participants/ volunteers to meet with you for a brief interview and possibly offer them a small compensation (e.g. money, gift voucher, food and/or drink) for their time, and wait for responses – one of my friends used this strategy, and I think it worked alright for her.

In any case, you’ll be meeting with people who know what you want from them and have more or less agreed to talk to you (in the case of working in a community, not everyone may be enthusiastic about having a researcher there, but at least they know what you’re there for and what your intentions are) – which is a better strategy than trying to approach or start talking to random strangers, who may or may not speak English, may or may not want to be bothered by your questions, and may or may not trust you.

I don’t know, maybe there have been anthropologists in the past who have gone into the field, without fully speaking the language yet, without a main informant who knew about their research prior to their arrival and was able to introduce them to other people along the way, who weren’t working with one organization or in a small community where everyone pretty much knows each other and you can’t remain a total ‘outsider’ for long – and yet were successful.   But from my experiences (and what I’ve heard from other anthropologists) I can say, it’s very helpful if you: speak the language, find a community or organization, introduce yourself and tell them about your intentions before you go (and of course wait for them to extend their welcome for you to work with and/or stay with them), and preferably find a main informant who is an insider to the community either before, or soon after, you arrive, who both trusts you and understands your research and has the trust of other people in the community, and can thus open up doors for you.

As for my research directions now: I’ll still try to keep going out to places to see if I can find anyone to talk to to answer my questions, but in the mean time, I’ve also posted some announcements on the couch-surfing website (which is not just a place to find a place to sleep when you’re traveling, but also for meeting people for social events, or, for example, a pretty popular thing among couch surfers in Poland, language-exchanges). Maybe someone will want to do a language exchange with me – I can help them with their Dutch or English, they can help me with my Polish, and that would also give me an opportunity to ask them my research questions. And I’ve also (finally) started asking friends if they can get me in touch with more people to talk to about my research, or answer the question in writing. (luckily I do already have a few good friends and contacts here in this city, so that is helpful). I probably should have thought of this ‘new approach’ sooner, rather than aimlessly wandering around the city, going to the library, hanging out at diners, shopping malls, and train stations – just people watching, but barely getting to talk to anyone (at least no more than “do you speak english?”), or resorting to writing essays (about culture, disability theory and such) – something I think I’m good at and enjoy doing, safely on the couch –  rather than doing ‘actual field work,’ and feeling like a bit of a failed researcher.

Well this excessive ‘couch-time’ hasn’t been a complete waste of time. I’ve been working on essays (which I hope to publish some day) and proposals (for more funding), learning Polish, reading Polish newspapers online (to also get a sense of the culture). Just haven’t gotten  as much actual field-work done as I would have liked in this past month. But I still have one month left. The glass is still half full.

Ethical Ethnography

(note: these are my own thoughts and possibly do not reflect the point of view of the University of Alabama department of Anthropology).

Ethnographic research is typically done through the means of participant observation. Becoming a member of a community. Experiencing life from their point of view, in order to better grasp what they experience as meaningful and important, and be able to ask relevant questions, engage in rapport, and overall facilitate the research process.

Of course, when writing about your experiences in the field later on, you run the risk of using informal speech as data, miss-representing someone’s point of view (perhaps unintentionally making it fit into your own theories and previous experiences or observations. although this problem is definitely not limited to ethnographic research) or publishing an opinion, thought, or idea, that they did not intend to state as a public opinion, but was just them thinking out loud to a friend, and perhaps disclosing something they never wanted published/made public.

I think a good way of avoiding greatly offending anyone or betraying the trust of the people you had contact with – whose voices, ideas, and opinions shaped your own thoughts and theories on the subject (besides being clear about your role and intentions as researcher, and asking for permission before quoting anyone or if you want to use what was said as data, and never using their real names when doing so, of course) – is by letting them read your field research reports as you write them (I mean not, while you are writing them, but once you’ve formed a nice summary of your observations for the day or week) before anything gets published officially. By “them” I mean specifically the people you talked to, who’s thoughts shaped your ideas the most, or who’s reflections and opinions you are using/including in your data, but also, perhaps especially, others in the community, whom you didn’t get a chance to interview or talk to yet. Maybe (perhaps without even realizing it) you’ve only been interacting with a specific sub-group in the community (while your interest lies not just with this specific sub-group, but you intend to write about the whole community). And of course, everyone (…or most people) will eagerly present you with their point of view as though “this is how it is” or “this is what everyone around here thinks” (perhaps/probably really believing that to be the case) but you won’t know if that is the case, until you’ve tested that point of view against others in the community (obviously not as a way of setting people up against each other, like: “so and so said this, is that true?” but more like “I’m getting the impression that it it’s like this [blablabla], but what do you think/would you say about it?”

And this (checking, and double checking your assumptions) might be scary, as you might have to let go of some of your ‘brilliant ideas,’ the direction you were going in, and/or the theories you were using, if it turns out that they are not representative of the community you are describing and actually no-one (or only one informant) in the community agrees with you – but imagine how much worse your despair might be if you realize this after everything is published.

A little anecdote along those lines: After a very successful and informative interview at the start of my field research at the Ecovillage of Ithaca, I thought I had the direction of my further research, and the subject of my thesis, all figured out. I knew the theories I was going to link it to, and how I was going to present it all in my final thesis. All I had to do was interview a few more Ecovillagers, to hear their perspective on that which I already knew. However, upon interview more Ecovillagers, in turned out that most of them did not share this first Ecovillager’s perspective. In fact, they all had their own, sometimes conflicting with others,’ opinions, believes, and experiences in the village (Who would have thought!   😉 I mean, looking back, that seems obvious, but I was a naive first time ethnographer).

Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, a different perspective, another view on reality or the situation, presents itself. It taught me to remain very open with the Ecovillagers about my ‘findings,’ assumptions, and theories about them and their community, and constantly ask for their feedback.  Of course, there will always be people who disagree with some of your findings or ideas (“two crows denies this”), and others who think you’ve hit the nail on the head, with the same observation. (and you’ll drive yourself crazy and won’t get any work done if you keep changing your mind, and your thesis, as soon as someone disagrees with you – as I soon discovered with my research in the Ecovillage). Such observations I presented as “contested” and/or presented both sides, rather than trying to calculate which was the “majority” view, or only representing the most powerful/prominent voices.

Towards the very end of my time in the Ecovillage, we had a focus group type discussion – open to anyone who was interested – where I presented my main findings, the theories I was linking it to, and how I was going to portray/represent their community, and they gave me more feedback and constructive criticism.

In the end, the Ecovillagers made my thesis available on their public website, so I guess, they overall did find it a good representation of their community 🙂

It can be read here:  Individuality in Community