Several years ago, while working as the assistant director of the Disability Resource Center (DRC), I met with a student regarding a particular accessibility issue. This student was a male, African American, senior, who was a returning veteran, and had a hidden disability (psychiatric disability). The student had expressed some frustration regarding access to one of his classes, and that he was having challenges with one of his instructors. As I listened to his story, I felt it appropriate to try and remain as objective as possible, in order to best advise this student, and eventually the instructor. My goal was to be as neutral in the process as possible. However, as we discussed the particulars of his concerns, I sensed a real disconnect between myself and the student. Sensing that this disconnect was related to my being detached emotionally, I shifted to a more personal approach.
In an attempt to make the conversation more meaningful, I related a story that involved my brother. This story was similar to his own, as my brother, too, had a disability. I expressed the frustration that my brother had felt and experienced during a particular time in his educational pursuits, and the anger that resulted with our family. In doing so, I introduced an emotional and human element to this student’s experience, and could sense, almost immediately, a drastic shift in his trust of me as a participant in that experience.
As researchers, we are taught to be objective when doing observations. In doing so, we lessen the likelihood that our own experiences, feeling, opinions, and cultural identities bias the results of the study. In this week’s reading, author Renato Rosaldo (1993), argues that complete, detached objectivity distorts the true context of the work we are doing, and does not accurately reflect the places and people that we are observing.
In framing the argument, the author notes, “arguably, human feelings and human failings provide as much insight for social analysis as subjecting oneself to the “manly” ordeals of self-discipline that constitute science as a vocation. Why narrow one’s vision to a God’s-eye view from on high? Why not use a wider spectrum of less heroic, but equally insightful, analytical positions” (Rosaldo, 1993, p.173)?
The author gave an example of ethnographer, Jean Briggs, who embedded herself in an Eskimo village as a way to study the people. In her book “Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family”, author Jean Briggs (1970), describes the experiences and the challenges of her own emotional journey. In her book, Briggs introspectively explores her own identity and emotional struggles, which impacted her ability to connect with the people in a meaningful way.
Rosaldo describes her experience by saying, “in conducting her field work, she did not try and elevate herself to the dignified heights of science as a vocation. Instead she used her own feelings, particularly depression, frustration, rage and humiliation,” (Rosaldo, 1993, p. 176). The author goes on further to say that “although the choice was originally her own, Briggs found herself overwhelmed by an alien world. In response to emotional and physical deprivation, she sought consolation through food, and even went so far as to hoard eight sesame seeds in tin foil. The ethnographer was held prisoner, not by the Eskimos but by her determination to succeed in doing fieldwork under demanding conditions” (Rosaldo, 1993, p.177).
While I may never experience the harsh conditions that Jean Briggs experienced among the Eskimo tribe, there is great wisdom in acknowledging the emotional introspection of that journey, and the impact it had on her ability to effectively connect with the very people she was observing. As I look ahead to my own action research, particularly in ensuring access, excellence, and impact through mentoring, I want to be mindful of that balance of my own emotions and attachment to the student participants, and frame my life experience in that process in a way that creates trust among those that I will be working with. Only through doing so, will I be able to truly represent an accurate reflection of the impact of my research.
Rosaldo, R. (1993). Culture & Truth: The remaking of social analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Briggs, J. (1970). Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.