Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In the qualitative methods class I've been taking this semester I've done a couple observations on the #3 Lafayette CityBus, the one that stops directly in front of my apartment. After a good four weeks of reading about observation, some history of qualitative research, practicing observations on campus, and writing up these observations, I went and rode the 3 around in a loop, sat, took notes, and did my best to practice "low-inference" observational techniques, i.e. observing and describing and interpreting with as little judgment as possible. Instead of saying the little girl looked excited, a (not particularly skillful) low-inference observation would be something like: the little girl with long brown curly hair in the puffy blue jacket bounced up and down in her seat and smiled. Fiction writing teachers call it "showing, not telling", and when it comes to gathering material one can use for later analysis, the more in-the-moment assertions of value we can remove from our observations, the better. Of course we can't entirely remove the act of inference all together (for multiple logistical, linguistic, and philosophical reasons), so one does their best to minimize how much we bring into the act of observation. 

This pruning of judgment/opinion/preference reminds me of some of the directives that S.N. Goenka uses when discussing Vipassana mediation. That when practicing Viapassana, a kind of full body observation (Vipassana translates as "to see things as they really are") that amongst other things, one develops sensitivity to what's going on in the body on a moment-to-moment basis. Part of this practice is to regard sensations "equanimously," meaning that we can observe pain (such as sitting still for hours on end) as much as we can observe pleasure (such as eating a piece of cake), and that to observe them with equanimity is to learn how to react more evenly to the constant cravings and aversions our lives generally consist of. "Just observe" says Goenka. Of course this, like low-inference observation, is very difficult to practice with a monolithic consistency, and failure is frequent. Thus, part of the meditative practice is to not to dwell on these failures and start again.

Or even in terms of writing, one thing I do when I write is stay wary of language that contains unexamined judgments. This could be as simple as limiting the use of adjectives in the sense that most adjectives overtly assume some kind of intrinsic value (e.g. happy, sad, fluffy, red, green), or in the case of writing about people, avoiding attempts at describing the "inner" motivations of anyone, including myself. So as, descriptions of another person's behavior or what they said at a given time is fair game but what they might have been feeling or why they might have done something is not. Granted when I begin to talk about larger, faceless entities such as "the media," I get a little bit sloppier in my writing (since "nobody" will get upset) but generally I try to write within these constraints. I also have to remove the word "that" a lot from my writing but that's another problem.  But anyway, the basic directive is to try and describe what I know for certain, the "facts" of what happened, and avoid speculating on the unseen or unheard. This means my job as a writer is to observe and report rather than "creatively" write. Or as John Cage wrote,"Privilege of connecting two things remains privilege of each individual (e.g. I: thirsty: drink a glass of water); but this privilege isn't to be exercised publicly except in emergencies (there are no aesthetic emergencies)."