Mobile shadowing ethnography: Complexity in the research topic and the experience for the researcher

The following passage in the introduction to Negrón (2014) conveys complexity in the research topic, research process, and the experience for the researcher:

Shadowing entailed constantly shifting research roles: between direct observer, participant observer, and sometimes, unobtrusive observer. But just as informants negotiated their ethnicity in New York City’s diverse ethnic milieu, so too did my observations demand my own ethnic negotiations as I moved with my informants throughout the city.

Quinlan’s (2008) description of shadowing is apt – “conspicuous invisibility”. Conspicuous invisibility highlights the ways that shadowing observers must constantly negotiate distance and engagement with their research companions. In what follows, I will discuss the unique opportunities and challenges associated with this sort of observation. Distance/detachment made it possible to closely and continuously attend to note-taking and close observation right as informants were ‘doing being ethnic’. Participation/engagement, on the hand, was an inevitable and welcome aspect of being ‘close and personal’ with informants for a week. In writing about the seeming paradox of participant observation, Benjamin Paul (1953: 69) wrote: “Participation implies emotional involvement; observation requires detachment. It is a strain to sympathize with others and at the same time strive for scientific objectivity.”

As I will show, shadowing ethnography actually involves a certain level of empathetic engagement, as moving in diverse urban spaces with my informants transformed my sensibilities and heightened my awareness of the ways that life amidst diversity has a number of unique effects on one’s subjectivity.

My observations and conversations with – mostly Latino – New Yorkers pointed to a number of themes about diversity’s effects: 1) diversity as freeing, particularly for immigrants who came from countries that were relatively less diverse, and in which various sorts of idiosyncrasies could more easily stand out, 2) diversity as a laboratory in which learning and experimentation with multiple cultures takes place through dabbling in different foods and languages, 3) diverse spaces as portals (both figuratively and in the sense of facilitating remittances, communication, and travel) to the familiarity of (multiple) home country environments, and also 4) diversity as cultivating certain cognitive and communicative skills, of the sort needed to cut through the complexity, to identify and read cues into people’s backgrounds, in order to know if and how to orient to others.

In fact, diversity had many of the same effects on me as the researcher and observer. I was sometimes overwhelmed by the dificulties in recording it all, capturing the various layers in which diversity manifests itself, in order to better understand its impact on ethnic identity and interaction. And I became aware of the ways that the task of observing and describing diversity had important impacts on my own cognition, behavior, and my understanding of myself.

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