Closing remarks: Learning through participation and partnerships

Ethnographers are committed to understanding the life worlds, concerns, rationalities, and perspectives of the people they study. They get at these understandings through participation, however peripherally, in their everyday practices. Some ethnographers are already familiar with the environments they enter as a researcher (for instance, a former teacher may turn to ethnography, in studying classroom activities). Yet other ethnographers focus on communities or practices that they have never been exposed to before. That applies to the work discussed in this chapter. I had never seen an operating theatre before, so I had a lot to learn: How, where and when to stand, for instance, or how to wear a surgical hat; when to speak and when to remain quiet; what the tallies on the whiteboard mean; who is who; what a liver looks like, how organs are taken out, and so on. Much of that learning was through observation and some 'explicit teaching' by my research partners, much like medical students who enter the operating theatre for the first time.

Some ethnographers go one step further: they also learn by 'doing' the work that they're studying, much like the apprentices described by Lave and Wenger (1991). For instance, Charles Briggs (2010) learnt some of the crafts of the people he studied by doing it himself, under the watchful eye of the expert. Yet for each practice one studies there is a boundary, a cap on how far the participation can go. These boundaries may be shaped by practical considerations - Charles must have run out of time to practise before becoming an 'expert' himself - as well as ethical considerations. In my case, the limits of participation were based on patient safety. Through my partnerships I had peripheral access to surgery, yet I could not increase my participation beyond that point and experience what it is like to operate on a patient, or to hand instruments to a surgeon, or even to hold a retractor. This is a common limitation for ethnographers of work. Perhaps more so now than in the past as contemporary ethical codes of conduct and legal frameworks for doing research demand careful consideration of possible harm to anyone involved, both researcher and research participants. Indeed, in the current climate, the participatory observation of Bosk (1979), who occasionally scrubbed in and held retractors, would be difficult to replicate.

That makes partnerships a timely arrangement. By attaching oneself to a committed member of the community one studies who is also co-researcher (and therefore benefits from the institutional rewards for that role) one can get closer to the 'life world' or 'lived experiences' of that community than solely on the basis of 'visiting' a research site, interviewing 'research participants' and studying fieldnotes and videorecordings in isolation. In a way, the partners can compensate for the limits on fuller participation, which is depriving the ethnographer of an embodied experience of what it is like to do what is central to the community one is interested in.

There are limitations to the partnership. We must not idealise research partners as 'native speakers' of a universal language of practice, whom we can consult to check what an action means and whether it is 'grammatical' or not. Surgical ways of doing come in many 'accents' and change rapidly as a result of technological change. Surgeons working in London have trained around the world, and bring in a range of different culturally and socially shaped 'accents'. There is another risk attached to partnerships: it may take away an incentive to talk to other members of the community. Yet in research partnerships 'infidelity' ought to be encouraged; it is only beneficial to a linguistic ethnographic analysis to collect as many perspectives on one's data as possible.

The case studies that I have discussed show how linguistic ethnography can make a distinct contribution to pertinent questions that are at the heart of public debate (see also Iedema 2009; Vincent 2009). My efforts to make such a contribution were strongly influenced by and dependent on a partnership with two surgeons throughout all stages of the research, from data collection to writing up linguistic ethnographic accounts for medical journals. My experience suggests that partnerships enable linguistic ethnographers to gain peripheral access to, and produce accounts of, a practice that they were entirely unfamiliar with prior to studying it. These accounts can resonate with the community under study and potentially have impact. It is well worth replicating this model of collaboration to access the world of health care professionals and other practitioners and to join more public and professional debates from which linguistic ethnographers are currently absent.

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