This morning I was reading about ethnography -- especially about the idea of participant-observer techniques -- for one of my classes. This is a area whose researchers believe passionately that there is much more to understanding (the incredible -- and beautiful! -- complexity of) humans and their behaviors than numbers. This is an idea that's not very much in fashion these days. Especially in the wake of the Bush administration and his insistence on "metrics" (which eventually led to the No Child Left Behind act's requirement that educational research involve so-called experimental methods as the "gold standard"), people don't seem to think very much of research that does not have percentages in it. People want research to be "objective."
But my work as a chaplain and chaplaincy educator has taught me that, if you really want to understand something about how the person you're caring for is understanding what is happening to them, you have to be willing to "get in their shoes" for a bit. And you can't really do that without taking a part of yourself there with you. And, yes, you will lose any claim to objectivity (as if there really is such a thing!) when you do that, but it's the only way to really get closer to another person. That's why relational theorists of personality talk about intersubjectivity as an alternative to the subjectivity-objectivity dichotomy. It's really just a more honest way of understanding what happens when we try to get closer to other people -- we inevitably are affected by the other person and vice versa (and so we need to pay attention to that mutual process if we really want to come to a meaningful understanding of the other person, especially an understanding of how they experience their world and make meaning out of it).
Yeah, I know. What I've said above is really complex (and maybe very confusing and not convincing to you). That's the problem I felt in my heart when I was reading, today. On the one hand, I felt this tremendous excitement to have found this community of researchers who speak a truth (the truth about qualitative research methods) that I find so compelling. On the other hand, I felt this sadness (about how hard it has become to convince other people of this truth).
I was also reminded of what one of my old journalism colleagues (Mark Magnier, where are you now?) taught me -- if you want to really get the story, you need to get to as close as possible to where it's happening. So, too, if you really want to get the story about what is happening for an individual (or a group of people) you need to get as close to them as possible. That means (detached) observation will never be good enough. You have to actually interact with others, maybe even live and eat with them. That's ethnography!