For the last few months I’ve been writing about my research of women’s roller derby, but I haven’t said much about my process. Like roller derby, it’s not as easy as it looks. I’ve relied mainly on two books, Postmodern Interviewing by Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein, and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fritz and Linda L. Shaw. No matter what I may say below, I hold the authors of these books in the highest esteem and credit them for the quality of my research. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll share my observations about the research process.
My research process included interviews and ethnography. Interviewing, as I saw it, was more than question and answer, and the authors of Postmodern Interviewing agreed with me. They encouraged the interviewer (me) to be an active participant and “empirically document the meaning-making process” (p. 78). Taking their advice, I learned as much as I could about roller derby so that I could have a somewhat intelligent conversation with my interview subjects. Intelligence is, of course, relative when you are learning what to me was a foreign language, but I did my best. Actually, I found blatant ignorance to be more productive than savviness. In derby circles, it was expected that newcomers would need to start from scratch, and I got the derby experience from the ground up.
Chapter 7 of the book recommended that the interviewer open up with her own stories and show vulnerability. I admitted to every one of my interviewees that I was afraid of getting hurt, hoping to get some sort of commiseration. What I didn’t realize at the time was that derby means toughness; if you’re afraid of getting hurt, you keep it to yourself. Remember The Red Badge of Courage? That’s how derby girls see injuries. Gubrium and Holstein say it’s the interviewer’s job to listen, and that’s what I did. I overheard one pre-practice conversation where three members of the team compared healing injuries, trying to “one-up” each other. “I asked my doctor if dizziness was a sign of concussion,” one laughed. “You think I should skate with this bruise?” another joked, exhibiting an eggplant-like formation on her leg. I wondered if I would have to self-inflict a wound to be admitted to their confidence.
The ethnographic part of my research demanded that I commingle with my research subjects as more than a passive observer. Thus, Training Wheels. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes is the treatise on documenting the ethnographic experience. Most of their examples deal with obscure African tribes or inner city ghettos. Would my immersion into the training program of a suburban roller derby league benefit from the lessons of this book? Yes. Roller derby is a subculture, with mores and structures and pecking orders. If you don’t believe me, check out any of the myriad of scholarly ethnographic studies on the subject. The book recommended on page 134 observation of proper terms of address within the community: derby names. It later taught observation of social structure. I sat in on a team meeting in which a senior skater read the riot act to rookies for their lack of respect to coaches and veteran members of the team. And they say I’m not an ethnographer!
The book sets forth the process of how to write notes and when to write them. As for how, full sentences were out. I’m not a stenographer, nor am I a video recorder. I could only jot impressions and key words and hope they jogged a memory later. In my post-menopausal state, this wasn’t always a sure thing. When it came to my skating lessons, contemporaneous recording was out of the question. I made notes as soon as I could afterward, usually when I got home. Fortunately, the experience was so vivid and memorable that I had no problem remembering the details.
So that was my process, in a (large) nutshell. I took advice and methods from other sources, but I felt compelled to credit Postmodern Interviewing and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Two long, scholarly (not to mention, expensive) books about what I thought was essentially talking to people and taking notes. It turns out it isn’t as easy as it looks. My thanks to the authors.