Category Archives: Ethnography

“They ought to tell us if we’re allowed to laugh”

This is a copy of a blog that I wrote for the Manchester Ethnography Network – check us out: manchesterethnography.com

It’s August 2013. I’m part of a group of researchers, artists, educators and health care professionals, and we have just completed the two week premiering of a play about dementia care. The play is based on an ethnographic study of low status health care assistants in dementia wards. I was one of three ethnographers on the original project. In June 2010 we had found ourselves with the project all but wrapped up and £10k left in the dissemination budget, and through a serendipitous confluence of events, had ended up giving it – along with around a ½ million words of fieldnotes – to a playwrite. 12 months later we were reading through the first draft of a script, which told a story of an ethnographer entering a locked mental health ward, taking on the duties of a health care assistant and documenting the experience. Another 12 months and we workshopped the script on a shoe string budget with a small group of actors in order to try and attract some funding to stage a full production. Another 12 months and the full production was premiered for two weeks to capacity audiences for a two week run. Approximately 3000 people saw the performance over that fortnight, and thanks to the involvement of local healthcare trusts (among them the same ones with whom we had conducted the original research), almost half of those people were the members of staff whose everyday work we were re-presenting back to them.

The title of this blog is a comment that was made by a member of the public who had come to see the first show. The first show was in the evening, and was not one of those that were to be attended by the health staff (these were to be day-time performances followed by workshops for staff). Almost the whole way through the first half of the performance you could have heard a pin drop. There was not a noise from the audience. It was tense and uncomfortable. We thought the play was funny – all be it darkly so – at times laugh-out-loud funny, at time sad, at times surreal, disorienting, frightening, but at all times we had expected to get a response – any response. Several of us who had been sitting out in the audience were filing out of the auditorium for the interval when we overheard a conversation in which two audience members were discussing what they’d seen:

‘what did you think?’

‘not sure what to make of it…’

‘I thought it was kind of…funny…in places…but, do you think it’s supposed to be funny..?’

‘they ought to tell us if we’re allowed to laugh’

At the beginning of the second half of the performance the playwrite took to the stage and addressed this matter – providing a little context to the play, and quite literally giving people permission to laugh. At the start of each subsequent performance she did the same. It had a marked effect, but we couldn’t help thinking after that first performance that maybe we’d missed the mark. Was dementia too much for a general theatre audience to stomach? Had lengthy exposure desensitised us so thoroughly to our subject matter that our sense of what was ‘ok’ had drifted far from public norms? In our desire to render in words, sounds and images the emotional, visceral worlds that we had encountered, to open the locked doors of the ward and raise awareness of the invisible work within, had we in fact betrayed the good faith of the people whose worlds we invaded? Had we exposed them, held them up like some caricature for this silent public humiliation?

The daytime performances with the staff stood in direct contrast. Without prompt or direction they laughed, groaned, screeched, sucked teeth, hummed, clucked and squawked. They were noisy. Only pantomime audiences make more noise than this. In the auditorium we basked in the warm  sensation of a shared understanding. In the post-show discussions their talk was full of words like ‘captured’, ‘voiced’, ‘spoke to’, ‘represented’.

Words to make the neurotic post-critical ethnographer shiver. We don’t capture, we problematise, and under no circumstances do we represent.

I’ve since thought about many different ways in which these contrasting events might be read. I’ve thought about the immediacy of visual representation, not always a comfortable reflection when we think about the potential fear and violence of the image. But in the clear sense of recognition that the health care staff communicated to us, can we also read the image as potentially powerful and trustworthy?

The silence, by definition, is a more enigmatic object of interpretation. I’m struck by the novelty, as an academic, of being so close to my audience and experiencing their response to my work so directly, and yet at the same time I’m still filled with such doubt as to the  meaning of that response. If they had been entertained, then perhaps there would have been a clearer sense in which we had used, or even commodified, our participants. But I wonder if in that silence is to be found many uncomfortable individual encounters with otherness, and our novel re-presentation could therefore be said to have prompted some kind of critical consciousness raising. This is certainly not to lay claim to some kind of new and authentic language, but rather to draw attention to a brief moment in which something ordinarily hidden might have been made visible, and to which there was no practised response.