Sunday, October 19, 2003

Chasms, Brokers, and Related Terms: The role of the researcher

Participant Observation has ordered some of my recent musings and ramblings. Perhaps it’s time to set the stage…

Vignette 1: It’s Friday morning and a group of aspiring researchers are gathered in front of me. I’m a bit irritable because I had to buy my coffee from the Donut Café; The Althouse cafeteria is closed on Fridays. There are three books in front of me: LCSH volume 1, APA’s Thesaurus of psychological index terms, and the Thesaurus of ERIC descriptors. For the next two hours I will be explaining the difficulties of cross-disciplinary research. I place the blame for these difficulties on the differences in how the various disciplines structure their realities as described by controlled vocabularies (see Machin’s description of Foucault and language structure (Machin, 2002)). The etic language of the researchers, in essence, becomes an emic language to a researcher trained in a different field (Taylor & Bogdan, 1975, p. 200).

NOTE: I decided against addressing either MeSH or ISI’s Permuterm indexing; Common sense prevailed.

Vignette 2: I’m talking to one of my colleagues and notice that all of the characters on his computer screen are in Chinese. I ask him how he can possibly remember so many different characters. He explains that there are only about 2,000 characters that he needs for communicating on most topics. When I express surprise at this large number, he laughs. English words, he explains, are much like individual characters to him. For the TOEFL, he had to learn 10,000 of these “characters”. To communicate in his scientific discipline, he was required to learn perhaps another 10,000. So my colleague has 20,000 communication terms. The LCSH 26th Ed., meanwhile, has 270,000 ( How can any of us move across boundaries if such a vast number of terms are involved?

These two vignettes illustrate the difficulties of moving across disciplines and languages. Social researchers—especially those engaged in participant observation—must overcome a similar barrier. To understand an environment or “cultural scene” they must become versed in the local language and “folk knowledge” (Morgan, 2002). Spanning these boundaries is no easy task but it can be accomplished. Brown and Duguid, for example, identify three specific processes: boundary objects, translators, and knowledge brokers, (1998).

In social science, the researcher is encouraged to “triangulate” their findings through the use of existing documentary sources (Denzin, 1989; Taylor & Bogdan, 1975). These documentary sources represent boundary objects. As Star and Geisemer (1999) indicate, however, boundary objects are loosely structured in common usage—much of the semantic meaning of the document is unavailable to the uninitiated researcher. Although they may be able to achieve some sense of an environment, a researcher will not gain fluency just through the use of boundary objects. Some sort of “apprenticeship” is required. Bockarie (2002), for example, invokes Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development in analyzing an apprentice’s interactions with a journeyman. The first stage in the learning process for an apprentice is to learn the stories and communication techniques of the vocation. Taylor and Bogdan (1984), similarly recommend that researchers spend the first stage of their research becoming acculturated to a particular environment.

Translators may act as the researcher’s teacher and provide the researcher with some insight into the environment. The translator has in-depth knowledge of the participants’ emic language and makes this language available to the researcher. Any interchange between the researcher and the translator, however, is subject to the “translation competence” of the translator (Spradley, 1979). In using the language of the researcher, the specifics of the environment may be lost. Basically, to communicate between their communities the researcher and translator agree to use a less specific and well-defined thesaurus. This “pidgin” thesaurus (Galison, 1999) is necessarily incomplete.

The third way to navigate across the boundary is to use a “knowledge broker”. In social science research, this broker is generally referred to as a key informant (Denzin, 1989; Taylor & Bogdan, 1975). The informant, however, is subject to the same linguistic constraints as the translator. In addition, the informant may be only a marginal member of the particular community and not privy to complete details of particular interactions (Taylor & Bogdan, 1975). A more significant concern, however, is that new meanings may be created through the interaction of the informant and the researcher. Wenger (1998), for example, states:

“Brokers are able to make new connections across communities of practice, enable coordination, and--if they are good brokers--open new possibilities of meaning.” (p. 109)

As the informant and the researcher negotiate their positions in the environment, their roles change. They are no longer merely observer and observed or researcher and researched. Some authors describe this changing position with terms like “going native”. Wenger (1998), however, provides a taxonomy of various interaction roles based on the “trajectory” of individuals as they move through disparate communities: peripheral, inbound, insider, boundary, and outbound. In their relationship with knowledge brokers or key informants, the researcher must be aware of both their own interaction role and the role of the informant.

Cross-disciplinary research is no easy task but at least we have tools such as subject guides, bibliographies, and thesauri. Unfortunately, when dealing with real subjects and participant observation there is no “RT- Related Term”. Instead, we have to be cognizant of how we negotiate the gaps and crevasses of our disparate communities.


Bockarie, A. (2002). The Potential of Vygotsky's Contributions to Our Understanding of Cognitive Apprenticeship as a Process of Development in Adult Vocational and Technical Education. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 19(1) , p. 47-66.
Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1998). Organizing knowledge. California Management Review, 40(3), 90-111.
Denzin, N. K. (1989). The research act : a theoretical introduction to sociological methods (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Galison, P. (1999). Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York; London: Routledge.
Machin, D. (2002). Ethnographic research for media studies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Morgan, D. L. (2002). Focus Group Interviewing. In J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research : context & method (pp. 141-160). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1999). Institutional Ecology, "Translations" and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 503-524). New York; London: Routledge.
Taylor, S. J., & Bogdan, R. (1975). Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.


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