The Dirt Code: Grounds for Reflexive Ethnography

by J. Cassar Scalia

Reflecting on my own ethnographic research of capoeira through the fall of 2012 at Simon Fraser, I realize that I can hardly understate the challenge of assuming and maintaining a thoroughly reflexive, inductive approach to the research process.  My a priori agenda, subtle as it can be, has in no small way driven my research.  My interview questions, prepared and extemporaneous, were in pursuit of data that might satisfy (but also eliminate) some pre-cooked conceptualizations. Yes I’ve been a bit too caught up in my own conceptual biases as we all are liable to do, to one degree or another.  It’s why we constantly harangue ourselves over the importance of reflexive, inductive research.

There were certain data in my field notes, data that did not necessarily satisfy certain frameworks, that I did not code thoroughly or at all. In any research process there will always be certain elements and artifacts that are favored over others. Looking critically at my research this way, I recall Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966) in which she refers to any “matter out of place” within a given society or culture, as “dirt”. She brought this concept to bear through an analysis of religious dietary practices, but the concept certainly does not lack in transferability. What I realized in light of Douglas’ memorable concept, was that there was matter out of place throughout my field notes and interviews. I simply pass over what I consider dirt.

The Reflexive Value of ‘An Inconvenient Residuum’

For all of the coding that I’ve done it seems there is, after all, another code in the data that I’ve ignored.  All of the data that I did not code, or that more precisely I unconsciously coded out, is still there, and stands as a kind of code in its own right- a dirt code. I’ve come to see this code  as a kind of subalternated cognitive residuum that is kicked up and then discarded when it does not conform to the dominant narrative schema that inevitably monitors and directs the cognitive processes that underlay and direct my own personal approach to research. Such a residuum may harbor the amorphous, the abstruse, the ineffable, the ‘counterproductive’, all that remains just beyond the scope of my habitual gaze. This gaze wants to hit upon a compelling narrative, and when certain data don’t fit in or support that developing narrative, there may be an incentive, perhaps an unconscious one, to leave the data to the side.

Thinking on dirt in the context of the research process has spurred my thoughts toward not just reflexive intention but reflexive method. It strikes me that I am often at a loss, not for aspiring to a reflexive, inductive research but for the practical implementation of that aspiration.  How is one to be reflexive beyond an aspirational sense of intention and right effort?  There are certainly strategies introduced by so many, from the reflexive sociology that is deeply attentive to “social distance” as elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu and revised and expanded by Sherry Ortner, on to Bruce Knauft’s (2002) wider notion of collective reflexivity in academia through a diverse balancing of “canonical and alternative” authorship, and other critical theorists of the 80s and 90s to the present. Buroway’s outline of a reflexive ethnography  where the ethnographer revisits the site of research at a later date is certainly along these lines. Still, there seems a lack of focus on tactics or methods that can be actively and simply carried out, as an actual stage in a research process.

Insuring Reflexivity: Looking Again to the Dirt

Use of the dirt code could be understood as an attempt at an actionable method correspondent to the reflexive aspiration- a kind of insurance policy for reflexivity- one that can be enacted at a certain stage in research, or post-research. Taken one dynamic step further, a comparative research could be made, examining a wider series of dirt codes, searching out significant parallels or a connective relationship from the dirt of various past research projects.  What unanticipated patterns, insights might emerge?

This is not a conceptual attempt to turn dirt into gold. Obviously, a dirt code contains what my conscious researching mind deems the least important, and often (hopefully more often than not) for good reason.  But it strikes me that there may be some use for a dirt code if nothing more than to look a second time at the dirt in effort to gain a new unexpected insight into the object of study and in so doing, into the reflexive contours (or lack thereof) of one’s approach to research, and into the limits of reflexivity more broadly.

And of course there is dirt that is beyond the dirt code that cannot be accounted for- the dirt that did not even make it into the data collection, the incalculable amounts of dirt in the field that are either ignored or not detected at all. The field is the dirt code writ large after all. But there is quite a lot of dirt to work with in the data that is gathered, and learning from the textual dirt code in the data may translate into a greater sensitivity to the free floating dirt code that is habitually ignored in the field, on the horizon line of our own theoretical, critical and reflexive gazing.


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