ART AND SCIENCE
On Context: Framing the Terrain
Like all researchers working within the phenomenological framework, portraitists find context crucial to their documentation of human experience and organizational culture. By context, I mean the setting—physical, geographic, temporal, historical, aesthetic—within which action takes place. Context becomes the framework, the reference point, the map, the ecological sphere; it used to place people and action in time and space and as a resource for understanding what they say or do. The context is rich in clues for interpreting the experience of the actors in the setting. We have no idea how to decipher or decode an action, a gesture, a conversation, or an exclamation unless we see it embedded in context. Portraitists, then, view human experience as being framed and shaped by the setting.
This perspective on context—as a rich resource for examining and interpreting behavior, thought, and feeling—contrasts sharply with the view of traditional positivist research, where context is a source of distortion. The positivist tries to create conditions and design controls that will permit study of a phenomenon without distractions and messy intrusions from the natural environment. In its most rarified form, the positivist approach leads the researcher to work purely in the laboratory, establishing experimental conditions for a controlled, systematic examination of the phenomena under study. In a provocative and influential essay titled Meaning in Context: Is There Any Other Kind? (1979), Eliot Mishler argued that to create ephemeral, isolated laboratory settings for the study of human science is to risk misinterpretation of people’s meanings, perspectives, competencies, and actions, and to risk inflicting the researcher’s lens and standards on the subject’s reality.
The portraitist believes that human experience has meaning in a particular social, cultural, and historical context—a context where relationships are real, where the actors are familiar with the setting, where activity has purpose, where nothing is contrived (except for the somewhat intrusive presence of the researcher). The context not only offers clues for the researcher’s interpretation of the actors’ behavior (the outsider’s view), it also helps to understand the actors’ perspective—how they understand and perceive social reality (the insider’s view). In addition, it allows the actors to express themselves more fully, more naturally. Surrounded by the familiar, they can reveal their knowledge, their insights, and their wisdom through action, reflection, and interpretation. It is also true, of course, that the actors’ natural environments will inevitably present constraints, restrictions, and barriers—but they will be familiar ones and the researcher will be able to observe the ways actors negotiate these points of resistance.
Just as people move from being subjects of inquiry in the laboratory to being actors in their own natural environments, so too does the researcher shift position from being the one defining and controlling the experimental conditions to being the one learning to navigate new territory. The researcher is the stranger, the one who must experience the newness, the awkwardness, the tentativeness that comes with approaching something unfamiliar, and must use the actors in the setting as guides, as authorities, as knowledge bearers. As newcomer and stranger to the setting, the researcher inevitably experiences surprises: events, experiences, behaviors, and values that she had not anticipated, and to which she must adapt and respond. Whether she is coming to the setting with a well-developed, discrete hypothesis, or with a theoretical framework that she is testing and refining, or with a number of relatively informal hunches, the realities of the context force the reconsideration of earlier assumptions. There is a constant process of calibration between the researcher’s conceptual framework, her developing hypothesis, and the collection of grounded data. Working in context, the researcher, then, has to be alert to surprises and inconsistencies and improvise conceptual and methodological responses that match the reality she is observing. The researcher’s stance becomes a dance of vigilance and improvisation.
In observing and recording human experience in context, the portraitist’s work joins with the practices and craft of other phenomenologists, ethnographers, and a variety of other qualitative researchers. But the portraitist makes deliberate and specific use of context in several ways that reflect her focus on descriptive detail, narrative development, and aesthetic expression, as well as her interest in recording the self and perspective of the researcher in the setting. There are five ways in which portraiture employs context: the first use of context depicts a detailed description of the physical setting; the second refers to the researcher’s perch and perspective; the third underscores the history, culture, and ideology of the place; the fourth identifies the central metaphors and symbols that shape the narrative; and the fifth speaks to the actor’s role in shaping and defining context.