Art and Science
On Relationship: Navigating Intimacy
Portraits are constructed, shaped and drawn through the development of relationships. All the processes of portraiture require that we build productive and benign relationships. It is through relationships between the portraitist and the actors that access is sought and given, connections made, contracts of reciprocity and responsibility (both formal and informal) developed, trust built, intimacy negotiated, data collected, and knowledge constructed. Relationships are never static—they are dynamic, evolving, and fluid. They are negotiated and renegotiated, week by week, day by day, even minute by minute as the portraitist and the actors navigate lines of intimacy, trust, reciprocity, and boundary setting, and as they work to develop a level of comfort, balance, honesty, and authenticity in their communication with one another. It is in the building of relationships that the portraitist experiences most pointedly the complex fusion of conceptual, methodological, emotional and ethical challenges.
While the portraitist views relationship as fundamental to self-understanding, to mutuality and validity, and to the development of knowledge, it is important to recognize that other researchers working in the qualitative realm often take a more limited and pragmatic approach to relationship. They have a more circumscribed view that focuses on relationship as a tool or strategy for gaining access to data—a boundary that must be negotiated to “get the goods” from the “insiders.” From this point of view, relationship almost begins to be seen as barrier (to entry) rather than connection (to self, to other, and to knowledge), as something to be gotten through rather than something to be engaged and embraced.
Just as there is some controversy among qualitative researchers about the goals and purposes of relationships in research design, so too is there debate about the optimal depth, quality, and intensity of research relationships. Should researchers seek distance or closeness, objectivity or subjectivity, scrutiny or alliance, asymmetry or symmetry in their connections with subjects? At one end of the continuum of opinion, traditionalists (such as Seidman, 1991) believe that relationships between the researcher and the subject should be clear, distant, and formal—that they must be seen as limited and pragmatic, with visible boundaries of decorum and responsibility. To blur the boundaries or reduce the distance would be to distort the researcher’s objectivity and threaten the validity and rigor of the research. To maintain the stance of a disinterested observer, the traditionalists claim that personal involvement must be monitored and circumscribed; intimacy must be avoided.
At the other end of the continuum, revisionist researchers believe that the formalized distance prescribed by the traditionalists may not only be disrespectful and diminishing of research subjects (minimizing their authority and potentially masking their knowledge) but also may undermine productive inquiry. They claim that relationships that are complex, fluid, symmetric and reciprocal—that are shaped by both researchers and actors—reflect a more responsible ethical stance and are likely to yield deeper data and better social science.
Portraitists share this revisionist view of relationship, recognizing its dynamic and complex qualities, seeking to construct relationships of symmetry and reciprocity with actors in the setting, and working to negotiate (and renegotiate) fluid boundaries that mark distance and intimacy. We see relationships as more than vehicles for data gathering, more than points of access. We see them as central to the empirical, ethical, and humanistic dimensions of research design, as evolving and changing processes of human encounter.
It is important to recognize, however, that the quality and complexity of the relationship will be shaped by both temporal and temperamental dimensions—that is, by the duration of time spent and frequency of encounters between the researcher and the actor, as well as by their personalities and the chemistry of their interactions. It is likely, for example, that a single encounter with an actor that is brief and largely informational will not have the same depth, complexity, or resonance as a research relationship that spans several months where the participants meet frequently and talk about matters of great personal meaning. In the former, the distance between actor and researcher is likely to be greater, the boundaries clearer, the interaction and information more focused, and the engagement more restrained. Both parties would be aware of the limits of their time together and would be less likely to invest their deepest feelings or their most intense emotions. In the latter case—of sustained relationships—the challenges of intimacy, rapport, and reciprocity would be enhanced. The relationship would evolve over time and require negotiation and renegotiation, shifts of roles and boundaries, greater emotional and intellectual investment, and an increasing sense of intimacy and connection.
The more typical modes of portraiture tend to not go as deep or be as sustained or penetrating, less like excavation and more like rich ecological mapping. The resulting portraits are broader, more contextual, often institutionally defined, requiring the development of many relationships of shorter duration. The relationships may be very brief or somewhat more sustained; in both cases the relationships are more contained, the topics of discourse more circumscribed, and the boundaries clearer. But there are surprises. Brief encounters do not necessarily mean superficial connections. Portraitists must always be ready for moments of revelation, insight, and vulnerability that suddenly transform the discourse and lead to unanticipated rapport and intimacy. They must anticipate the possibility that topics they consider relatively neutral may be experienced by the actors as emotionally charged and intrusive. And they must be aware that an immediate personal chemistry may develop with an actor that neither of them would have anticipated.
Whether the encounters are brief or sustained, then, it is important that portraitists view relationships as potentially meaningful and significant to the lives of the actors, and that we try to make the time together comfortable, respectful, and benign. We want the actors to feel our full attention, our deep engagement, and our challenge—and we want people to leave the encounters feeling safe and whole. At the center of relationships, portraitists hope to build trust and rapport—first, through the search for goodness; second, through empathetic regard; and third, through the development of symmetry, reciprocity, and boundary negotiation with the actors.