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Vortical postmodern ethnography describes an approach to theorizing and engaging in transdisciplinary social research, informed by complexity science. This paper introduces 'vortical postmodern ethnography' as an example of evolution in theorizing. Two strands of theory evolution are identified. The first, from the sciences, relates to the emergence of complexity science as a paradigmatic orientation to scientific inquiry. The second relates to social research and involves movement from ethnography through to postmodern ethnography. By drawing attention to how theories from different domains of interest have coalesced to bring into being a new way of approaching ethnographic research, that of vortical postmodern ethnography, the paper makes conscious an instance of evolution in theorizing.
As the name suggests, vortical postmodern ethnography implicates:
(1) ethnography--as a research approach to studying and describing human cultural groups;
(2) postmodernism--as a term describing disillusionment towards the efficacy of totalizing explanations or 'grand narratives';
(3) vorticity--as the characteristic swirling movement of a vortex or whirlpool.
Vortical postmodern ethnography describes an approach to ethnography that takes as fundamental the swirling or vortical nature of human beings and their processes of existing in social/cultural groupings. A vortical postmodern ethnographic research approach conceptualizes all involved in the research, together with the activities engaged in, not as separate categorical systems (such as researcher and researched), but as swirling interacting parameters. It is further assumed that during the research process vorticity may be stimulated (both inescapably through bringing together cultures and groups not usually brought together, and deliberately, through introducing activities out of the ordinary for participants). This style of ethnographic research is intended to promote individual and cultural emergence and to be life enhancing, assuming that it is the emergent properties that give a system life, and that it is both the nature of the elements and their interrelationships that give rise to the emergent properties (Harrington et al., 1999).
Reflecting on theory evolution brings to the fore concern with the rich interplay between assumptions, explanations, values and developments in social research theorizing. Looking at theory evolution necessitates making manifest the dynamic and interdependent nature of theory building, with human actor/observers and discourse evolution. It is appropriate then that we begin by disclosing something of the assumptions we bring to our work. Our beginning point is to assume that just as human individuals and society are complex, dynamic, interdependent, and with future states emerging with reference to complex histories, so too are human explanations and theories. Theory formulations and preferences change over time, showing themselves as dynamic, interdependent, and with future theories emerging with reference to complex histories. We presume that human social organization is as much related to human discourse as it is to other phenomena. So too theorizing is seen as emerging from and creating particular discursive realms, communities of practice or domains of interest.
To depict something of the evolution in theorizing that vortical postmodern ethnography embodies, the logic of the paper is to begin by introducing complexity science and ethnography, and positing reasons for bringing these two theoretical frameworks together. Following this, a more informed discussion of complexity science, ethnography, postmodern ethnography and then 'vortical postmodern ethnography' ensues. A brief case study is presented indicating the new insights and understanding of human activity systems that may be gained from a vortical postmodern ethnographic approach. The paper concludes by reflecting on this evolution in ethnographic methodological orientation (from ethnography, to postmodern ethnography, through to vortical postmodern ethnography) as an example of conscious evolution.
WHY BRING COMPLEXITY TO ETHNOGRAPHY?
A complexity science perspective is brought to postmodern ethnography as a way of addressing a number of hitherto intransigent issues fundamental to ethnographic inquiry. A 'vortical postmodern' approach allows researcher-researched relationships to be reconceptualized along with approaches to knowledge generation and meanings associated with 'understanding'.
Ethnography in its broad sense is a research process used to study and describe human cultural groups, having regard for mundane characteristics, through to the confusion of the whirling dynamics of evolving and changing human actions. In ethnography, the interrelationship between settings, phenomena, time, human activity and sense making are brought together for study. The link between complexity science and ethnography is made because, in the language of complexity, human cultural settings and productions are always complex and dynamic. They are viewed as multidimensional in time, space and value perceptions, with properties that are non-linear and emergent in nature.
The difficulty of configuring participants in ethnographic research as behaving 'normally'--despite the focused gaze of the researcher and of the research, therefore, depicting genuine understanding of the situation under investigation, together with determining satisfactory ways of perceiving the position of the researcher in the generation of findings--has been the focus of many scholarly debates within ethnographical research (Atkinson and Hammersley, 1994; Gubrium and Holstein, 1999; Sanders, 1999). A vortical postmodern ethnographic perspective engenders a different way of conceptualizing these issues. Bringing together perspectives from complexity science and postmodern ethnography constitutes not only an effective, innovative, transdisciplinary approach, but also the unusualness of the work stimulates rich discussion and reflection on the sense-making process. Taken-for-granted assumptions are questioned and a thoughtful--in Heidegger's (1966) terms, a 'meditative'--engagement of participants is engendered.
In exploring some of the salient characteristics of ethnographic and postmodern ethnographic inquiry, we make constructive and propositional links with certain aspects of complexity. By so doing, we contribute to the theoretical base and methodological repertoire of ethnography and complexity while improving and informing our own social research practice.
Consideration of a complexity approach to ethnography is particularly apt as complexity shares with systemic social research orientations, such as soft systems and appreciative systems methodologies, an holistic orientation, describing life events and understandings as interrelated and mutually constructive. Though not using the language of systems methodologies, ethnography similarly takes human sense making as an embedded and interrelational phenomenon. In addition, and differing from a commonly encountered …