Vaughn Tan – University College London
Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/60/1/103
Question 1. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of the project?
A lot of the projects that I work on are the kind of thing where I’m interested in a particular thing and I start pursuing it. I’m quite interested in food and how cooking happens and that interest doesn’t actually become a project until I’ve become interested in it to the point where I’ve met quite a few people inside. At that point, it retrospectively has become a project because you are gathering and integrating data along the way, even if you don’t think of it as a research project yet. In this case, I had actually been interested in culinary R&D since college. I wrote some stuff when I was in undergrad about some kitchens. Back then the idea of doing R&D in a kitchen setting was very different from what it is today, but I had already—in 2003—stumbled across a group of people who were doing this stuff, so it had always been interesting.
The question of when I realized that there was an interesting research question in the setting is itself an interesting one. Normally what you have with hypothesis-driven research is finding a setting which is interesting for answering a particular question. But what happened was, I’m in the setting and everything about the setting is fascinating because they are just an interesting set of people doing interesting things. The research questions that are presented in this version of the paper are not exactly the questions that I thought I was answering when I first submitted it. I realized that these particular questions were interesting in the second review cycle and I realized the setting itself was interesting from a research perspective maybe in 2008.
Question 2. When did the concept of negotiated joining emerge from the project?
Negotiated joining—the idea that there is something happening with how these people become members of these groups—that’s something that was there from the beginning of this whole submission cycle. I first figured out that there was something interesting about how people become members in this setting fairly soon after I started doing interviews. Very early on I was talking to people about their experiences in these organizations and what kept coming up over and over again was: People participate a lot and they contribute a ton without necessarily being employed. So the thought that there was something interesting going on about participation was always there. I went down a bit of a rabbit hole with the question of being employed versus not being employed and that took a ton of time to think my way out of. But I think that the idea that there was some negotiation going on about what things they’re going to end up doing, that negotiation happens in a symmetrical, two-sided way, as opposed to being imposed on the new member by the group—that’s probably from 2010. Then getting it out to the point where it made sense and was clear enough, that only happened in 2014.
Question 3. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of collecting data in these settings and how the analysis was done?
Unsystematic data collection is the only way that I could figure out how to do it in this setting. In the paper it’s fairly clear that my data was not clean the way we are mostly taught we have to do it in qualitative research methods classes. I believe that most researchers have the feeling that you need to go in there and look in some way very systematically at everything and think about it and code it all very systematically. I was quite unsystematic about everything, just because it become a research site retrospectively. Everything that happened before you realize “There’s something interesting here,” that’s all data that helps you figure out what it is that’s interesting. But there’s no way you could have done any systematic analysis of the data at the time you were doing it, let alone any systematic data collection at the time you were doing it. What you’re doing instead is looking for patterns as they emerge.
Question 4. While conducting research, what modifications or adjustments did you need to make along the way to how you were gathering/analyzing data?
The first modification and adjustment was to become comfortable abandoning what I’d been taught about qualitative research. To be clear, some of things we’re taught about field research is quite logical, but other things sometimes just don’t work. Like, you’re supposed to record stuff whenever you can—but there’s too much ambient noise in a kitchen. You’re supposed to ask if you can take video—but no one would even consider it. You’re always supposed to have a notebook but eventually, because all these places are labs, I just brought my computer and typed notes in while people were working. A lot of it was just responding to the setting and learning how to be a researcher in that setting without sticking out too much. In a lab setting where everyone is constantly on their laptops anyway, if you’re at you’re laptop you’re actually much less obtrusive than if you are standing in the corner like you’re supposed to with a notebook. It was a really interesting experience, really my first experience of ethnographic fieldwork and it has completely changed the way I think about doing the work. Now when I am in the field, I’m very very loose, very free and easy. I write notes whenever I can, and always at the earliest possible opportunity, I write up synthetic notes. This is something we are taught to do and it’s incredibly useful. Going back months later to a synthetic field note that you wrote in the middle of your field work, you often bring up details that ultimately become key parts of your analysis. You would have forgotten those details otherwise but they were very noticeable at that moment. And the nice thing about not recording interviews is that I’m not lost in the details of vast quantities of recorded data. In some ways, not collecting data this way causes you to lose a lot but if you do that periodic synthetic analysis the details that were logical and sensible at the time—those stick out.
Question 5. Any practical advice for beginning researchers who are thinking of going out into the field for the first time?
A cellphone with a camera is an amazing tool and not in the way that I thought it would be when I first started doing it. I thought I would go there and take photographs of people doing stuff. That did happen, but the more useful way to use the camera is to take a continuous stream of photographs periodically. If I take photographs of just what I’m seeing every ten or fifteen minutes, I remember everything that happened more or less for the time before and the time after. Scrolling through your cellphone’s record of photos helps you reconstruct field time and you can go back and remember incredibly fine detail triggered purely by visual memory.
Question 6. Did you have moments where you had to prove yourself to the people you were studying?
At every one of the sites with almost every person that I ended up getting to know quite well, there was always the one instance when they would ask you to do something. One of the best R&D chefs I know did that to me. I showed up just as everything was going crazy in the kitchen, and he needed some onions chopped—so he gets me to brunoise some onions. It was interesting. That doesn’t happen to test, specifically, it just happens because that’s what happens in these settings. And you’re evaluated on how you perform at the task even if the task was not meant to be a test the way we normally think about them.
Question 7. Can you tell us a little bit about how the theory of negotiated joining was developed?
I end up thinking about a lot of things economistically. I was thinking about this at the very beginning in terms of a class of theory about how you know what you are trying to buy. There’s a well built-out set of theories about how different types of goods pose different challenges for people who are trying to evaluate their quality. For some goods, their only important characteristics are inspectable—you can see them before you buy and what you see is what you get. There’s another class of goods that you can only evaluate after you’ve experienced them—you don’t know about their quality until you’ve actually had a chance to use and experience them. Movies, books, music, food, people in the context of employment: All of these could be thought of as experience goods. I started thinking about it this way because, when I was looking at these people in these groups, it was very clear to me that each group had built the particular assemblage of members gradually so that they worked together really well but in ways that would have been impossible to predict in advance. You don’t know in advance that your team needs an ex-astrophysicist English PhD who now knows everything there is to know about food chemistry—that’s something that only happens after you bring someone on with that profile and realize how unexpectedly useful he is. It seemed to me that we think of all hiring as inspection but in fact some hiring—especially the hiring that organizational scholars find interesting, such as hiring for R&D teams, or teams that are exposed to lots of unpredictable stuff—involves qualities that are definitely not inspectable. So I started out with that but it rapidly became obvious that the reviewers did not care for this economic theory much and instead they were looking, I think rightly in the end, much more at the literatures that talk about how people inside organizations find ways of not just shaping the jobs they have but changing those jobs into different jobs entirely. The theory of negotiated joining emerged from previous literature, primarily through interaction with the reviewers.