This post is the first in a tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 The post also sums up my individual take on the venerable "DIE Exercise", a pedagogical tool originally developed in the context of intercultural education and applied here in slightly more academic form to the youtube phenomenon "Where the hell is Matt?". Links to the next two lectures follow here once they go online:
DIE is a shortcut for "description, interpretation and evaluation". The original exercise was developed as a pedagogic tool to train observation skills, help establish the difference between description and analysis, and foster reflection on the politics of fieldwork. It usually involves exposing students to an intercultural experience, and then interactively sort out description, interpretation, and evaluation of this experience. DIE can however also be seen as a more general heuristic for the (interpretative) social sciences - and thus joines my growing list of synonyms for fieldwork (see "odd thinks", "deep hanging out"). In that more general sense, the three stages of the exercise are:
Description: In this stage, the goal is to describe the experience you make by sticking as closely to the phenomenon observed as possible. Try to be as objective as possible using purely descriptive techniques without adding anything about what you are seeing might mean to participants (this would be interpretation) or to yourself (this would be evaluation). Be sure to use all your senses - not just the visual one. What is Matt doing in the video, for instance, what are other people doing, where do they do it, what else is visible, or audible? This part of the exercise focuses on the behavior of people and the material environment in which their behavior takes place - and in which it can thus be apprehended. Since the language used in your description is by necessity historically and culturally specific, however, a slippery slope leads into the next stage of the exercise:
Interpretation: Here, the goal is to concentrate on what the event you are witnessing might mean to those people involved. This part of the exercise focuses on the agency (rather than behavior) of people2 and on the cultural environment in which their agency takes place and can thus be comprehended. Why is Matt doing what he is doing? What does it mean to him? To the other people participating in his global dance campaign? And how come he calls it a global dance campaign? One good way of accessing the meaning which people invest in their behavior is quite straightforward: ask them to explain what they do, how, and why. But since that's neither always possible (think of Matt), nor necessarily sufficient, this is also usually the stage in research where methodology comes into play, and where theory is of great help. Since the notion that only "those people" (and not you yourself) are involved in research is mistaken, however (as is the notion of clearly distinct cultural frames and a number of other things), the "interpretation" stage necessarily leads on another slippery slope, ending up with:
Evaluation: In this last stage, you pass judgments, using some assumed standard of comparison. Evaluation involves your own opinions of and explanations for what has happened, what ought to happen or what we feel should or should not happen. In other words, this part of the exercise focuses on the agency of you as a researcher: which meaning do you invest in the behavior observed, and how do you relate this to the meaning invested by the agents themselves (which you just interpreted)? Do you agree that Matt's behavior is a global dance campaign? Do you think more of this should happen? Do you frame it as an internet phenomenon or one of real life? In this stage, you should also take into account the cultural and personal reasons that may have an effect on how you make an evaluation and you should try to make transparent your standard of comparison.
In conclusion, it is important to keep in mind that the DIE formula is only the tip of a whole iceberg called epistemology, the philosophy of how we know what we know. While this iceberg contains many more issues and debates, complicating all the above (some of these complications will be covered in the next two lectures, and feel free to point them out by commenting on this post), it might be a good strategy to start by sorting out description, interpretation and evaluation...