Multiple and conflicting witnesses
I’ve just returned home from three weeks in Mostar, where I’ve been researching people’s experiences of the Pavarotti Music Centre.
This is a complicated and complex environment, and the Pavarotti Music Centre is a project that many people have experiences of, and have strong opinions about. My approach is to try and gather as many different perspectives as I can, from people with very different experiences (ranging from those who had a lot of involvement, to those who had little, and including community leaders as well as staff members, former participants, and casual onlookers, of all ages), and see what kind of picture emerges about the PMC’s impact on this city.
This is also quite a small city (you can get everywhere on foot, for example. Nothing is extremely far away from any one point). Local people sometimes describe it as “a big village” because of the way they tend to see people they know by chance in the street, every time they leave the house. Everyone knows everyone.
But like any place, large or small, stories have a way of evolving as they change hands and are retold. Speculation can be retold as fact, and can reach such heights that it can be difficult to know what is true, what is exaggeration, and what is pure invention or manipulation. When the stories are about something in which many people may feel invested, or a sense of ownership, and about which opinions are still strong, you can expect to find some contestation of facts. I’ve anticipated this, hence my intention to gather as many ‘witnesses’ as possible, despite the fact that some of my participants would consider other participants to be unreliable.
As an outsider, how likely is it that I can find my way through the different stories towards some kind of ‘truth’? Complexity sciences would warn against the desire to ‘aggregate’ findings; instead, the recommendation is to make a detailed examination of the context, and to ensure that each witness ‘report’ remains embedded within its context. In this way, you can at least position the words within their setting and attempt to understand them, their meaning and motivation within that. It is in isolating details from context, and then drawing them together in aggregates, where conclusions can be drawn that are not in fact an accurate representation of the site and the experiences.
In any case, each person’s experience is theirs and theirs alone. So often, research presents us with aggregated or averaged information – but is this general set of aggregated experiences more true than an individual’s experience and perception of that? When we look at impact, what kind of impact is the most relevant or important – that of the collective, or that of the individual? Changes can be far starker in an individual than in a collective. And if one life is changed for the better, this is important to know, as the impact of that change on a community over time could be significant.
These are some of the the thoughts I have on constant rotation in these weeks as I talk to many different people, seeking out their views and encouraging their opinions. “This is just my opinion,” many of my participants tell me, as a kind of apology, as if there are other more informed voices out there. But I assure them, “that’s fine, that’s exactly what I want. You are a citizen of this city, your opinion is as important as another. Keep talking!”