An ethnographic method prioritises participant observation, the context which surrounds these observations, and how the events observed are meaningfully experienced by the participants themselves. This enables researchers to tell a story that reflects the interaction between events, in real-world situations, that happen over long and short timescales. This moves analysis away from a single moment, say an experiment in a lab, and opens it out to consider how something that happened a day, week, year, or more ago may have contributed to what was said, or done, during another moment of interest. Done well, ethnographic work challenges theoretical assumptions made without a broader contextual understanding of the phenomena in question and raises multiple questions about new areas to study or investigate using a range of techniques.
When Kristina Brümmer, an energetic, joyful and passionate sports sociologist from the University of Oldenburg in Germany, visited our Cognitive Ecologies Lab at Macquarie University in Sydney in 2019, we were both excited to discover that ethnographic research on sports training was something we shared. She’d been using this method to study skilled performance processes in gymnastics and football teams, I’d been using it to study skill learning on the trapeze.
People move together, and do things together, all the time. We play and work and talk and suffer together, finding ease or joy, sharing pleasure or grief. We discover challenge, thrill and risk.
Joint actions may involve physical, manual or technical skill, and may rely on tools, technologies and ordinary old objects. Collaborative actions also involve situated intelligence, a dynamic, lively and social form of cognition. This book is a celebration and exploration of these things: the dizzying variety of remarkable ways that people move and think together, in unique places and settings, at a time and over time.
In initial orientation to the book’s topics, we introduce in turn the five key concepts which animate it: performance, body, collaboration, cognition and ecology. We briefly describe the domains of performance in question here, its bodily or ‘embodied’ nature, the forms of collaboration addressed, the role of intelligence or ‘cognition’ in expert movement and the notion of ‘ecologies of skill’.
Sutton and Bicknell, Introduction: The situated intelligence of collaborative skills
One of the big questions people are asking in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics is how athletes are going to react to competing in an empty stadium – or alternate venue – without a spectator in sight. I was interviewed about this by Fran Molloy back in April, for Macquarie University’s Lighthouse. This was back when it looked like domestic spectators would be allowed.
To perform consistently in the face of ongoing fluctuations in and from multiple sources, skilled performers must work with, rather than against, variability. This means developing strategies for monitoring fluctuations, for predicting their potential impacts.
Given the number of academic disciplines I work in and across (performance studies, cognitive science, philosophy, anthropology, among others) and my desires for research to be accessible to a range of readers and genuinely reflect real world experiences, this new journal article weaves together a few different interests. It’s about skill theory and my transdisciplinary take on it, managing physiological and psychological fluctuations, and working with anxiety (not against it). It’s also about trapezes, vampires, helping hands, a lifetime of bike riding, several years of physio, and the joys of cognitive ethnography, theory building and inhabiting a determined body.
For our contribution – ‘Embodied experience in the cognitive ecologies of skilled performance‘ – we take a brief tour through some of the existing research on experts and embodied expertise and explore some of the many, varied (and quite cool) methods for producing this. Contrary to the view that experts can’t accurately recall or articulate what they did and why when the pressure is on, we finish by looking at a case study from road cycling that shows just how much some people can tell us about their own performance processes – why they did what they did, when they did – and why this is so incredibly valuable to researchers interested in skilled performance processes. The chapter is also a plea to more researchers to study expertise in the complex, unpredictable settings where that expertise is deployed: out in the world rather than in a lab or other controlled environment. (Although the lab studies sure do teach us a lot as well. Truth be told, I often want to share this chapter with researchers I look up to in a range of different disciplines and say, ‘Work with us! This is what we bring to some of the questions that you are interested in as well.’ Collaboration and healthy interdisciplinarity for the win!)