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It’s All Research: Participating and Observing in Norway

If I’ve learned anything during my undergraduate years about being a social scientist, it’s that everything is research. The second you walk out your front door and into the world, you are participating and you are observing.  The sights, sounds, smells of your immediate landscape are all things that – if you’re human – you can’t help but notice. But if you’re a social scientist, these are the things you can’t help but analyze. As someone trained in the social sciences, that mode of critical awareness becomes even more sharp when I step out of my comfort zone and into unchartered territory.

Darcy tasting Svele on the ferry

Tasting the local Svele, a Norwegian pancake with butter and sugar, on the ferry from Åndalsnes to Molde.

When you’re experiencing a new country, walking down the street becomes participant observation; conversations with new friends become unstructured interviews; breakfast becomes an exploration of a new cultural palate. Thus will be the case as I spend the next three weeks conducting both formal and informal qualitative methods research in Norway and London.

The intersection of such formal training and informal experiences were already manifesting the first few days we arrived in Norway. The week before we left the States, the five of us took a quick crash course in qualitative methods. By the first weekend, we were already employing those new skills in ways we hadn’t yet anticipated.

On the train to Åndalsnes, Alex had the random luck of sitting down next to a group of young Norwegian travelers, all about the same age as us. She struck up a conversation with one of them and quickly built up rapport with the rest of the group. Within a matter of minutes, the interaction had snowballed into all four of us lively chattering on with them as well as other locals across the train aisle.

As we spent the next hour showering these new friends with questions about Norway, our positionality as tourists became increasingly evident. It was quite obvious that we lacked knowledge of the place to which we were traveling and the country in which we were residing. We were forced to engage with and reflect upon our status as outsiders as we worded our questions and probed deeper into the conversation.

Dunder Mix candies and chocolate milk on a picnic table with the fjord scenery in the background

Apparently all Norwegian kids these days are drinking chocolate milk and eating hard sour (and salty!) candies.

Often, new experiences come from digging deeper into connections that have already been made, or by keeping an ear open to an offhand comment. A chance encounter on the train to Åndalsnes that blossomed into a friendship and a fruitful conversation led me to these gas station delicacies!

A few nights later, I was given the opportunity to employ my qualitative methods in a causal setting once again. At a local bar in the Grünerløkka neighborhood of Oslo, I continued my participant observation of both Norwegian culture and its relation to immigration in the country. This time, my field relations were much different as I attempted to blend in to the Oslo nightlife in order to distance myself from the dynamic of researcher.

painting of three people standing outside a UDI office

One artist’s depiction of immigrants’ experiences as they navigate the Norwegian bureaucracy.

I spoke at length with one young man who was both a Norwegian and American citizen; his father had emigrated from Boston after he had met his Norwegian sweetheart in college there. His experiences migrating back and forth, year after year, to visit family were unique compared to most Americans and Norwegians. We also discussed the large concentration of immigrants in the Oslo neighborhood of Grønland. According to him, “you’re in the center of the city but it feels like you’re not even in Norway anymore.” Upstairs in the small, quirky bar was a collection of eccentric art; one painting next to us was an artist’s rendition of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI). The UDI is responsible for processing foreign applications and running asylum centers. The painting depicts a truly multicultural scene in front of the UDI office door as immigrants from various backgrounds converge to enter through the same bureaucratic pathway – undoubtedly all with different experiences throughout and outcomes at the end. The painting provided an interesting backdrop to our candid conversation about migration in Oslo.

The first few days have been a whirlwind of new and educational experiences. As I continue to move through the city of Oslo, and the rest of the country, I am excited to use qualitative methods as a means to immerse myself in a new culture and engage with as many people as possible.