b u l l e t i n
On Assignment Fieldwork & the Fieldwork Experience
Edited by Fraser Joyce
Table of Contents
editorial 5 Loss in Childbearing in Malawi
Surprise, as Usual 14 On Being an Ethnographer Despite Oneself
editorial Fraser Joyce ISRF Editorial Assistant
his issue of the ISRF Bulletin explores one of the cornerstones of many a project in the social sciences: fieldwork. At once a methodological necessity and a disciplinary ‘rite of passage’, the fieldwork experience shapes both the researcher and project in equal measure. Three of our fellows – each of whom have employed ethnographic methods in their work – were asked to reflect upon their time ‘in the field’, and how it had impacted upon their projects. Bregje de Kok relates some of her experiences of studying loss in childbearing in Malawi, and discusses how the use of techniques adopted from a range of disciplines allowed her to gain insights into practices and relationships which were hitherto unappreciated. She also explores how the ability to critically reflect on one’s emotional experiences can serve as a valuable investigative tool alongside ‘traditional’ techniques. In his essay on his research of naming practices in Delhi, Jacob Copeman explains how one’s research proposal rarely survives first contact with its subjects, but that these unexpected encounters with persons and socio-cultural issues open new avenues of research. Finally, David Graeber recounts how he assumed the role of an ethnographer ‘despite himself’ during his experiences with the Direct Action Network of the early-2000s. Here, he argues that ethnographic work not only has the potential to reveal the underlying logic behind the actions of individuals and collectives, but can also allow people from ‘outside’ the movement to experience and appreciate the processes at work in their own society, many of which they are unaware.
These three articles remind us that the field researcher always must expect the unexpected, take advantage of unforeseen opportunities, and critically reflect on oneâ€™s experiences. But they also demonstrate that fieldwork should not be considered solely as an enterprise on which one must embark in the pursuit of raw data, but also as a lived experience that will inevitably dictate and shape the project in question. Together, they reveal why fieldwork remains so methodologically vital, and so intellectually stimulating.
Loss in Childbearing in Malawi Reflections on ‘Fieldwork’ Dr. Bregje de Kok ISRF Early Career Fellow, Lecturer in International Health, Institute for International Health and Development, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
he ISRF awarded me a fellowship to conduct research on loss in childbearing in Malawi: maternal deaths, perinatal deaths (stillbirths and neonatal deaths) and spontaneous or induced abortions. This dualitative project seeks to explore how community members and practitioners assign accountability and blame for pregnancy complications and loss, how they interpret women’s entitlement to maternity care, and how such moral judgements may affect the kind of care women seek and receive. From February until May 2013 I conducted fieldwork in Malawi, assisted by three Malawian researchers.1 We conducted 15 focus groups and 59 semi-structured interviews with women with a loss experience, their relatives, the relatives of women who died in childbirth, medical practitioners, and local community members. We also observed maternal care provided in health facilities in urban, semi-urban, and rural areas. In what follows I reflect on my recent fieldwork experience and the kinds of insights which ‘fieldwork’ and unstructured observations in particular can generate.
1. Priscilla Matinga, Blessings Kaunda and Caro Mbeya. 7
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I have conducted research in Malawi since 1999, but have not used observations before. In addition to inadequate language skills, my disciplinary background formed a barrier: I am a psychologist by background, and the only training in observations I obtained was in conducting structured observations of rats and monkeys, which involved ascribing their behaviours to narrow, pre-defined categories. For my qualitative, social constructionist study on loss in childbearing, I needed something different: a more open and less reductionist approach, which could illuminate social actors’ own understandings and life world. Hence, I choose to conduct unstructured, ethnographic observations 2 of maternity care, focusing on interactions between providers and women. 3 As often as possible – in the morning, afternoon, and a few times at night – a fellow researcher and I visited the local health centre or referral hospital. The observations were largely non-participant – we were not in need of maternity care nor medically qualified. Nevertheless, we spent much time sitting amongst the women attending ANC and the nurses and auxiliary personnel, observing but also chatting to them about their and our own work and lives, and sharing lunch. Sometimes I assisted a health centre guard to count pills, but I was closely supervised – either she was enacting her professional responsibilities, doubted my numeric abilities, or both. Why ‘fieldwork’? Previously, I collected data in Malawi; this time, I conducted 2. Interestingly, although anthropologists normally conduct unstructured observations, they are often not trained in this methodology either (Oonagh O’Brien, personal communication). This is traditionally thought of as something one can only learn by doing it: S. Delamont, ‘Ethnography and Participant Observation’ in C. Seale et al. (eds), Qualitative Research Practice (London; Sage, 2004) pp.217-229. 3. A word about ethics. This project concerns a sensitive subject and raises numerous ethical issues. We conducted observations in the antenatal care clinic (ANC) and labour wards, in which case we respected women’s privacy as much as possible by keeping a distance (we usually sat in a corner near the exit). When observing an actual delivery we asked the women for consent, or nurses asked on our behalf. 8
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fieldwork. These two terms carry and evoke different meanings, intentions and attitudes. ‘Data-collection’ suggests that one can collect data ‘out there’, representing ‘facts’ that await collection like shells on a beach. The term disregards the intimate relationship between data and the context or ‘field’ from which it emerges, as highlighted by the term ‘fieldwork’ which also underscores that work is required. Indeed, more so than previously, I felt that there was no opportunity for ‘time out’ from my research endeavours. There was always something to observe and note. The term ‘fieldwork’ has its own pitfalls, however. Talk of ‘going to the field’, or ‘coming back from the field’, evokes an almost mystical, romantic notion of travels to places far away and arguably creates a problematic dichotomy between a space called ‘the field’ and a space which is not the field.4 By implication, the term seems to create equally unhelpful dichotomies between two kinds of people: those inhabiting the field and those who do not. For western, foreign ‘fieldworkers’ this is especially problematic given ethnography’s uneasy historical relationship with colonialism.5 National researchers ‘going to the field’ (or to a ‘community’) risk reproducing class-based dichotomies. Nevertheless, I decided to conduct ethnographic ‘fieldwork’.6 What did this decision achieve? It enabled me to see – rather than be told – how clients and providers interact. I experienced at first hand the demanding circumstances under which nurses provide maternity care. For instance, I could see the rows of women waiting at the ANC and experienced fatigue and hunger myself as the clinic went on and on. This increased my understanding of the rather hurried and disinterested nature of the interactions. 4. This in spite of acknowledgements in the methodological literature that what the field is and what the field is not requires active decision-making and construction on behalf of the researcher. 5. For example, see: R.P. Clair, Expressions of Ethnography: Novel Approaches to Qualitative Methods (New York; Sunny Press, 2003). 6. I do not consider my study an ethnography, due to the relatively short time spent in Malawi and the largely non-participant nature of my observations. 9
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The body is an important tool when conducting ethnographic observations – feelings and emotions direct attention and enable ‘noticing’.7 Once, I witnessed a stillbirth. A woman was rolled into the middle of a rather hectic labour ward of a district hospital, with a nurse on her side, trying to deliver a lifeless baby. This was an upsetting experience for me – I tried but failed to restrain my tears and had a strong urge to leave the site. My emotional reaction drew my attention to the apparent absence of reaction amongst staff – most went on with business as usual. The nurse directly involved concentrated on the clinical procedures; I could not discern emotion or acts of compassion towards the woman. The nurse in charge jumped up, asked what was going on, looked at the client and the lifeless baby, sat down again and continued her administration. Three people appeared to respond differently. A student nurse and patient attendant8 observed the scene, looking worried. The client’s guardian (clients are normally accompanied by a relative or neighbour) held one hand over her mouth, looking shocked. Yet, she stood back and did not touch or communicate with the woman, who was staring ahead of her and slowly and entirely quietly undressed herself, without anybody assisting her. This case exemplifies how observing involves more than just watching; experiences and emotions become a tool. They highlighted to me the absence of emotional, compassionate care, noted in other instances during fieldwork too. Fuller analysis is required, but the apparent differences between my own and others’ experience of the event point to the relevance of ‘exposure’ for emotional and behavioural responses. Unlike the student nurse and guardian, the nurses will have seen many stillbirths before, and their responses will also be informed by what they consider to be their job and responsibility. Maternal deaths attract much more international and national policy attention than do stillbirths (Lawn and Kinney, 2011). A maternal death leads to a formal maternal death audit, but a stillbirth does not. Thus, 7. cf. A. Coffey, The Ethnographic Self: Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity (London; Sage, 1999). 8. Auxiliary staff, performing mainly cleaning duties. 10
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nurses are held and will feel accountable for maternal deaths, less so for stillbirths and least for the quality of interpersonal care they provide. It is thus not surprising that in a case like the one described, nurses focus on the woman’s physical needs only. In addition to providing additional insights, conducting observations also seemed to enhance the quality of the interviews My long-term presence meant that interviews could be conducted when it suited the nurses. This probably made them more at ease, as did the process of our getting to know each other, which also drew my attention to individual differences between nurses. This observation may seem selfevident, but is all too often overlooked in academic papers writing about ‘human resources’ and the poor quality of maternity care in low-income settings. There is of course the well-known danger of ‘going native’ – siding too much with one’s research participants, becoming unreflective and uncritical. Undoubtedly, I find it harder to write critically about what I have seen because I came to like my participants. There is however also a danger of not ‘going native’ enough, and my work seeks to go beyond the more usual descriptive critique of nurses’ behaviours, and contribute to a deeper understanding of their actions instead. Fieldwork and interdisciplinarity Did the methods I chose facilitate an interdisciplinary perspective? My project sits at the crossroads of psychology, sociology and anthropology, and public health. However, there is no direct relationship between methods and disciplines and thus the interdisciplinary nature of my study resides not so much in my means of data-collection, but rather in the way I treat and analyse my data. Ethnography is arguably foremost associated with anthropology, and several authors highlight its focus on culture, cultural meanings and practices (Griffin, 1998; Delamont, 2004 9). I 9. S. Delamont, ‘Ethnography and Participant Observation’ in C. Seale et al. (eds), Qualitative Research Practice (London; Sage, 2004) pp.217-229. 11
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could thus have focused on cultural meanings and practices concerning pregnancy, loss and death10 or Malawian hospital culture. However, my approach is more akin to what Baszanger and Dodier11 call ‘combinative ethnography’ which is associated with sociologists of the Chicago school. This ethnographic approach seeks to illuminate ‘logics of action’ (as performed by the nurses, clients or guardians on the antenatal and maternal wards) by producing a casebook of actual and possible forms of action and interaction. It shifts focus from a shared ‘culture’ to a common ‘fund’ of skills, knowledge and possible actions; an aggregate of dispositions for understanding and acting in the world in certain ways. Baszanger and Dodier posit that the common fund is not equally available to all individuals, but access depends on differential social positions and situations, rather than (ethnic) group membership. This notion is helpful because it makes us aware that any arguably problematic behaviours (such as nurses’ or guardian’s maltreatment of clients) do not ’belong’ to members of certain social groupings (for example, African nurses) but could be performed by anyone given the right, or rather ‘wrong’ set of arrangements. Adopting the perspective described by Baszanger and Dodier gives my study a more sociological than anthropological flavour. However, in the analysis I also draw on Discursive Psychology (DP), a form of discourse analysis. DP treats talk as action and examines how people’s descriptions of events (for example, when one encounters a stillbirth) get certain interpersonal business done such as justifying behaviours, disclaiming versions of events or doing identity work. DP has a specific concern with ‘respecifying’ psychological concepts such as memory, cognition and motives as jointly constructed social phenomena rather than individualistic and mental entities. Nevertheless, DP itself is rather 10. For example, see: R. Cecil (ed) The Anthropology of Pregnancy Loss: Comparative Studies in Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Neonatal Death (Oxford; Berg Publishers, 1996). 11. I. Baszanger and N. Dodier, ‘Ethnography: Relating the Part to the Whole’ in D. Silverman (ed), Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice (London; Sage, 2004) pp.9-34. 12
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interdisciplinary; developed in (British) social psychology but rooted in Austin and Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, and in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis developed by the sociologists Garfinkel and Sacks. Similar ideas to those proposed by discursive psychologists are developed by other social scientists such as the sociologist. 12 Atkinson, Delamont and Housey13 argue that his work on vocabularies of motive shows how ‘from a sociological perspective’ motives are not private mental states but public, linguistic displays of shared frameworks of interpretation which can be used to portray and make actions reasonable, or otherwise. Conclusion In my project, I examine interpretations regarding loss in childbearing and maternity care from an interdisciplinary perspective. Inclusion of unstructured observations has enhanced the depth and breadth of insights obtained in a sensitive and complex social and public health issue, in part through synergies with other methods. Combining methods does not make a project interdisciplinary; for this one needs to apply a combination of perspectives and bodies of literature generated in different disciplines when interpreting the data gathered from a variety of actors within networks of maternal and neonatal care. I hope to demonstrate how this can result in useful interdisciplinary work in forthcoming publications.
12. C.W. Mills, ‘Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive’ American Sociological Review, V (1940), 904-13. 13. P. Atkinson, S. Delamont and W. Housey, Contours of Culture: Complex Ethnography and the Ethnography of Complexity (California; Altamira Press, 2007). 13
Surprise, as Usual Reflections on Five Months of Fieldwork on Personal Names and Renaming in Delhi Dr. Jacob Copeman ISRF Early Career Fellow, Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh
his research project, which is supported by an Independent Social Research Foundation Early Career Fellowship with a supplementary grant from the British Academy, analyses the significance of naming and renaming practices in relation to caste and religion in India. Though frequently stigmatizing, caste names can be treated inventively: hidden, changed, or subject to revaluation. The project seeks to explore historical strategies of naming and renaming whilst also bringing the study squarely into the present: what can naming strategies tell us about Indian society in a time of expedited social transition? The aim is to synthesize and reinterpret existing approaches to the naming of persons in India whilst also developing original ethnographic case-studies focusing on three contested areas: low- and high-caste strategies of name-changing, Sikh reformist attempts to reinvigorate the religion’s anti-caste sentiments through particular kinds of naming practices, and secularist, anti-caste activists’ provision of ‘secular names’ such as the given name ‘Sanketh’ (Information) and surname ‘No-caste’. Well, the preceding lines, which paraphrase my original application to the ISRF, reflect my pre-fieldwork intentions for the project accurately enough, but the contingencies of fieldwork have a habit of derailing or at the very least complicating one’s
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original research questions in ways that can be frustrating, bewildering and creative in equal measure. One expects to encounter the unexpected (a phrase that remains at once hackneyed and percipient in anthropology); there is a disciplinary acceptance that things may change, that certain pathways integral to a research proposal may be closed off in the research context proper. Having now completed five months of intensive fieldwork on the subject it is apt to ask whether or not, or in what form, the above description still stands. What routes did field research take, both expected and unexpected? First, a brief note on methods: Shore refers to qualitative research as a gloss that covers an assortment of ‘promiscuous techniques and messy encounters’.1 Participant observation is one of these techniques. Put simply, participant observation is supposed to allow the researcher to examine phenomena through the eyes or from the perspective of participants through an active engagement in the lives of those participants. The researcher becomes an actor alongside other actors. The participant observer sees what ‘they’ see and does what ‘they’ do. For an anthropologist, the principal method of data acquisition utilised as part of his or her field research is usually participant observation2 1. C. Shore, ‘Fictions of Fieldwork: Depicting the “Self” in Ethnographic Writing (Italy)’ in C.W. Watson (ed) Being There: Fieldwork in Anthropology (London; Pluto Press, 1999) pp.25-48. 2. A sustained period of field research, in the orthodox view, is an anthropological prerequisite. Watson describes the powerful lobby for which ‘one cannot be an anthropologist without having undergone that rite de passage which is constituted by fieldwork’: C.W. Watson, ‘Introduction: The Quality of Being There’ C.W. Watson (ed), Being There: Fieldwork in Anthropology (London; Pluto Press, 1999) pp.1-24. Shore compares this period to a tribal rite of initiation: C Shore (1999), ibid. It was Malinowski, pioneering ethnographer of the Trobriand Islands, who enjoined the researcher to ‘relinquish his comfortable position on the verandah’: B. Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (New York; Doubleday, 1926). Malinowski was quickly followed by anthropologists such as Radcliffe15
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– an elusive method that has rarely been explicitly formulated. 3 Analogies have been sought to bring it into sharper focus: Karp and Kendall, for instance, elaborate how participant observation has been likened to childhood socialisation – researchers are seen to learn in a similar way to children, since each group must learn to relate rules to context and ascertain the extent to which these rules are malleable.4 The technique has also been likened to second language acquisition. Both field workers and second language learners seek to acquire a type of knowledge that is not necessarily consciously held by those who hold it, and both groups similarly measure their success in regard to the public acceptance of their endeavours.5 Participant observation tends to dominate people’s perceptions of qualitative methods and can induce a feeling of insecurity in qualitative researchers who utilise other techniques. For example, the sociologist Sherryl Kleinman, whose study of an alternative health centre was based on interviews rather than participant observation, felt that her project lacked legitimacy because she was not doing ‘real’ fieldwork: ‘Doing an in-depth interview project would feel like I’m doing half of what I’m supposed to be doing’.6 However, in the years that follow the pristine fieldwork Brown who were driven by a dissatisfaction with short-term field research and speculative analyses of ‘arcane’ societies from a distance: A. Radcliffe-Brown, The Andaman Islanders (New York; Free Press 1922). The method was brought into sociology by the ‘Chicago school’ in the inter-war period and combined with quantitative methods, usually for the study of deviant and marginal social groups: R. Giulianotti, ‘Participant Observation and Research into Football Hooliganism: Reflections on the Problems of Entrée and Everyday Risks’ in A. Bryman (ed) Ethnography: Volume II (London; Sage, 2001) pp.1-20. 3. Shaffir warns against following formulae of any kind, and recommends that the novice just ‘hang around’: W. Shaffir, ‘Doing Ethnography’ in A. Bryman (ed.) Ethnography: Volume II (London; Sage, 2001). 4. I. Karp and M. Kendall ‘Reflexivity in Field Work’ in A. Bryman (ed), Ethnography: Volume IV (London; Sage, 2001) pp.29-51. 5. ibid., p. 38. 6. S. Kleinman, B. Stenross and M. McMahon, ‘Privileging Fieldwork over Interviews: Consequences for Identity and Practice’ I A. Bryman (ed) Ethnography: Volume II (London; Sage, 2001) 16
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year (or even 18 months) of an anthropologist’s PhD – at a time when teaching, administration and family life usually restrict the would-be participant observer to a few weeks here and there – it is difficult to sink the kind of deep mineshaft that ideally prevails in participant observation. Interviews come to be relied on heavily. My experience reflects this: five months, in two instalments, was just long enough to enable a degree of participant observation, but the semi-structured interview became by far the most heavily utilised method. During this period I also voraciously read autobiographical accounts (and some fiction works) that addressed name changes – their authors’ and others’. These helped me frame the questions I planned to ask (which centred upon the decision-making processes engaged in when people consider renaming themselves or others), but I came to experience this reading as an important component of fieldwork itself since the anthropologist’s engagement with ‘other people’s engagement with their own social circumstances’ is the very stuff of ethnographic research (Strathern 2014 ). While on the one hand, systematic analysis of autobiographies and fiction borrows from literary criticism; that these texts comprise people’s own reflexive ethnographies of themselves7 really couldn’t make them any more anthropological.8 In any case, Shore’s point about methodological promiscuity is borne out. As is so often the case, I found my non-textual informants via 7. K. Barber, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics: Oral and Written Culture in Africa and Beyond (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2007). 8. If I dwell on my engagement with texts here it is because anthropologists still sometimes look askance at what they see as over-reliance on textual analysis given the continued emphasis on face-to-face acquisition of data within the discipline (hence the vigorous debate about how to study online cultures. See: B.K. Axel, ‘Anthropology and the New Technologies of Communication’, Cultural Anthropology 21, 3 (2006) 354–384. Also: D. Miller and H. Horst, ‘The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology’ in H. Horst and D. Miller (eds.) Digital Anthropology (Oxford; Berg, 2012) pp.3-35. 17
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‘snowballing’. I began by contacting Dalit activists9 whose contact details were publicly visible in literature (for example, campaigning pamphlets) and on the Internet. Though ‘educated’ and therefore hardly representative of the vast majority of Dalits, their ‘uplift’ activities took place in numerous Dalit localities and via these I was able to meet a reasonable cross-section of Dalits in the city. In addition to studying Dalit names, a further case study concerned the ‘creeping Casteism’ of Sikh family names, and here, since my partner is Sikh, I was able to begin the process of snowballing quite painlessly by starting with the family unit itself. In addition to these expected routes that formed part of the original research proposal, a thoroughly unforeseen aspect of this fieldwork was my ending up in newspaper offices, talking with crime correspondents. This had to do partly with criminal aliases and their links with Bollywood cinema… However, one of my main interests here was in the pseudonym given to the victim of the harrowing rape of a woman that resulted in her death on a bus in Delhi in December 2012, a case that was internationally reported. Newspapers were unable to print her name due to a legal requirement of anonymity, and competed with one another to coin a pseudonym that would capture the imagination of the reading public. With a number of alternatives proffered, it turned out to be Nirbhaya, meaning someone who is fearless, that stuck. The Times of India took credit for the name, but it was also much criticised as a sentimental trivialisation of the events it’s now synonymous with. Through the contingencies of fieldwork, then, I thus became interested in the ways in which personal names and/or pseudonyms arise as matters of concern in the local and national media. Indeed, questions of naming seemed to be at stake in a variety of ways in the way the act of violation was discussed. A guru commenting on the case stated glibly that the victim should have addressed her attackers as brothers – then they would have desisted. One of the attackers was called Ram Singh, and various people I spoke with asked how someone with 9. ‘Dalit’ is the self-chosen, politically correct term for those who are lowest in the caste hierarchy, replacing monikers such as ‘Untouchable’ and ‘Harijan’. 18
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the name of Ram – a god’s name – was able to commit such a crime. The theory that a name possesses constitutive power in respect of its bearer (i.e., the name is the person) is of course challenged by cases such as this. But the power of this theory of the name inheres in its continual failure continually being met with surprise. As will already be clear, ethnographers are consummate opportunists, and it was talking with my partner’s grandmother that I first noticed (why hadn’t I noticed it before?) the tattoo of her own name on her lower arm. This was one of the ‘surprises’ of my fieldwork – the differential physicality of names. They don’t just refer to an object/their bearer but often form interesting sensuous physical presences. This can be through bodily inscription in the form of tattoos, and as a result of the aforementioned conversation I found myself interviewing tattoo artists both at ‘traditional’ roadside markets where they are hereditary craftsmen, and in parlours in gleaming shopping malls where artists are from a quite different background. Names take on another sensuous presence in the way in which a name may stink. For instance, people speaking about Dalits may refer to the stench of those Dalit names that have not yet been hidden or changed to ‘upper caste’ ones. The stink of waste removal attaches to the names of those who have traditionally conducted this work. I had not anticipated the importance of the materiality of the name – the different ways in which names may be made concrete and physically present. I suppose that I had been influenced by the ways in which names are mobilised in worship; viz. the repetition of a god’s name is synonymous with nirgun worship (worship of formless god). The name is opposed to the personalism of the form of god (as in idol worship); the availability of God’s name makes the god accessible to low-caste people who would otherwise be denied access to gods in concrete forms in temples. Yet what I found were names both sensuous and form-rich. The person I met who perhaps embodied the name more than any
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other was a tattoo artist plying his trade at a local Delhi market (he made most of his money from tattooing the names of police dogs on their inner ears). His body was a veritable assemblage of tattooed names, but unlike the Ramnami sect members in Madhya Pradesh who have the name of the god Ram tattooed in the Devanagari (Hindi) script all over their bodies (for spiritual protection and as signs of commitment), his body was a riot of his own name and the names of loved ones, in Roman characters and the Devanagari script, with initials and love hearts. Interestingly, though he was happy for me to take a photograph of his other tattoos, he was careful to conceal his wife’s name. He had had her name inscribed on his body but not in order for it to be seen by others. This is similar to attitudes in Yemen, where vom Bruck notes that it is indecent to reveal women’s real names. 10 This is because they have ‘intrinsic potency like, for example, hair: thinking them and uttering them may arouse illicit desire’. Hence, ‘camouflaging the female body involves more than veiling’.11 In the case of the tattoo artist, one gained the sense of his wife’s name as a trace of her body on his, and thus to be concealed to all but the couple themselves. I found this surface declaration – which must at the same time be covered up – interesting as an interplay between elements of purdah12 and visibilised romantic articulation beyond the mere alliance of families. If one expects unexpected vistas of fieldwork to open up, one also expects to encounter certain difficulties and awkwardnesses. In anthropology, as in other disciplines, it is imperative to respond to the privilege of our informants making themselves available to and sharing confidences with us by offering them complete anonymity if they so desire. When the issue under investigation is personal names, this can present a particular challenge. One can look for structurally equivalent names to substitute for the ‘real’ ones, but sometimes the name in question is so idiosyncratic that this 10. G. vom Bruck, ‘Names As Bodily Signs’ In G. vom Bruck and B. Barbara (eds.), The Anthropology of Names and Naming (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2006) pp.225-50 11. ibid. p. 208 12. The practice of preventing men from viewing women. 20
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doesn’t seem possible. If personal names are one’s object of study – not just the name but the often extremely nuanced thought and weighing up of alternatives that enter into the decision to name or rename a person – but these names cannot be used, then it can seem that all one is able to provide is a few contextual details, thereby producing a real danger of blandness and/or accusations of non-specificity. 13 It might at first glance also appear that working out how to represent one’s informants adequately when propriety concerning anonymity is even more important than usual is really a post-fieldwork issue, but in fact the matter was very much present during my fieldwork as well. I spent time, for instance, at the office of a notary specializing in name change who had a constant stream of visitors seeking guidance on the legal procedure. This was, of course, a potentially excellent opportunity to garner information about people’s reasons for so doing, but given the often acute sensitivities concerning a person’s name and purposes for changing it, I felt that my presence would be intrusive and unwelcome. On these occasions I instead tended to rely on the speculations of the notary who had ‘seen it all before’. These were very interesting, but a quite different kind of data. On another occasion I sat interviewing a Dalit restaurateur in the front space of his restaurant as he recounted how he had changed his name to a caste-neutral one because if it were known he was a Dalit no one would ever eat there – his business would be finished. The setting was far too public for my liking, with the very real concern that customers would overhear this potentially calamitous chitchat. We did eventually continue in a backroom. Needless to say, it’s incumbent on me to enact extreme care if I discuss the case in greater detail elsewhere, e.g. in respect of the restaurant’s location. Countless similar examples could be given. To return to the proposal, then, there have evidently been a number of departures from my initial plan but the template was useful in allowing me to get to them, and still forms the basis 13. A real problem for the anthropologist! For anthropologists, ‘details explain the life forms of generalities’: T. Jenkins, The Life of Property: House, Family and Inheritance in Béarn, South-west France (Oxford; Berghahn, 2010), p. 71. 21
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of the book chapters I hope to write. I have of course barely scratched the surface of my fieldwork experiences: for instance, my interactions with astrologers who advise parents on naming their newborn children and numerologists who subsequently advise on renaming (correcting the astrologersâ€™ mistakes!) opened up a whole different set of issues, but I have tried to give a sense of the mix of methods, judgments and contingencies of this anthropological fieldworker who, not surprisingly, has been surprised.
On Being an Ethnographer Despite Oneself Professor David Graeber ISRF Mid-Career Fellow, Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics
y work on social movements never originally began as a research project, but because I was inspired by the movements and wanted to take part. I had long considered myself an anarchist in philosophical terms, but for most of my life, my occasional attempts to get involved in anarchist politics had been pretty desultory. Then, at the very end of 1999, I read a headline declaring ‘Martial Law Declared in Seattle.’ Like so many others I scrambled to understand what had actually happened, and was delighted to discover that while I had been busy writing my dissertation and working on my early teaching career, the sort of broad, open-minded, directly democratic, anarchist-inspired social movement I’d always wished existed had actually come into being. So I leapt in. If one is in a radically new environment, and is used to playing the role of ethnographer, it’s somewhat difficult not to keep playing this role. At meetings, there was always an official note-taker, or ’scribe,’ and I was often named for the position. And half the people in the room were usually taking notes of some kind or another. I soon found that I was always taking notes, and that they were growing more and more detailed. Not only did my written observations attempt to reproduce the flow of conversation, but they also started to contain tallies and diagrams – a breakdown of participants by gender, circles showing where different
ON BEING AN ETHNOGRAPHER DESPITE ONESELF
people or sorts of people were sitting (‘notice how the socialists and syndicalists 1 all cluster on one side of the room...’) and observations about posture or clothing. Before long there were also little pictures of what sort of shoes people were wearing, and little asides about smoking habits (‘why do so many vegans smoke? and notice how they so often don’t bring enough tobacco and end up sharing it out even though when I used to smoke I never let myself run out no matter how broke I was...’). Then there were little essays that started emerging in between meetings, comparing the tacit protocols of anarchist meetings with those of, say, Yale faculty meetings (another ostensibly collective decisionmaking body that I was attending at the time). At first this just seemed a way of entertaining myself, but before a year was out, I came to realize that it might well be something more. Before long I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that far from there being any contradiction between being both an activist and a researcher, my skills as an ethnographer could actually prove quite useful to the very cause that had so inspired me: creating a new culture of direct democracy. Because, I realized, what ethnographic fieldwork really does above all is to tease out the underlying logic behind a structure of practice – at least partially invisible to the practitioners themselves – in order to understand how it holds together, and to identify the pressures simultaneously driving it apart. And finally, the notes lay these findings out in a clear form where they could be broadly discussed. To some extent, of course, those practicing consensus democracy in groups like the Direct Action Network were much more selfconscious about what they were doing than, say, the Malagasy farmers who I had worked with in my initial dissertation fieldwork a decade before, but who practiced remarkably similar forms of horizontal consensus-based decision-making. When I was in Madagascar, I was never completely aware of what the rules were, 1. Those who propose that capitalist industries should be re-arranged in syndicates or confederations. 24
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because they never had to be stated; everyone had been making decisions on this basis since childhood and it never seriously occurred to anyone that some in a â€˜Malagasyâ€™ environment (that is, one which was not dominated by formal, imported French protocols) would ever act in any other way. It was assumed to be the default mode. But in the United States, I realized that despite our insistence that our country is in essence a democratic experiment, almost no one has any experience making collective decisions in any sort of democratic way. Everything had to be reinvented and learned from scratch and thus in many ways creating a democratic consensus process was quite selfconscious. Since no one had any experience in operating within a truly democratic process, the first experience of becoming part of such a movement was generally revelatory: people realized that they had been taught, in a thousand subtle ways, that direct democracy2 was simply impossible. Immediately, this forced participants to wonder whether other things that they had assumed to be socially impossible were (similarly) possible after all. As such, this experience had a much greater effect of opening people to revolutionary possibilities than a thousand teach-ins or street actions could have achieved. The problem was that the effects could only impact upon those who had actually experienced this for themselves. And that number was intrinsically limited, especially when one considers the very real dangers involved in participating in a radical social movement in an increasingly repressive environment. I realised that a good ethnography accessibly written could be incredibly effective, not just by drawing out the moral logic underlying these new forms of democratic process, but also by bringing that experience of an opening of possibilities to people who did not have the opportunity or ability to take part in direct-action based groups. A host of problems emerged in putting together such a work. Some were immediate and practical: most dedicated activists 2. Egalitarian decision-making without the mediation of elected leaders, steering committees, or the like. 25
ON BEING AN ETHNOGRAPHER DESPITE ONESELF
didn’t use their own proper names but used different ‘action names’. 3 Should one use their real action name, or make up a new one? Fortunately, the existence of a lively activist internal media meant such issues had already been widely discussed and accepted protocols established. Other problems were conceptual: exactly what was the unit of analysis, and how would it be located in time and space? Clearly it could not be conceptualised as a ‘community,’ as they were constantly shifting and provisional. Ultimately I decided that the basic unit had to be the ‘action,’ which was primarily temporally and not spatially organized. And finally, how much should I tell people in these networks what I was doing? What should I keep secret, and how much should I reveal? These things had to be constantly renegotiated. I ended up having to invent what I still consider a rather innovative form of ethnographic writing: mixing narrative, long stretches of reconstructed conversation and debate, and literal extracts from my field notes (i.e., the reflections on smoking, or my first taste of what it was like to experience the world through a gas mask), which were often placed in dialogue with my later theoretical reflections on the same topics. Finally, there was the question of publication: should I choose an academic or an activist venue? Ultimately the choice was made for me. I wanted to document a history which I realized would otherwise be lost, but to do that, especially in this detailed and dialogic fashion, it would require a very massive book, and academic publishers simply weren’t interested in publishing long, detailed ethnographic books. Oddly, if one wanted to publish the contemporary equivalent of Malinowski’s monolithic Coral Gardens and their Magic, one had to turn to an anarchist publisher because university presses wouldn’t touch it! 3. An ‘action name’ is a pseudonym an activist adopts when involved in planning or carrying out acts of civil disobedience, or in order to shield their identities from police or journalists who might use it against them whether or not they are engaged in formally illegal activity. Many activists went so consistently by action names that even some of their closest friends didn’t know what their legal names actually were. 26
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This was an experience of fieldwork despite itself â€“ fieldwork that I didnâ€™t even fully realize was fieldwork until I was perhaps a third of the way through. But the book has, indeed, had long-term political effects, and has even inspired the foundation of new groups. I think the results illustrate ways in which scholarly techniques can, if put in the service of those they study, have very practical, real-world effects.
This issue features: Jacob Copeman David Graeber Bregje de Kok
This issue of the ISRF Bulletin explores one of the cornerstones of many a project in the social sciences: fieldwork. At once a methodologic...
Published on Mar 31, 2014
This issue of the ISRF Bulletin explores one of the cornerstones of many a project in the social sciences: fieldwork. At once a methodologic...