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Surprises and trends revealed during the fieldwork Marta Silva

PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at York University, Toronto, ON

Abstract This paper is based on my Master`s fieldwork. In particular, it focuses on the challenges that I faced at my field site: what if everything you planned goes wrong? What if the strategy you conceived to gather information cannot be put into practice? What if your main informant has other interests and his own perspective on how you can fit into his/ her projects? My experience reminded me of Evans-Pritchard’s fieldwork wisdom. In his classic book “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande”, he argues that an anthropologist needs to be opened to be guided by what he finds in the society he chooses to study. In his particular case, for instance, he was not interested in studying witchcraft, but the Azande were, so he had to let himself be guided by them. Therefore, inspired by EvansPritchard, this paper seeks to contribute to discussions about the challenges and the changes that can occur during the fieldwork.

54 | Marta Silva

Keywords Fieldwork, anthropological research, indigenous audiovisual production


he purpose of this paper is to provide a reflection about the difficulties, the challenges and the changes that can occur during the fieldwork. What if everything you planned goes wrong after you arrive at your field site? This paper is based on my own experience: the issues I will present emerged during the fieldwork I did for my Master`s research. The purpose of my Master’s thesis was to investigate the emergence of a new form of Indigenous activism in Brazil. This Indigenous activism is fostered by empowerment projects related to audiovisual production and performed by young Indigenous moviemakers. In my first fieldwork trip, I followed The Brazilian Indian Video Festival. The program included seminars, film exhibitions, debates, a photographic exhibition and a basic audiovisual production workshop directed towards young members of Brazilian Indigenous peoples. Twenty young people participated in this workshop to obtain basic knowledge about cinema, documentaries and photography, and to learn how to register and edit their own images. I was the only nonIndigenous person in attendance. During the workshop, everybody received me extremely well. I was also extremely fortunate: in the second day of the workshop, one of the organizers said to me that because all the Indigenous students were staying in the same hotel and occupied many rooms, the owner had offered an extra room for free. Since everything was set up and they didn’t have an extra person to occupy that room, she asked if I would be interested and offered the room to me... In addition to not having to pay for my room, I had the privilege of staying in the same hotel as the Indigenous students, of sharing meals with them, and of going to the workshop in the same bus with them. Therefore, I had many opportunities to talk to them and to establish connections. After the workshop finished, two of the 20 students that attended the workshop continued to develop a project related to audiovisual production. They worked together, with one directing and the other producing and performing in the movie. They produced a short movie about Indigenous students in public universities and they conceived of two other projects: one related to land issues and another focusing on the elder people of their community. Exchanging emails with

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 them, I found out that they would exhibit their movie about Indigenous students for the first time during a conference they were organizing.

I thought to myself: ok, I didn’t manage to get to the event, or to follow the debates, but at least I saw the movie...

I asked if I could follow their work related to the new projects and if I could go to the conference. They agreed and the one who directed the movies agreed to meet me before the conference. When I asked for information about where to stay, such as suggested hotels, he suggested that I send an email to someone from their university who knew more about these details. I wrote the email, but the person never replied. So, I planned my second fieldwork trip without this help and flew to my field site, thinking that I would go to the conference and follow the work of my informants. In fact, I didn’t manage to do any of these things...

I traveled to the city where my main informant lives. At 11 p.m. on the day I arrived, I was in my pyjamas, working on my field work notes, when the phone rang. It was from the hotel hall:

Yes, I got your email. Yes, I didn`t reply. No, you cannot go. But I came from far away just to attend this event! I have permission from two of the organizers. Sorry. It`s only for Indigenous people... Ok then...

It was my informant. Ok, I’m going down, I said. I got ready quickly and met him in the hotel hall. To my surprise, he said: I’m not doing any movie now because I have a problem and you are the only person that can help me... I’m finishing my Undergraduate Studies and I need to write my thesis. I have only two weeks to write it, the deadline is coming... Can you help me? I was surprised, but I was also glad to be asked to help in this way, because it was something that I felt I could do. I had written two theses for my Communication Undergraduate Studies, and I had a major in Journalism –which developed my writing skills. Therefore, the next day, I went with my informant to the Indigenous Research Centre at his university, because he had a computer there to work. By coincidence, when I arrived there, I saw the woman who did not allow me to enter the event... She worked in the Indigenous Research Centre. My informant presented me to the coordinator of the Centre. He was extremely friendly: From which university are you? (I said the name of the university) Oh! Who is your advisor? (I said his name) Oh! He`s a very good friend of mine! What are you researching here? (I explained)

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I arrived in the city where the conference would take place. First surprise: where was my informant? He didn’t arrive, but I went to the conference anyway. The movie produced by the Indigenous students was exhibited in the beginning of the opening ceremony of the conference. After the opening ceremony, I managed to find the other Indigenous student who produced and performed in the movie. Since the other days of the conference would take place in another location, I asked for some directions. He asked a person from his university for this information and to my surprise, she said I could not go. It would not be an open event: only Indigenous people and a few researchers were allowed to go. I said that I had got permission from two of the organizers, so she sent me to talk to another person from the university, who sent me to talk to another person and so on, until I finally met the person to whom I had sent the email before travelling. Her answer was very direct:

There is a person here who wants to talk to you.

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 You know, we just came from an event that would be really interesting for you... (He said the name of my informant), he presented a film there! How come you didn’t know about that? I actually knew and I tried to go to this event, but unfortunately, I didn’t get the permission to.

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How come? Who didn’t allow you to go? If you had talk to me, you would go! I felt a little bit frustrated to find out that I could have attended the event if I had met him before, but also amused by the irony of the situation. However, I understood later that I was actually fortunate: even though my experiences during this second fieldwork trip were totally different from what I planned, they revealed important issues that I would not have noticed if everything worked as planned. Being disallowed to attend the event, despite having the permission of two Indigenous organizers, showed me that Indigenous students were established as organizers and decision-makers in official discourse, while in reality the decisions were made by the professors and researchers of the Indigenous Research Centre at the university that the Indigenous students attended. This observation led to important reflections for my research. Struggling to understand why the researchers of the Indigenous Research Centre wanted to depict Indigenous students as the leaders of the event (in the conference announcement, only the name of the Indigenous students appeared as the organizers), I understood that it was related to the current representation of empowerment projects in Brazil: they are supposed to work in partnership with Indigenous groups in a way that makes them autonomous. This is opposed to the previous paternalistic approach. The shift happened in the 70s and 80s when representations of Indigenous populations shifted from “primitive” and “incapable” to icons of ecological knowledge and sustainability. Nevertheless, as I observed in this case, even though many projects were discursively rooted in a partnership and autonomy model, they continued to demonstrate a paternalistic attitude

to Indigenous populations. The fact that my informant could not produce his movie and instead requested my help for his thesis could, at a first glance, be seen as a deviation from my research, but it was actually extremely helpful for me. It gave me access to the Indigenous Research Centre at the university he attended. Because I was helping my informant, I had to go there every day and had the opportunity to do participant observation, as well as many interviews with other Indigenous students, professors and researchers. Besides that, it also gave me plenty of time with my informant. Conclusion My goal in this paper was to contribute to discussions about the surprises and new trends revealed during the fieldwork. My experience led me to understand the fieldwork wisdom of Evans-Pritchard, elaborated in his classic book “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande”. In the 4th appendix of the book (“Some Reminiscences and Reflections on Fieldwork”), he points out that an anthropologist must be opened to be guided by what he finds in the society he chooses to study. He illustrates his assumption explaining that in his particular case, he was not interested in studying witchcraft, but the Azande were, so he had to let himself be guided by them. In my case, I realized that while I had plans for my fieldwork research trip, and placed my main informant into these plans, he also had his own interests and perspective on how I could fit into his projects. This experience showed me that the fieldwork is a constant negotiation, an exchange, in which each part is in a position in which it can bring improvements for the other part. I am glad that in my experience this exchange was beneficial for both parts. In my case, this exchange resulted not only in changes in the direction of my research, but also affected the way I see fieldwork, anthropology and myself as an anthropologist.

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009

References Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937 Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marta Silva is a 2nd year PhD student in Social

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Anthropology at York University, Toronto, ON.

Surprises and Trends revealed during fieldwork  

Surprises and Trends revealed during fieldwork Marta Silva

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