Let’s call this an update from the field. I would like to call it a dispatch, but that doesn’t sound right. I have wireless, so that probably doesn’t count. Can a blog post really be a dispatch? I imagine that a true dispatch would have to involve something more…mechanical. You know, like a telegraph or something. I’m thinking that dispatches require clanking metal and moving parts. I could be wrong.
Today I was thinking about arrivals, and how all anthropologists love to tell their arrival stories. We like certain kinds of stories, and we like to write about them and compare them like treasured little baseball cards. Ok, I do it too. We start off in place A with all sorts of plans, ideas, theories, methods, and hopes…and then we find some way to get to place B, take stock, and see what’s really possible given limited money, sanity, and time. Leaving one place and entering another–especially with the strange, self-imposed job of “doing research”–has all sorts of jarring effects. Some places more than others. We deal with these transitions, I think, through some of the stories we tell. Whenever we get the chance to tell them, of course. Sometimes it takes a while to find a pay phone, or a friend, or a high speed wireless signal so we can get the stories out of our heads. Anyway, here’s a classic arrival scene:
Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight (Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, 1961:4).
A Malinowskian classic. My version would go something like this:
Imagine yourself, fresh off a two-hour Alaska Airlines flight out of LAX, surrounded by all of your gear in the airport at San Jose del Cabo, Mexico waiting for the customs light to (hopefully) flash green, while the precious funds in your student loan dependent bank account seem to sail away, second by second, out of sight.
I think that sums it up. The light was green, by the way.
So, here’s the update. I have been down in the field for about a month and a half. I think I am getting through the “settling in” phase and progressing to the “I really need to get this shit done” phase. Everyone experiences these phases differently, of course. One thing that happens to me during fieldwork is that I always think that I need to be doing MORE. But then when I look at what I have done–tons of notes, interviews, lots of good contacts, and so on–and I realize I am doing pretty well. Things are coming along. So I am always tacking back and forth between pushing myself to get out and do more, and telling myself to relax and let certain things happen as they may. Life doesn’t exactly pan out according to some ethnographically convenient schedule, after all.
What’s rule #1 of the early stages of fieldwork? Go outside. Right? I think there is a tendency for many folks to do a sort of social retreat when they first get into the field. I tend to do this a bit, and I think it’s pretty normal. The thing about doing anthropological fieldwork is that once you go outside, you always feel like you’re working. It’s kind of a strange feeling, at least for me. Every step outside can feel like you’re punching the Boasian time-clock, and you have to be ready for any and every possible anthropological detail. It can wear you down. I think that’s why it’s pretty appealing to want to hide away in novels, or ethnographies, or dubbed movies at the local cinema (for example). So, rule number one is GO OUTSIDE, because that’s where life is really taking place. But rule number two, at least for me, is find some ways to turn things off and have a little balance as well. We need to stay sane, you know.
In other news, interviews are coming along too. A little slower than I’d wanted, but things are picking up. There is always a difference between people saying they are willing to do an interview and actually getting the interview scheduled. At least that’s the case for me. The second part is by far the hardest, and I am always relieved when I finally get to push the button on the digital recorder and get another interview on the proverbial books. And speaking of interviews, the more than you do them, the more comfortable they become. I still kind of think that interviews are pretty strange social situations–asking someone to sit down and talk about a certain set of themes or questions while you run some weird recording device? Who does that? Charles Briggs wrote about the strangeness of the interview context, and he was right on the mark. But, we all get used to them, and we get better at doing them.
The process gets easier, more relaxed, and I think the conversations start to flow a little better too. When I was doing my M.A. work I used to get all stressed out about the moment when I asked someone if it was OK for me to actually record the interview. It can be a delicate thing, you know, how you bring up THAT question. But everyone finds their way. How do I do it? I like to have the recorder out early, so people know it’s there. That’s better, in my experience, than keeping it out of sight and then pulling it on them like a gun at the last moment. Good god what is THAT? It’s can actually be pretty intimidating to be interviewed, so it’s good to make things as comfortable as possible. I think we need to keep these things in mind. For me, I like to put the recorder out on the table in plain view, during the pre-interview small talk and chit chat, and let people get used to it. Then, ask them if they’re OK with recording. And usually, people are fine with it. If not, it’s no big deal, just take notes in a notebook and roll with it. I’d be interested to know how other people handle this particular key moment in the interview process, though. What’s YOUR technique?
So, a few questions about field notes: I’m interested to know how different people actually do their field notes. Do you write all throughout the day? Do you write every day? At night? Do you jot little things in books? Or do you have a photographic memory? Do you write NOTHING and plan to remember it all when you write your masterpiece dissertation? Any favorite types of notebooks that you REALLY NEED TO HAVE to do the anthropology note taking thing? Sorry for all the questions. My ever-evolving technique involves jotted reminders in a small book (or sometimes any available scrap piece of paper) and then expanded notes once I get to the computer. I write most days, but not everyday. Michael Agar had some really good advice about writing field notes that I really liked: don’t try to record everything under the sun, try to focus things a bit. For me, it makes some sense. Some folks have this idea that ethnographers should be writing so many notes that it leaves little time for actually getting out and seeing what’s going on. What’s the purpose of writing for 8 hours and missing everything that’s going down all around you? So, once again: balance.
Last but not least. What I really like about blogging are all the conversations, links, and connections that can take place. The conversations that happen in blogging are really interesting because they can happen in a pretty direct manner–like when people comment on specific posts–or they can be indirect. By that I mean that one person can post something in one place, and someone can take something from there and start another little conversational fire in another place. Sometimes those dispersed little fires get linked up, sometimes they don’t. But they’re out there, and I think it’s pretty fascinating. Well, I just got a comment on the post I wrote a while back about bringing books into the field. The comment is from Hannah, an anthropologist/ethnographer from the University of Liverpool who is doing her dissertation work in Columbia. She recently wrote a post that replies to the question I asked at the end of my post. The question I asked: “If you are planning on heading out to do fieldwork, what books do you have in mind? Are you bringing the classics? Only the latest methods texts and ethnographies? Or, on the flip side of all this, are you some techie hipster who has gone entirely digital, thereby completely eliminating this whole issue?” Her reply:
Am I a techie hipster? Hmmmm. I have an iPad and solar charger (not much electricity in the Northern Guajira) which has been loaded with Murakami’s 1Q84, Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the sky, Thomas’ The end of Mr. Y, Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, and now Emerson’s Writing Ethnographic fieldnotes (as well as a series of mountaineering texts and pdfs on community media). But I am also taking a bound photocopy of a Colombian friend’s fieldnotes and a tattered and annotated copy of Guber’s La etnografía from his original fieldwork. I’m not taking Proust. I know myself too well, I would get lost and would not have Aomame‘s ability to only read twenty pages a day.
An iPad with a solar charger? Now I feel low tech with my beat up four year old Macbook. Check out the rest of her post–it’s a good one. Interestingly, I happen to have a copy of Kingsolver’s Lacuna as well…it’s right next to Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Do I have too many books? Well, I think that was well established in my previous post on the topic. Hannah even gives me some grief about my book addiction problem when she comments on my essential book list: “His final (?) list was heavy on the textbook/methods guide side and I must admit that it brought to mind the stories of Claude Levi-Strauss’ entourage making their way across Brasil whilst laden down with, well, everything.” Ha! I think she’s onto something. I need to travel lighter. One of my friends here joked with me that I have so many books on my table that they are blocking all of the sunlight from outside. Ok, so it’s a problem. I’ll work on it, I promise.
Anyway, I think the chance connections and conversations that are floating around out there are pretty amazing. That’s why this whole anthropology blogging thing is pretty cool. Vast networks of conversations pulsing on various continents. Often, with people who haven’t “really met” in the supposed real world. It’s cool–and it’s definitely different from the days of Malinowski, where people stayed connected through sonic dispatches and little handwritten or typed up papers, stuffed into envelopes, that had to literally be “shipped” from one place to another. But then, I do realize that not everyone has a connection to wireless internet in the field these days, unlike some people. The world is anything but flat, no matter what Tom Friedman says. It’s an uneven geography, no doubt. The internet may be far reaching, and full of potential, but it ain’t everywhere–and that includes places all around here where I am doing research. It’s sporadic at best, and coverage is certainly tied in with larger social and political currents and conflicts. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Well, it’s part of the overall story that I am here trying to track down. More about that later.
End of transmission.
PS: At the end of her post, Hannah asks for more suggestions about reading material. If you have ideas, send em her way.